Visual novels have been in a constant state of flux in the past decade as developers experiment in trying to figure out the best way to tell a story in a video game. It seems more often than not, the genre now features branching paths and light role-playing elements that impact how the story plays out. Simply watching a story unfold is no longer the case, and that’s a bit of a bummer. The latest in the genre to come stateside is Bandai Namco’s A.W.: Phoenix Festa, which attempts to marry the storytelling of visual novels with the gameplay of a 3D fighting title.
The fighting is all tied to the game’s core plot that puts players in the role of Ayato Amagiri, the newest student at Rikka Academy. This school isn’t like most, as its purpose is to train students to improve their combat proficiency by regularly competing in duels and training. This all culminates in a big tournament called the Phoenix Festa, where students from different schools compete in order to get their wishes granted.
All of this plot background is given early on, and sadly the game never delves much deeper into the world that these characters exist in. I assume this is due to A.W.: Phoenix Festa being based on an anime called The Asterisk War, but it really falters as a standalone experience. I wanted to know what led to this culture of constant fighting and why wishes could be magically granted. Sadly, the game doesn’t answer these questions I had. That might be fine for fans of the anime, but it basically teased an interesting story and never delivered.
Instead, the game’s main focus is on Ayato winning the hearts of one of five students and teaming up with them to win the Phoenix Festa event. All of the potential love interests are likeable characters, and each has their own backstory. Some are a bit cliché — like a princess fighting to save an orphanage — but enough of a story was told to get me invested in these characters beyond their cute designs. Not to sound too much like a “nice guy” on OkCupid, but I wanted to get to know each of these girls more, and see all of their wishes fulfilled.
Most of the game is spent planning how to spend your days at the school. I could raise my stats in different areas (such as health or defense) to make fights easier, ask players to face me in a duel, or try to court one of my love interests. The game actually has the player take the girls on dates, but before that can happen they have to actually agree to them.
I thought this would be an interesting mechanic, as I had to propose a date and location to a girl, but it ended up being more random than anything. I figured some girls would prefer to go out in mornings or have certain days off, but I never could find a way to predict if they would go out with me or not. Instead, I’d see girls who I had a low compatibility rating say yes to dates, while those with higher ones declining. Each date attempt takes up an action point, so I ended up wasting a lot of time I could’ve been training by trying to woo these digital avatars.
Most disappointingly, there’s only three different dates. Yes, three. There’s one where the pair runs into a hooligan in the business district of town and can fight him, one where they simply go for a walk, and another where the lovebirds relax at a café. Get prepared to see these scenes repeatedly as every girl shares the same setup scenes. For dating to be such a core mechanic of the game, it really surprised me to see it be so half-baked. Instead of learning more about who Ayato was trying to court, I just beat up the same bully repeatedly.
I haven’t talked about the combat much, but that’s largely due to it feeling like a tacked-on component. Unless you want to fight in a bunch of unnecessary duels that the player is given little incentive to do, there are only a handful of mandatory battles during the game. No matter if they were mano a mano or two-on-two, battles essentially played out the same for me every time.
I simply ran toward my enemy, locked on by tapping the circle button since the regular camera is useless, and hit the square button repeatedly to attack. Occasionally I’d unleash a powerful attack by holding in the left bumper mid-combo, but that was as much variety as I ever saw during combat. Each battle is ridiculously easy and I only had one battle last for over two minutes — although most didn’t last more than 45 seconds.
This makes the feat of actually winning the festival a trivial affair, and not much of an accomplishment. I guess that’s fine, since ideally it’s building to a great story payoff. Sadly, that isn’t the case. A.W.: Phoenix Festa abruptly ends after the player wins the festival, so there’s no conclusion to the questions raised during the story. I’m not sure if this is due to restrictions of the source material and not wanting to spoil things there, but it was an incredibly underwhelming way to end a game.
Phoenix Festa isn’t very long (a story playthrough lasts about four hours max), so I guess it was designed with replayability in mind. This type of storytelling has worked in a few visual novels, namely 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, where it actually played into the overall story, but it just seems like a lame design choice here. I went back and changed my choices in order to romance another girl, but it once again left me with more questions than answers. Learning slightly more about the story felt like a cruel joke, as I had to sit through a lot of the same exact scenes I had seen before just to get a few new ones in my several hours with the game.
A few other modes try to round out the package, but they aren’t any more enjoyable than the core game. You can choose to play as a brand new student at the school instead of Ayato, but this just leads to there being less of a story being told and players starting from scratch with a weak fighter. Other than that, there’s a nice gallery mode that allows you to view key scenes over again (which was a nice addition since the story scenes can be pretty cute), and a free battle mode where players can make any of the story characters fight. It was cool getting to play as the other characters in Ayato’s story, but the combat is too simple for it to stand on its own merits without a story backing it up.
The one success of A.W. Phoenix Festa is that it has certainly got me interested in the anime it’s based on. I want a satisfying conclusion to the character arcs that are teased here, and I certainly didn’t get it from this game. Each area — from the narrative to the dating — seems like an idea that is only half-fleshed out, and it makes for a frustrating time. I like the characters and the world that inhabits them, I just wish the game was an enjoyable way to experience it.
This review is based on the PlayStation Vita exclusive, which we were provided with.
There's an interesting story to be told in A.W.: Phoenix Festa, but sadly, this game only teases it.