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2016-06-22

Dark Illusions Review

Title: Dark Illusions
Release date: 2002-12-16
Developer & publisher: Vonwert

Even after many many years, "Nocturnal Illusion", released in English back in the Stone Age of 1998, still remains one of my favourite visual novels. Imagine my surprise and astonishment upon learning that there actually exists a Western remake of "Nocturnal Illusion" called "Dark Illusions". I have never heard about such a thing before and I'm actually supremely baffled how such a thing could have escaped my notice. Sure, I am aware of a failed project to create a fan sequel to NI, but "Dark Illusions" is a beast on a completely different level.

"Nocturnal Illusion" is a particularly unfriendly game to play on modern computer systems. It doesn't run at all on any 64-bit OS, and even on 32-bit systems it requires to edit the registry to get the game off the ground. I'm even reasonably sure that merely installing the game on Windows 10 starts a global thermonuclear war. The upgraded remake called "Nocturnal Illusion Renewal" has never been officially brought to the West, but there is a very recent effort to fan-translate it. If successful, it will be THE way for new VN enthusiasts to experience NI for years to come.
That's almost a double entendre.
"Dark Illusions" (DI further on) was created back in 2002 on RPG Maker for PlayStation 1, a program that brings its own problems. Rather than being stand-alone PS1 games, RPGM1 programs were distributed as .gme files, which is a fancy way to say they are memory cards containing the game data. The only way to play these games on an actual physical console is to own a now obsolete device, named "DexDrive". Emulators make it possible to actually enjoy RPGM1 games, but it took me quite a while to figure out how to actually launch the fucking game. There are simply no guides for newbies regarding RPGM1 games, and newcomers are left to sink or swim.

Because I'm such an awesome person, I'll detail the whole convoluted process. As I have already mentioned, RPG Maker games come as multiple virtual memory cards containing the game data - "Dark Illusions" has 10 of those, as it is actually a very long game (probably even longer than the original). Now, you might wonder how can you even play the game, if the emulators usually only have two slots for virtual memory cards.
What's wrong with your legs, dude.
1. Launch ePSXe (I haven't tried playing the game on any other emulator) and enter the memory card selection screen.
2. Put "Dark Illusions SYS. gme" into the first memcard slot and "Dark Illusions SCE. gme" into the second slot. Don't mix the slots, the system card must go into the first slot.
3. Now you'll need the very first North American release of RPG Maker for PS1. Download the image file from the usual internet sources.
4. Launch RPG Maker in ePSXe, wait until the program boots, then select RPG MAKER > Game > Start and select the game.
5. The program will start to slowly read the data in the memcards you selected. Eventually you'll get an error message. Due to using custom sprites DI needs three memory cards to boot and you can only add two at a time.
6. Without doing anything else, press Esc the moment the error message appears. Go back to the memory card menu and replace the system data card in the first slot with "Dark Illusions Sprite Card.gme". Choose "Continue" in the emulator menu. The program will start to automatically load the custom sprites. A few moments later the game will launch.
7. Immediately make a savestate, so that you won't have to repeat the previous steps ever again.
8. Now the game will play like a multi-CD game from the days of yore. Once in a while an error message will appear. When that happens, press Esc, load the next scenario card and press "Continue".
9. Despite DI having save points, never use them and only create savestates to record your progress.
Yes, that's me, Lex Luthor Johnson.
Now, that wasn't that hard, was it... Wait, why am I alone? Where are my readers?! Come back, guys, the game is actually good and worth the effort! No, I'm not kidding, the game's developer Vonwert made a lot of effort to create a faithful reconstruction of "Nocturnal Illusion" in a different engine, while giving the game his own touch.

Actually, the scenario of "Dark Illusions" was copied verbatim from the original game with warts and all. 1998 was the Dark Ages of visual novels and the translation was sadly quite half-assed. It had lots of mistakes and was, in all probability, quite incorrect. Vonwert slightly expanded the plot by adding his own events and a few new characters, but the total amount of new material is probably less than 10 % of the game. Despite the legacy problems with the original script, the plot of "Nocturnal Illusion" and by extension "Dark Illusions" is still very much god tier. I can barely think of another visual novel that has invoked so many feels in me during the playthrough, as the original NI. Subsequently, the remake shines the most when it channels its "Nocturnal Illusion" vibe.
Just as quotable as ever.
The original material by Vonwert is less praiseworthy. I have no problem with him switching the setting to US and renaming majority of the characters (Miwako is called Deborah now and Yukina became Mary), because, after all, it's a remake. However, some of the new plot elements are very questionable. The developer seems to not be aware that supposed witches were hanged in Salem, not burned. Moreover, he conjectures that everyone is familiar with the band "Eiffel 65" and can solve a complex puzzle based on that knowledge. WTF man, that's like the most random thing I have ever encountered in any game, period! Additionally, I felt that a new side character Samantha served absolutely no purpose and was just an annoying distraction.

