Released by otome giants Otomate and Idea Factory, Variable Barricade is the latest game localized by Aksys and brought to the Nintendo Switch. With otome games popping up left, right, and center for Nintendo’s console, does it have enough to stand out?
Variable Barricade’s protagonist is Hibari Tojo, the sole heir to the prestigious Tojo clan. As Hibari nears the end of her high school career and turns the ripe age of 17, her meddlesome grandfather sets up an interesting arrangement that sees Hibari move into her family vacation home. There, she meets four men who have been set up as her potential suitors. She’s been told she must choose her fiancé from these four handsome, eccentric, but deeply flawed men.
The four prospective fiancés are Nayuta, a walking debt generator; Ichiya, a ladies’ man; Shion, a kept man; and Taiga, a gambling addict. In addition to these four men and their problems, there’s also Hibari’s faithful butler Kasuga, who pulls a lot of strings behind the scenes and helps maintain some order in the shared home.
The men have very distinct personalities, so depending on personal preference and mood, there’s a love interest for every occasion! For example, Nayuta is loyal to Hibari to a fault, and has a lot of comedic moments throughout his route, but Taiga puts on a massive front which, once broken down, leads to many raw, emotional interactions between him and the protagonist.
As the love interests are effectively competing against each other for Hibari’s hand in marriage, there are a lot of massive character clashes which create interesting scenes not only between the male characters but also with the headstrong Hibari who has very much been a lone wolf up until this point and had no romantic inclinations. It’s enjoyable to see how the characters develop throughout each route as they interact with each other and as the overarching plot progresses.
There’s also an interesting cast of supporting characters, most notably Hibari’s faithful best friend Tsumugi, an eccentric classmate who tries to teach Hibari how to live her life to the fullest and how she wants, without failing the expectations of her family.
As an otome game, Variable Barricade naturally falls into the visual novel genre. Aside from picking dialogue options that have a bearing on the relationship with one of the suitors, there’s not a lot of actual gameplay per se.
Variable Barricade has some interesting elements which make it unique. As Hibari curries favor with her suitors, or doesn’t as the case may be – her affection or reason will go up. This manifests itself as the suitor obtaining a better weapon if the affection goes up, or if Hibari’s reason goes up, basically the anti-affection meter, then she will equip a stronger and better fence. At various points during the suitor’s chapters, there’ll be a short scene called the Barricade Battle where either the suitor’s weapon or Hibari’s fence will win out and that will be the indicator as to whether you’re on track for a good or bad end. It’s a unique and interesting way of displaying the affection meter between the protagonist and love interest, rather than just having a standard bar chart, and made the game feel a lot more interactive.
Between chapters, Hibari will sometimes get a WHIS message on her phone. Often this is just text only, but occasionally she’ll be able to choose an option to reply. It has little bearing on the outcome of any route, but it’s a fun little addition that only adds to the immersion of the game and makes it feel less like a read-only story and more interactive.
Another fun aside between chapters comes in the form of RABI, a robot that Hibari gets gifted. RABI is essentially a surveillance robot and wanders around the house filming the unknowing suitors, letting Hibari (and by extension, the player) get a glimpse of the true nature of the suitors. This leads to some really funny moments between the boys and is a really interesting extra to the main story. Again, it has no bearing on the overall plot of any route, but it helps add layers and personality to the characters.
Visually, Variable Barricade is nothing to write home about in the main. It’s pretty basic from scene to scene and has the general static image that most otome games have. It’s a good job then, that the character designs are nice to look at, as you will spend a lot of time looking at them.
Occasionally you will unlock a CG scene that is a cut above the general scene. These are something to behold, beautifully drawn, and add real depth to the game by giving a fresh perspective and the chance to see Hibari interacting properly with the suitors.
As a general statement, the soundtrack of Variable Barricade was a little underwhelming. Often fading into the background, it’s easily overpowered by the stellar voice acting which demands attention. It’s a shame as if you pay attention, there’s a lot of attention to detail with every character given their own theme which fits their unique personalities. There’s just not a lot of time for the soundtrack to shine on its own, and it does lose the battle when compared to the louder dialogue.
Rather unusually for an otome game, the protagonist of Variable Barricade is voiced. This is a great addition to the genre, though rare, and enhances Hibari as a character. Otome fans are used to voiceless, nameless empty shells of characters, but Variable Barricade gives a wonderfully fleshed out, strong, and fully realized character to control. This really puts the player in the heart of the story, and rather than being a showcase for the male characters, makes you care about the outcome for the female protagonist for once. Some might complain that the protagonist is better off as a blank canvas for the player to project onto, but it really adds a different element to give Hibari emotions and feelings that she’s in control of and can vocalize fully.
It’s not just Hibari who has a voice, all of the suitors and Kasuga do too. This means the whole main cast is wonderfully emotive, with each voice artist drawing perfectly on their characters and giving them each a unique personality.
As expected of an otome game, each of the four suitors has their own route with a fifth secret route opening after completion of these main routes. Each suitor has a good ending and multiple bad endings, meaning there’s a lot for you to play through and unlock.
Progress is mapped out in a handy flow chart for each character when you enter their chapters, so you can see exactly where you need to make a different choice to unlock a different route. This is helpful for the sake of completion if you want to physically obtain all the endings yourself, but the game menu does have a ‘Full Open’ option where you can unlock everything and skip to the endings themselves.
Variable Barricade is a perfectly realized otome game. Offering more than just endless text reels, and giving immersion through its voiced protagonist, it shows how far the genre has come. There are so many unique traits to the game that make it stand out in what is becoming a saturated genre. A full and rich cast with interesting, unique, and, yes, handsome love interests makes Variable Barricade a must-play for otome fans.