All things considered, visual novels are still a recent entrant into the English video game scene. As such, many sub genres are in the process of finding their footing here. While yuri titles now flourish, yaoi (or boys’ love) offerings remain a rarity. Fortunately there are developers like Ertal Games willing to break the ice with A Hand in the Darkness. This title is a bit of a period piece, taking place in 1910 within an all-boys school in Britain. Players are introduced to this world alongside the protagonist, Alex, who has just been thrust into the academy by his family a year before he is supposed to head off to college. Despite a meek personality, Alex is fortunate enough to share a room with three other students. Each of them proves personable in their own way and friendships quickly bloom.
As this is a boys’ love title, each of your roommates happen to be quite cute. First there’s Monty. He immediately gravitates toward Alex and they become fast friends due to his incredibly personable attitude. With that said, the fellow seems to have a streak of jealousy that raises eyebrows. Next is Rick, the booksmart friend who is more than willing to help less than studious classmates out. Finally, there’s Damian. Like his name suggests, he’s a devilish sort of teen who enjoys skirting the rules of the school and having fun by any means necessary. In normal circumstances it seems strange that this crew would all form a bond, but they actually work very well to counterbalance each other’s eccentricities.
Alex quickly integrates with this group and begins to feel that suddenly being thrust into a new school as an upperclassman might not be such a bad thing. Unfortunately, this positive mindset is almost immediately extinguished when Alex finds himself the target of a killer. This isn’t just the imagination of teenagers bored out of their minds at a boarding school. No, someone came at him with a knife before being chased off! Instead of focusing on studies, this group turns their attention to figuring out the circumstances surrounding these terrifying murder attempts. Weirdly enough, there’s still room for goofy romps about campus and friendships to bloom into something more despite the looming threat of death.
Rick, Monty, and Damian all have their own routes. These include a good end and two bad ends – one with characters forming a relationship and the other being a general bad end. It feels a little unfair for there to be more bad than good ends, especially for tricky characters. With that said, it also makes finally attaining a good ending feel all that more rewarding. Unlike some visual novels, the endings do feel distinct from one another and generally make sense with all the choices made up to that point. There are a good amount of dialogue/action options to choose from on each route. The paths for each character diverge early on and yield about two hours of time to flesh out your chosen beau.
There is a trend in some BL visual novels to provide a really wonderful scenario where LGBT discrimination is not a factor. As fantastic as these reprieves from reality are, they’re unfortunately unrealistic at this point in time. A Hand in the Darkness (murder plot notwithstanding) plays the gay concept fairly for the time period. Alex is not only confused by his attraction to men but also terrified of repulsing friends if he reveals this fact. Once in a relationship, the fear turns to ensuring nobody sees them even holding hands lest the both of them get kicked out of school – or worse. But it’s not all glum. Players will find a lot of excitement and happiness between Alex and whoever he chooses as they come to understand relationships and sexuality. Of course, expect a heaping helping drama in some routes as well.
Even the relationships seem surprisingly realistic. In comparison, so many visual novels feature teens who fall head over heels in love and face little issues. Here, each character has their own personality and hang ups to resolve. Anyone who ever dated in high school is probably aware of how messy those relationships were. That is definitely demonstrated here. For example, one student can’t help but intertwine concepts of love with ownership of another person. Another simply chooses to pretend his interests in men are nothing more than a sexual impulse. A handful of scenes in the story may very well prove upsetting to some readers.
Presenting the story and characters in a generally realistic way requires good writing. Fortunately A Hand in the Darkness features writing free of typos. Each character feels distinct with personalities being well-crafted. The writing sometimes feels stilted, but is certainly understandable. The lovely artwork certainly helps in regards to making this a fleshed out package. There are a good number of CG scenes as well which provide even nicer artwork. Please note that though this is a visual novel on Steam, there are pretty steamy CGs in each route. Text descriptions also tend to go very in depth with discussing what’s going on in said scenes.
Although it should take most ten hours to complete, A Hand in the Darkness provides something unique in the visual novel space. Not only is it a rare English yaoi tale, it also presents itself in a more realistic way than, say, Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator. The artwork and intriguing characters hoist it up among its indie contemporaries, as well. Still, it would have been nice to see more development of the murder aspect — it seems to simply resolve itself in some endings. We’re keeping an eye on Ertal Games to see how they further improve their work with future titles.