I spent the whole time editing this podcast on a yoga ball. So Gabe, I get you.
One of the allures of the visual novel comes from the illusion that you have a choice in redirecting where a story will go. In one way or another, hard work eventually pays off and at least one of your (many) playthroughs will lead to an ideal ending. Some visual novels subvert this entirely in an effort to make some sort of statement, and Milky Way Prince – The Vampire Star is one of those games.
Milky Way Prince – The Vampire Star opens up through the lens of a fairytale titled, “The Milky Way Prince”, which revolves around a boy who catches a fallen star. The boy becomes so overwhelmed by the star’s beauty and glow, he cries into it, and it evolves into a prince. The prince then whisks the boy away with him in an effort to save his kingdom in the sky.
Following the introduction of this tale, the game puts you in the perspective of Nuki, a young man who has an obsession with the stars. Nuki also dreams of romance, and he projects himself through the “The Milky Way Prince” story. One night, he ends up meeting Sune in a parallel fashion to the tale, just as the boy met the prince. The two quickly become infatuated with each other, and the rest of the game follows the course of development on what quickly turns out to be a very shaky, unstable relationship.
Typical to most visual novels, Milky Way Prince is a text-heavy game that gives you, the player, agency over a series of dialogue-based options you must choose to move forward. The game does not use a branching system, and instead uses a quota fulfillment mechanic of some sort, in which a certain selection of specific choices is what determines what route you will be directed to. Milky Way Prince also provides a schematic from the very beginning you can follow along to hint and track what path you are on throughout the remainder of the game. There are also interludes where you must intimately use your senses, as Nuki, to do things such as touch Sune or to examine your surroundings. These interludes are pivotal in discovering additional elements to the narrative and can even affect the direction of the story you are currently in.
The game is very stylish, incorporating a monochromatic black and red palette with minimalistic, 3D-rendered backgrounds to suggest scenery without overstepping and needing to imply any more detail than they need to. The flat, anime-inspired character art adds a surreal, dreamlike quality on top of these backgrounds, fitting for the abstract nature of the game especially when it becomes visually more eccentric at certain key points. Very subtle animation and lighting effects add depth to these scenes, all topped off with a dark, mellow, electropop soundtrack, disruptive and jarring when moments demand it to be unsettling. A lot of the game depends on not showing, but telling, which makes what would otherwise be visually graphic scenes all the more emotional and stirring. All these elements combined make up for what is ultimately a somber, and unsettling game.
With all that said, Milky Way Prince – The Vampire Star is extremely distressing and disturbing, and it warns you of this with caution before you may move forward playing. The game is semi-autobiographical, programmed and designed by Lorenzo Redaelli in an effort to create something that resounds his experiences with a similar relationship in which borderline personality disorder clouded it. This is not a game about constantly replaying over and over to find a perfect, happy outcome for two lovers, but is one about experiencing their tumultuous, painful journey to understand what potentially went wrong.
Because of this, in some ways Milky Way Prince is less of a visual novel and more of a linear story with very few interactive elements due to the inevitability of the game’s final outcome. Arguably, the game could be initially perceived to be a very narrow, negative view of what borderline personality disorder is, as if suggesting there is futility in having a romantic relationship with someone who has the condition.
However, I personally found it clear that the game was trying to make a point that the relationship depicted is a two-way street: in which Nuki’s over-romanticism of a toxic relationship is a huge factor in worsening Sune’s struggle. They both suffer huge lapses in their mental health in their own specific ways, and this combined does not help either of them and only fuels negativity. But this ambiguity might be belittling and may only raise more questions for an outsider, such as myself, especially to a very real issue that I think deserves more clarity from an educational standpoint. Given the game is short in playtime, we do not see fully in depth Nuki and Sune’s higher moments, and the duration of this relationship is not clear. I think if a longer glance into their relationship in times where it was consistently positive was brought into the foreground, the tragedy of its eventual collapse would have been made even stronger.
As previously described in regards to the game’s dreamlike nature, this ambiguity also grows more apparent later in-game. The hard line between fantasy and reality is blurred for purposefully artistic reasons to depict the characters’ struggles as external. An example of this is the visual link between Sune and moths. Moths are often symbolically associated with death and destructive qualities, and there are times where they suddenly appear on Sune’s skin when he has a moment where he lashes out. This might seem like an obvious symbol, but there is other imagery way more vivid and wilder than this that might not read immediately, making things confusing. At times, the game gets too artsy and experimental.
These accessibility issues are not limited to the game’s storytelling elements, but it’s technical elements as well. The game depends a lot on visual cues yet has epileptic elements to it that certainly shuts out some potential players (an aspect about it that is included in its warning prior to playing the game) and it depends on auto-saves despite it encouraging replayability to have multiple experiences. This makes replayability tedious, having to endure a repeat of scenes just to see where your path can divert.
In addition, I ran into a number of bugs and hiccups just even trying to run the game, all likely due to the game’s more eccentric elements sometimes clashing with its programming. In an initial playthrough of the game, there’s a segment where you must hover over a shape and click it to move forward. Not only is there no explicit instruction to do this, the clicking mechanic was not triggering for me in this run of the game. This can easily lead one to believe the game might have just crashed.
Milky Way Prince – The Vampire Star may not be accessible to everyone and it is also a game that I find difficult to recommend due to its heavy themes. I also think due to said themes that its execution could be more fleshed out and streamlined, leaving a few things left to be desired. Nonetheless, it is still a game that deserved to get made and we must encourage and thank creators, like Redaelli, for willingly putting out honest, vulnerable work as ways to heal from their own traumas.
If you are genuinely interested in the personal insight and dynamics of an unhealthy relationship, Milky Way Prince is something worth exploring, but this is not a game you should casually dip your toes in if you want to escape into a fantasy world and feel good. This is a game that thematizes serious issues that exist in our reality worth discussing. Games like these do not only exist in a bubble for pure escapism, but now more than ever they also serve as a productive medium to channel and offer diverse experiences worth sharing and educating others about.