This year’s release schedule seems to be mopping up all sorts of titles from the previous generation that nearly slipped through the cracks. Chulip, like The Red Star, managed to slip from its originally-scheduled 2004 release until this year. Naturally, the title’s elusiveness has contributed to its allure, as has the reputation (by association) of developer Punchline’s relationship with the immensely creative developers Skip (Chibi-Robo, bit Generations) and Love-De-Lic (Moon, L.O.L.). So was it worth the wait?
If you’ve heard anything about this game, you’ve heard about its premise. Our junior-high-aged protagonist has just moved with his father into a shabby house in an unfamiliar town. The protagonist immediately falls in love with a cute girl who lives nearby and persuades her to come with him to the Lovers’ Tree, underneath which one can kiss one’s sweetheart and – as legend has it – have one’s love blessed for all time. But since the main character lacks a good reputation in town and barely knows this girl, she puts him in his place and breaks his heart. So what’s to be done? You’ve got to get to know the townspeople and improve your reputation by gaining their approval – which is manifested by a great big smooch on the lips.
Progression is handled a mostly nonlinear fashion. After the first major puzzle has been solved, the player has free run of the entire game world and can solve the game’s goals in any order. Character interactions are essential to puzzle-solving, and not just in the usual “talk to the person until they repeat themselves” manner. When you show a citizen an item or another character’s name card, they’ll offer up their opinion and may often impart a tasty bit of information. The puzzles often resemble those found in classic PC adventure games, but the amount of communication necessary for progress gives matters a decidedly Japanese flavor.
Your character has a visible meter for HP, but these could be better described as “heart points,” as they generally represent the current buoyancy of the main character’s spirit rather than his health. He’ll lose points if he suffers a blow to his ego or commits a social faux-pas with one of the town’s residents. You don’t start with many of these points, and it’s so easy to lose them that early going can be pretty rough. HP can be docked for eating something inappetizing, having bad luck while rummaging through a garbage can for goodies, kissing someone who just isn’t ready for your affection, or invading an underground citizen’s personal space. Death can come quickly and unexpectedly, so it’s imperative to save often.
This causes the focus of the gameplay to rest on trial and error. Sometimes goals aren’t completely clear, and sometimes they’re a complete mystery that can only be solved by flailing about in the game world until someting works. Natsume seems to have realized this, and included a guide to the entire game in the manual (though it’s sometimes a little too vague, and occasionally incorrect). Constant puzzle-solving combined with severe punishment for failure is something that the adventure genre as a whole abandoned years ago, and Chulip shows exactly why that was necessary. And here’s fair warning: either write down every bit of information you come across in the game, or be prepared to run to GameFAQs once you reach the game’s final challenge. It’s a doozy.
One might imagine that with the several years the game spent in localization, the English adaptation would have been polished to a fine sheen. But as is the case with many Natsume translations, the English script is peppered with awkward phrasing and typographical errors. Very little of the original game’s sense of humor seems to have been carried through in the adaptation, and one cultural reference that’s a source of much punnery throughout the game has been completely bumbled. Plus, there are several maddening instances of text that has been left completely untranslated (though admittedly, none of it is essential to the game’s progression). It’s true that Chulip is so rife with puns and cultural references that any localizer would have had their plate full, but it seems that Natsume weren’t quite up to the task.
Still, the game’s oddity and charm show through, despite the translation. The game’s 1950s-Japan setting can feel nostalgic even to somebody who’s never set foot in the country. Environments are full of wear and tear and little bits of personality that make them feel lived-in. The jazz-influenced score is full of wordless vocals, syncopation, and even a bitter enka song, and ambient noise appropriate to each location and time of day further grounds the player in the game’s little suburb.
Some of the underground citizens and solutions to puzzles demonstrate a rather twisted and wry sense of humor, even beyond the game’s immediately-apparent weirdness. And most of the cast has a genuine warmth that becomes apparent through the player’s interactions and how they react to different situations. These characters don’t depend on clichés for their quirks. They’re flawed and sympathetic, and the progression they show when the player helps them out of their everyday, mundane unhappiness so they can love again is central to the game’s charm.
And despite the punishment for failure, the game’s progression can be strangely addictive. It’s compelling to try to seek out and smooch all of the (mostly optional) underground citizens, and the puzzles are varied and original enough to stay interesting throughout the game. Plus, Chulip never fails to reward a successful solution with an amusing outcome.
Chulip is definitely flawed, and it can be such a trying experience at times that it’s almost difficult to recommend it. But the heart with which Punchline sought to imbue the game comes through so successfully that it should be experienced.