ValiDate: Struggling Singles in your Area
Here is a game that I have looked forward to since the Summer. A title that was made with the intent of highlighting the thrills of finding love in the 21st Century as authentic as possible. Before I get involved in discussing my first impressions of ValiDate, I would like to praise the staff involved for refusing to sugarcoat a lot of the themes present. I'd also like to thank the devs at Veritable Joy Studios for giving me a chance to cover the game. Expect a fully fleshed-out review when I'm finished dissecting this masterpiece, but consider this an early recommendation.
Now, what is it about ValiDate that sets it apart from other visual novels I've played? Especially one that I recently said was the "best I've played in a long time?" (Please play Arcade Spirits) Reality is a bitter pill to swallow and players use the avenue of video games to escape it. Sometimes, however, it's best to use "realism" as a stepping stone in gaming as the objective is to relate to a character's journey, not simply C&P real life to fantasy.
There hasn't been a shortage of Otome-style visual novels lately, in fact, I feel the genre is severely oversaturated. I cannot go a month without at least two games falling on my doorstep and as such, I've limited my coverage. It's not that I dislike a good romance story, I'm sappy AF. There's always some deus ex machina that happens which ruins the validity (no pun intended) of these titles. It was my main criticism of Cupid Parasite, a game I've lost interest in completing over the months.
The "fantasy setting" of literally being Cupid overpowered the realistic themes in dating. It felt overexaggerated and, come on, no matter how BA having a car that can turn into a mech is, it is absurd. Of the several 'otome games I've played this year alone, they are all the same, rooted in something that leads to a "happily ever after." This goes back to the first paragraph as sometimes I just want to see a bunch of characters who I relate to interacting with each other. No "mafia" ties, shinigami, Greek mythology, or any fantasy setting. Just a gaggle of inner-city residents in their 20s with a story to tell.
This is where my adoration for ValiDate stems from. I've played through a handful of routes and I am nowhere near finished quite yet. There are 13 protagonists, each with their own routes as they overlap with each other, totaling 30 routes. While that certainly is a scary number, it's not as complicated as it sounds. Players begin the game with two characters, Malik and Inaya. Both in their mid-20s, the two starting protagonists are as different from each other as day and night, which becomes a key point when we introduce a mutual character between them.
Although I began my ValiDate route with Inaya, I want to briefly discuss Malik first. A manager at the local Pope---Bopeyes, Malik is someone who is doing decent for himself yet barely skating by. He's in what's obviously a dead-end job, doing the bare minimum to make it through to the end of a work week, his car is a beater, and he has two kids from different baby mothers. While the first BM didn't work out, the second, Alice, is the one who his heart remains with.
On the side, Malik is a rapper and producer who is skilled, yet not as skilled as Alice, who is doing all she can to pursue her career and her big break. Wanting her to follow her dreams and aspirations, he supports her, even opting to call the relationship off if it meant he'll flourish. Malik also wants what's best for his children, especially Rhea, his daughter, but years of putting other people ahead of him made him contemplate his own self-assessment.
In his intro, we see his insecurities in not living up to his family name, contempt for his father for assimilating into American culture and being different from his Ghanaian roots. He counteracts this the best way any young Black male in their 20s would, provided they are as attractive as Malik; Flaunt it with promiscuity. His failing music career forced him to chase trends to maintain a fanbase and the prospect of his ex doing better than him has left him with a void. He cannot go back to Alice, but no one else will ever be Alice, despite how many women and men he chases.
Here's another thing I like about ValiDate is that it doesn't leave any potential route unventured. As someone who is also in my late 20s and Black, I've been doing a lot of "soul searching" so to speak. What I can say about the characters presented is that they're not above chasing who they like regardless of gender. It's not so much romanticism, but the metaphorical high one gets from not being alone with their insecurities.