"Dark Illusions" remains a visual novel, however now it contains adventure game elements, many of them optional. A few lengthy puzzle courses were added, the character of Kusayama and Red were completely excised from the new script, two secret heroines and a few new side characters were included. Sadly, I only managed to find one of those secret heroines - Priss from Vonwert's first game "Treasure Hunters"; another, whom I only heard referred of as a sex slave, eluded me, even though I managed to obtain the Slave Card.
Help, I'm missing a fourth wall!
Probably the greatest difference between NI and DI is the less linear route progression. If you have played "Nocturnal Illusion", you surely remember that the VN is completely linear, with you literally choosing the ending you want to receive, at the very end. "Dark Illusions" tackles the problem very differently by introducing dating sim elements. Now, while talking to girls you will sometimes be prompted to choose one of a few possible answers, where some of them increase her affection, while others decrease. Once you get a certain amount of affection points, you are able to confess your love to that particular girl. If you take the chance to do that, you get an actual item called "<Girl's name> Love" in your inventory. You can only hold one Love at a time and confessing your love to another girls removes the Love of your previous paramour and adds that of a new one. Once you reach the end of the game, you get the ending with the girl, whose Love you currently hold in the inventory. Furthermore, a huge surprise was the chance of a few girls dying during the course of DI, which makes sense in context.
That's not creepy at all...
The romance system is not as convoluted as it sounds, but it comes with it's own problems. Usually in a visual novel you can quickly skip read text in order to collect all the endings. You obviously can not do it here; after all, DI is an RPG Maker game. As a consequence, the hunt for different endings becomes quite a chore, with less patient players dropping this venture altogether.

Graphically "Dark Illusions" looks good, despite the obvious limitations. Unlike any of the RPG Maker versions for PC, it was very hard to include original data into the games made on the PS1 RPG Maker. Custom sprites for the characters alone take up a whole memory card, thus you can forget seeing any CGs or VN-like paper-doll character portraits. It's a real shame, because I'm a fan of the oldschool anime art and consider the look of "Nocturnal Illusion" simply lovely. Vonwert had to do with the building materials available to him and managed to somewhat faithfully recreate the mansion and its surroundings with the contents of the RPGM1 disc. That obviously means that we are missing such great famous scenes, like the fight with the living suit of armour. On the other hand, he somehow squeezed the original NI midi soundtrack into the game, for which I can only applaud him.
Memorisation puzzles.
Moreover, DI has very few bugs for a game of such scope. The secret quest for the Slave Card drops you right into the middle of the next scenario after you finish it and it definitely shouldn't happen like that. Reaching maximum affection with Sari breaks the next encounter with Mary, but it doesn't really affect anything and everything gets back to normal after you have a night's sleep. The switch puzzle before meeting Samantha will get stuck if you input the wrong combination and you'll have to load an earlier savestate. That's all. I only found three bugs during 15 or so hours I spend playing the game. Seriously, nowadays shorter games have way more bugs than that. EDIT: After a few more playthroughs I have found more bugs, some of them gamebreaking. A pity that.

Now, you perverts out there probably wonder, how Vonwert handled the sex scenes present in the original game. To my huge astonishment, they are actually present in the game in a text only format. Once you confess your love to a girl, the screen turns black and you read the H-scene like in NI. The only difference is the lack of relevant CGs. Admittedly, not all of the heroines have their sex scenes intact. In the development thread Vonwert claims that he simply got tired of making the H-scenes and wanted to get the game out to the public sooner, but me thinks that the real reason is quite different. *cough*loli*cough*
Porn à la Vonwert.
The whole development process of this remake was shrouded in secrecy. Vonwert changed the names of many characters in the game and never even mentioned "Nocturnal Illusions", rather choosing to present DI as his own original effort. Admittedly, he credited the developers of the original game, but never mentioned the name of the original. The game development thread had a huge following at the time, but none of the people visiting the thread were aware of the true origins of "Dark Illusions". Vonwert was so good at hiding things, that 14 years later very few people even know that "Nocturnal Illusions" has an honest to god remake.

It's a bit hard for me to rate "Dark Illusions", because I see things through the prism of admiration for the original game. I consider NI to be very close to perfection, despite its shortcomings. Now, how do you rate a remake, whose script is 90 % identical? In the end, the lack of graphical features and some questionable puzzle designs bring the rating down a bit, but I still immensely enjoyed "Dark Illusions" and I'm gonna check some other games by Vonwert. In the end I failed to find all the secrets and Easter Eggs included, but it didn't diminish my satisfaction.

Links of Interest

Visual Novel Database
Download "Dark Illusions" on Pavilion Boards
"Dark Illusions" page on RPGMMag
"Dark Illusions" development thread on RPGM Pavilion Board
Download ePSXe emulator
Download RPG Maker disc image file
"Dark Illusions" puzzles & secrets

Final Verdict: 84 %

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