If having fraternal twins this summer doesn't completely blow up my life (I'm 99% sure it will, but you never know!), then Ruby Reviews will become a somewhat regular feature of the blog. We're starting off with a bang in this first installment—a "dating sim(ulation)" game you can read/play on mobile that combines many of my favorite things: good writing, romance, time travel, video games, and being on my phone.
First, let me explain dating sims. They're a subgenre of role-playing video games in which your player character interacts with one or more romantic interests with the goal of achieving a happily-ever-after. "Interact" almost always means "choosing one of several dialogue options" at key points in the story, and sometimes there's no incorrect choice—the story simply goes down another path, encouraging you to replay the route to discover all the ways in which the story could play out—but sometimes there's a best answer that maximizes your character's deepening relationship. Think of dating sims as the romance version of "choose your own adventure" stories, only with more of an emphasis on earning a high score.
Dating sims aren't confined to mobile games—I've played and enjoyed Hakuoki: Stories of the Shinsengumi on PlayStation 3—but you'll find a huge selection of dating sims in the app store of your mobile device. They're almost always free-to-play and instead rely on micro-transactions to earn revenue. Often, you'll also find games that let you read the first chapter or two for free, but you need to pay to unlock the entire story.
Dating sims are sometimes referred to as otome (乙女) games, meaning "maiden games", if they were developed in Japan and are aimed at a female audience. However, you can also find dating sims from developers in Korea, China, the US, and more.
Having played about a dozen otome games thus far, I must acknowledge that most aren't well written. I don't know how many times I've rolled my eyes at weak drama or yet another milquetoast heroine, not to mention amateurish writing styles.
I don't mean to denigrate the whole genre, though. Far from it! Otome games can be highly entertaining. But I'm here to help you get the best bang for your buck, especially if you're new to dating sims. So let's get into it!
Ikémen Sengoku: Romances Across Time (iOS | Android) is the story of a young woman (you can name her whatever you wish) who has just started her dream job as a fashion designer in Kyoto, Japan. She's exploring the city when a sudden rainstorm and a flash of lightning sends her to the Sengoku era (c. 1467 – c. 1603)—also known as the "Warring States era" due to the great number of military conflicts. The first thing she sees is a man about to be assassinated in his sleep. She saves his life and learns he's the infamous Nobunaga Oda, a powerful warlord who's known in her time as one of Japan's "great unifiers".
"Ikémen" (イケめん) generally refers to a type of male character who's good-looking, albeit with less emphasis on the typical kind of buff masculinity popular in Western countries. Ikémen are well-dressed, lean, and pretty in the face.
She also meets several other famous warlords, their vassals, and a mysterious warrior-monk who hates pretty much everyone. All of them are potential romantic interests with distinct personalities, goals, and first impressions. (Note: as of the date of this post, only six of the eleven romance options are currently available, but they'll all eventually unlock.)
Choosing a story route
Ikémen Sengoku features mechanics you'd find in a lot of otome games. When you first open the app, you'll immediately begin the story's prologue (basically what I described above). Then you'll choose whose route you wish to play. Do you want the arrogant Nobunaga to slowly conquer you, one body part at a time? Or are you interested in his vassal Hideyoshi, who tries his hardest to treat you like a little sister even though both of you feel much closer than siblings?
Eventually, the route you choose will fork, leading you either to the Romantic Ending or the Dramatic Ending. If you've chosen high-scoring dialogue options (or if you've drunk enough "love elixirs" to boost your score), you'll unlock an extra epilogue. And if you play the route twice in order to fully unlock both endings, you'll earn the "Full Love bonus"—which is a second, extra epilogue. So far, all the epilogues have been some degree of romantic, steamy, and syrupy sweet.
Progressing the Story
Like many otome games, Sengoku's story is time-gated. Each day, you're given five "chapter tickets". (You can earn more through daily login bonuses, or you can buy them for real-world money. When starting a new romance route, you're also given five bonus tickets.) Each romance route has thirteen chapters, not including the epilogue. Unfortunately, the "chapter" in "chapter tickets" doesn't mean you finish a route in about three days. Rather, you'll end up reading half a chapter every day. Thus, if you read only enough story each day to use your free tickets, you'll finish a route (and its epilogue) in 27 days.
When it comes to story progression, Ikémen Sengoku stands out compared to other otome games because it offers more replay value. When playing a romance option's route for the second time (before it forks), you're often given the option to read the next section of story "From His POV", giving you a delectable insight into how much he's struggling with his burgeoning feelings.
Throughout the story, you'll occasionally be given a "Love Challenge". Half the time, you simply need enough "Grace" to pass (see "Princess Lessons" below), for which you earn some kind of reward for your in-game avatar. The other half of the time, you must purchase some sort of fashion item for your in-game avatar in order to pass. If you don't wish to buy Coins with real-world money in order to buy the "Premium" fashion item, you can use Gold (see "Earning Gold" below) to buy the "Normal" fashion item. Buying the Premium item earns you a bit of story that a) is sexier than the Normal story, and b) you can re-read at any time in the "Memories" section of the game menu.
The Main Menu
After reading the prologue and choosing a romance option, your main menu will look something like this. Don't be overwhelmed! Just take a few minutes to explore every part of the menu, which you can do either before or after reading the first section of your route's story.
On the main screen of the game (to the left of the Story button) is the button for "Princess Lessons". When your "energy" is at 100, you can do five lessons, and you earn more energy over time (20 HP per hour, or five hours to reach 100). Basically, you're testing your in-game avatar's "beauty" bonus against that of another player's. (It's simply a skill check.) The other player's beauty score is hidden, so you must decide based on their avatar if you think your score is higher.