Keeping Malik in mind, let's discuss Inaya as, mentioned earlier, she was my first choice. What stood out to me, aside from the "she/they" pronouns was her description. A complete polar opposite from Malik, Inaya is another cog in the "gig economy," working from home and running a cooking stream. While the results of the dishes are varied at best, she does have enough of a following to make due and get by living on her own. She has severe anxiety when dealing with viewers who tend to be hyper-critical of her, to the point where she has hired a moderator to handle the more scathing comments.
Having most of her interactions be based online, she has almost zero social skills compared to Malik, who is a ladykiller above all else. It just so happens coincidentally that both characters' first route is with the same girl, Yolanda. This is also where I discuss the main gameplay of ValiDate as it's different from most visual novels. Each character's "campaign, so to speak" has designated routes with a hand-picked selection from the 13 characters.
What's unique about the different characters is that their narrative is written by unique authors. Not only does this give each character their own unique voice handled by a writer who has a close connection to them, but it also means other characters are told through their perspective. Yolanda featured in Inaya's route is different from Yolanda featured in Malik's route as they are two different people who approach Yolanda in different ways. It also shows how multi-layered each character is as well. There may be a common trait that Yolanda shows to both, but each character gets a different side relating to how they treat her.
Without spoiling too much, Inaya doesn't have a passing interest in poetry at first, yet at the behest of her moderator friend Alex, she attends an open mic. Despite an awkward introduction, Inaya is captivated by Yolanda's poise and delivery, so much so that she develops a crush. Although the crush goes nowhere, they both agree to be mutual friends for the time being after messing around and figuring out they are incompatible.
That's another positive note that ValiDate does very well; Sometimes, one's good ending doesn't end with a happy ending so to speak. Starting a platonic friendship is just as important, sometimes even more, than a romantic relationship. In Inaya's case, part of her coming out of her shell includes making friends and showing empathy for others. The latter is a lesson learned as she befriends a video game streamer she follows by simply being understanding.
In Malik's narrative, Yolanda handles him differently than Inaya as there is a very evident mutual attraction between the two. A similar scenario plays out where Malik attends an open mic but his intention is to sell CDs as if this was Times Square. Yolanda immediately catches his eye and, determined to woo her as he had with other women in the past, Malik makes his move. Having played Inaya's route with Yolanda, I knew Yolanda was more than what meets the eye. We see the "more than meets the eye" side of Yolanda quickly as she reciprocates Malik's advances with her own. It turns into a "virtual scoreboard" for Malik, almost like a game.
As with most visual novels, you can make choices for the characters that can ultimately lead to a "good" or "bad" ending. In the case of Yolanda's route, Malik can actually receive a bonus "rare" ending which is just as bad as the "bad" ending but more comical. While his decisions don't appear to make much sense, it's in line with Malik's personality of being a gentleman, yet knowing when to pull the cards and when to keep them in the deck. It's only when Yolanda isn't as giving as others are in the past does Malik begin to fall for her. However, he realizes he's not falling for her but he sees his ex in her. Realizing that this isn't fair to Yolanda, and as one can expect, Yolanda's ability to be highly perspective, their "good ending" is actually a "bad one" but it's "the best possible scenario."
And that's okay, just like in real life the best possible outcome of a bad situation is sometimes your "good ending." Whether things come from it in the future or not, the best thing you can do is be true to yourself. At the time of this writing, I've played Yolanda's route in Inaya and Malik's campaign as well as Ashlie's route in Inaya's narrative. What impressed me and what I love most about the game is the individual voices of each character. I feel like playing Inaya is a vastly different experience than playing Malik because they are two different people. They don't have a route with each other, but not every character has to be a potential match with the other.
So far I've unlocked Isabelle and Emhari's campaign and I'm sure as I play more I'll slowly unlock the entire cast. With 30 routes and 13 characters, I'm sure I will get to know the complexity of every member in each of the routes they are portrayed in. That's human nature in the end, isn't it? We all have baggage, secrets, and layers that we show to different people. Which one of those people will accept us unconditionally? Which one will we be willing to take a chance on? We'll find this out as I complete ValiDate: Struggling Singles In Your Area real soon.
ValiDate: Struggling Singles In Your Area will be available on Steam on September 29th. You can wishlist the game here.