Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sample Platter: Cherry Tree High Comedy Club

To give a better idea of how I plan to do things, and to introduce some of the concepts I'll be looking at during this weekend's Buffet, I'm going to look at a game I tried out a couple of days ago called Cherry Tree High Comedy Club. It seemed like a good fit for me. I like comedy, I've been in a few clubs, and I can tolerate cherries. Still, I'm very cautious around this genre, but luckily there was a demo available, so I fired up Steam and jumped into the demo to fight for justice and comedy.

Naturally, comedy is subjective, but does this story's punch-line stick it's landing? Find out after the break!

Slice of life stories seemed to start dominating the anime scene around the mid-2000s. One could argue that it started with Azumanga Daioh, and that's certainly one of the more exceptional examples of well-executed storytelling. It was a simple story, but one that was told through relatable characters that both complemented and contrasted each others' personalities. The relationships were believable, and that's crucial to making your story interesting when you don't have major conflicts or epic quests of Earth-shattering importance to fall back on. If you're going to capture the mundanity of life, the audience is going to get very bored unless the characters make us care about their lives.
Of course, adding explosives can't hurt either.
That leads me to Cherry Tree High.  From my experiences with slice of life, it's very hard to do right, and games seem to do it better than their animated counterparts. For one thing, life at its simplest form is a giant to-do list. Think about it: Every day, you have priorities set and make decisions on how your day unfolds based on those decisions. You take ownership of how you do things based on your own biases and time-management choices. Whether it's getting homework done so it isn't hanging over your head later, or sitting around playing video games all-day Saturday, you've made your choice on how to spend your time based on your own priorities.

A good slice of life game does much the same thing. They have simple goals that you have to achieve at whatever rate you choose to pursue them in. The Arland trilogy of the Atelier series did a good job of this. You have assignments to complete and a set date to complete them by, and how you go about this is up to you. You have to budget your time, simultaneously juggling responsibilities to your kingdom with maintaining your relationship with friends and townsfolk as well as trying to keep enough money to buy supplies and recipe books. If you manage to do that without passing out, you win.

Cherry Tree High takes a similar approach to its own story. While not rooted in a fantasy setting, the game sets a goal and gives you a short amount of time to complete it. The main character, Miley, wants to start a comedy club at her high school with her best friend. To do that, she needs to find and befriend three people to have enough founding members to start the club. She only has one month to do it, or else she misses the deadline and can't start her club. It's her senior year, too, so that means she can't try again next year if she fails.

But she can't just focus on her club. There's also school and work responsibilities to contend with. There's homework that she has to keep up with during the game, requiring her to budget her time to meet all of her responsibilities. She also needs to work to make money so that she can afford to buy magazines and take in the local culture.
And do this.
And you can't go too crazy doing all of this stuff, because some things, work in particular, increases the amount of fatigue she suffers, and if you don't get enough sleep, you'll pass out Harvest Moon style. And you have to balance all of this with meeting and befriending potential recruits to your club.

To do this, you'll have to strengthen your relationships with the people you meet to convince them to join the club. There's six targets to choose from, but you only need three. To strengthen your relationships, you need to improve your knowledge of various topics so that you can converse with others and relate to their interests.

This is where the game shows surprising depth. The topics of conversation that you have to strengthen are numerous, ranging from video games and mystery novels to politics and history for a total of twelve different stats for you to level up over the course of the game. Every character has their own likes and dislikes, so you have to budget the areas you want to focus on in order to maximize your ability to make friends. You level up these topics by reading magazines, watching TV and movies, or hanging out at certain places.
You've got a lot to learn before you can start your club.
You can only discuss any given topic once with a potential target. After that, you can't bring it up again, so make sure you avoid subjects a character is passionate about until you have a higher level in that area. If you talk about an area a target is passionate about while you're not at a high enough level in that subject, you're out of luck. This is where this game succeeds, putting the characters first by giving them unique areas of interest, making them seem more real even in a game as silly as this.

And it is a silly game. The writing, while not laugh-out-loud hilarious, will make you chuckle from Miley's odd sense of humor. It matches the tone of the game very well, not taking itself too seriously while never getting comfortable in its own cuteness, which many slice of life stories do all too often.
Here's looking at you, kid.
To look at this from an anime standpoint, there is one aspect of the writing worth mentioning. The "purists" out there probably aren't going to like this one due to the liberties the translation team has taken with the script. This isn't a straight translation, and the jokes have been changed to be more friendly to us westerners and make the dialogue flow better. It's a localization in the style of the Ace Attorney series, not a literal translation. For those that find this kind of adaptation offensive, this might be distracting. I'm not one of those people, so the Star Wars and Street Fighter references didn't bother me.
And anyone who can't appreciate a Death Note reference has a stick up their butt in the first place.
From the screenshots, you might observe some similarities to the Persona series, specifically Persona 4. Your eyes don't deceive you. This game is essentially the non-combat sections of Persona 4, focusing on improving social links. The similarities are far-reaching, from the way time passes in-game to the map you use to navigate Cherry Tree Town.
Better head down to Yasoinaba-- I mean Cherry Tree Station.
The game plays out like a side-scrolling adventure game, and there's only a handful of places you can go at first. You have a few sections of town and the school library you can go to during the afternoons and in the morning on your days off, and in the evening, you'll be in Miley's room deciding between homework, TV, magazines, homework, calling friends, and sleep. Miley's room is also the only place you'll be able to save during the game, so remember to talk with your roommate to save your progress whenever you get the chance.

The demo only lets you play through the first week or so, which encompasses most of your spring break. You won't get to school until a little later in the game, and additional locations are unlocked as time passes. This will give players sampling the system enough time to figure out how the game works and get used to living Miley's strange life.

The demo was effective, and it left me wanting more. As of this time of writing, I've met four of six targets, and have the same stats as above. If you want a nice change of pace from the norm, you really can't go wrong for eight bucks on Steam. The game combines elements from a good slice of life story with a system of interaction and relationship building reminiscent of Harvest Moon. It's a relaxing little game that you can pick up and put down at your leisure, but if you're like me you'll keep telling yourself, "Okay, one more day and THEN I'll stop." If comedy is subjective, then I guess Cherry Tree High fits my tastes just perfectly. From these first impressions, I would recommend giving it a try.
Can't fault me for trying.


  1. You've convinced me to give this a try next month. (Got too many games to wade through this month.)

    1. I hope you buy it. There's a semi-sequel to this game in Japan and I'd REALLY like to see it head our way.