If you think you can't beat them, tap the small refresh button on their thumbnail to cycle to someone new. Generally, if the avatar in the thumbnail is very simple-looking, you're likely to win. A successful princess lesson nets you a voiced line from one of the warlords (you can decide who, although you only get to pick from three at a time), and five successful princess lessons earns you bonus Gold, Grace, and Gacha Points as well as a new voiced line.
In addition to Princess Lessons, you can earn Gold by selling extra Gacha pieces or by "Greeting Friends". Hit "Menu" > "Friends" in order to "Find Friends" (as in, other players). You can have a maximum of fifty friends, and you can earn up to 1000 Gold per day by greeting all fifty of them. (Don't worry, there's a "Greet All" button at the top of your friends list.)
Gacha is a reference to "capsule toy" vending machines known as gachapon in Japan. The items that drop from these vending machines are often collectibles that come in sets, and thus, earning complete sets requires "pulling the lever" multiple times, often resulting in duplicates. If that sounds like gambling to you, well...you're not wrong. And if you play other video games, especially certain MMOs, you'll recognize gacha as being quite similar to "loot boxes".
In Ikémen Sengoku you're allowed one free gacha play per day, and when you first start Sengoku, you likely only have one "castle sheet" to choose from. Any time you play gacha, you'll unlock one section of the sheet's image—kind of like bingo. Three of the sheet's twelve segments offer bonus prizes, one of which is always a bonus story from your warlord's POV. As you make progress through your story, more gacha sheets will unlock, and any non-story items you unlock are for you to use when decorating your "castle".
You can earn more Gacha points either by getting five "excellent" results from Princess Lessons or by buying "Gacha tickets" with real-world money.
Unlike most other otome games with a gacha mechanic, Sengoku's gacha game has a much higher chance of letting you collect all the prize pieces in each sheet without getting endless repeats of non-prize sections.
Other Bonus Content
At the beginning of each romance route as well as at each of its two endings, you'll unlock bonus art featuring your romantic interest. (Thus, three pieces of art per warlord.) Having played many otome games, I can say with confidence that Sengoku's bonus art is some of the best. It's not explicit—although it can be steamy—but it's higher quality than what I've seen in other games. (Those other artists might want to brush up on their knowledge of human anatomy.)
Ikémen Sengoku also often rotates through various campaigns, such as special gacha games, "stamp" collection events, or story events. Each campaign event will explain how to play, what bonuses you can earn (anywhere from fashion items to side stories to voice clips), and how long the campaign lasts. You can decide whether you'd like to participate.
Of the dozen or so mobile otome games I've played, only two have ever had what I'd call decent writing. Namely, something at a level higher than newbie fanfiction and that deftly skirts the more problematic romance tropes. One is Liar! Uncover the Truth (iOS | Android), an investigative romance game with more of a puzzle aspect to it, and the other is Ikémen Sengoku.
So far, each romance route in Sengoku has dealt differently (and interestingly) with the player character's slip through time. And each route has well-defined character arcs, all of which miraculously manage to work well off the same heroine, who brings her modern sensibilities into her romantic relationships in a consistent way every time.
Most importantly (to me, at least), the writing is not nearly as shy about sex scenes as all the other games I've played. I wouldn't say any particular scene managed to be as explicit as some of the sex scenes I've written—the writing shies away from mentioning body parts below the belt and from describing intercourse or climax using anything more than metaphor—but the build-up to each scene is so well done that they still manage to be satisfying. And because both the overall story and sex scenes are so well written (and not nearly as short as some other games), I feel way less guilty throwing some money at the developer in order to unlock premium content.
That said, the word count to real-world money ratio for most otome games—Sengoku included—is pretty abysmal compared to what one would pay for a romance novel, especially an indie e-book. Let's say you pay about five dollars for a 70,000-word book. That's 0.7 cent per word. I did a rough count of one side story in Sengoku (the ones unlocked after paying for a Premium item to pass a Love Challenge) and found it to be about 1700 words. Each character has six Premium stories to unlock (over two routes), so if we were to buy all six and get about 10,200 words of Premium story, we'd have to pay about $36 worth of Coins. That's almost fifty times the cost per word of a romance novel!
Of course, you could pay nothing and read the Normal side stories, and you don't have to pay anything to read the bulk of the romance route, regardless of whether you go Premium or Normal. However, unlike other otome games where I've regretted paying five bucks to unlock a premium side story, only to find that it's really short (less than five hundred words, if that) and lackluster on the romance, I've never been disappointed with my purchases in Sengoku. I get a sexy side story that I can re-read at any time (you can't re-read Normal side stories) and I get the prettier avatar item.
Ikémen Sengoku does try to wring as much money from you as it can, though. If you want the better bonuses from its special campaigns, for example, it'll behoove you to shell out at least a few bucks. (The players who snag the top dozen ranks in certain campaigns have likely spent close to a hundred dollars, at least. Yikes!)
However, if you're content to read the Normal stories and either ignore or simply get what you get from special campaigns without a single micro-transaction, you'll still get an enjoyable experience from playing Sengoku.
The only character route I wouldn't recommend is Yukimura. I haven't played his route, but I've seen enough of him in other routes and in side stories to know he's mean to your character for no good reason. (I get the sense that it's because your character is a woman, so that's an instant turn-off.) I also really didn't like that he compared your character to a dog at one point. Wtf! I get that the so-called "tsundere" personality is popular with some readers, but if you want that, go for Ieyasu instead.
Great writing. Beautiful art. You won't feel like you're missing out on much if you don't pay for any Coins, but you'll be satisfied with the content you unlock if you do. And it's a game you can play for about fifteen minutes or less per day, depending on your reading speed, so it's not a huge commitment.
If you end up playing Ikémen Sengoku and you like it, please add a comment below and tell me what you thought!