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Review - Tokimeki Memorial Girl’s Side: First Love Plus

By Yoamiwaii, Nov 4 2017 09:00AM

[Article By: Amiwaii]

Notice me, Senpai! Oh, ahem... please excuse me. I got a little sidetracked there for a moment. That’s what happens to you when you’re sucked into an idyllic high school setting, where your virtual animated avatar is a super popular cutie, who can date any guy because they are some kind of social chameleon. But to claw myself out of the sugary-sweetness for just a moment, I should probably explain what the heck I’m going on about!

If you have no idea what Tokimeki Memorial Girl’s Side is, then to wrap it up in a nutshell it’s a female orientated dating sim (a part of the Otome genre of gaming) that guides you through the high school life of a teenage girl – the heroine who you can name and shape her credentials as you so desire – in her quest to romance one or more eligible bachelors, in an attempt to get a love confession at the end of the game. The Tokimeki Memorial franchise was originally created around a mouldable male character trying to win the heart of one of many datable girls, though Konami, the creator of the franchise, decided they would branch out to their female audience and create the ‘Girl’s Side’ spin off.

It just so happened one day I decided that I needed something charming to play, which could release some inner pocket of weeb I had hidden deep down inside – possibly located in a buttock – and Tokimeki Memorial Girl’s Side: First Love just so happened to be there to cradle me in its loving arms and offer me some escapism into into a world filled with unrealistic expectations of romance. For once, I wasn’t seeking a game saturated in horror or requiring any exceptional running and gunning skills. No, I wanted something laid back and whimsical, where all I had to worry about was picking the right outfit for my digital dates and making sure I gave my dream boys their preferred present.

Just for reference, I played the First Love Plus version with the English patch, an updated port for the Nintendo DSi. The original version of the game first came out on the PlayStation 2 in 2002 as a Japan only release before it was ported with updates and extras to the DS years later. The English patch was created thanks to the hard work of some dedicated fans of the series.

The game starts out with you choosing your name, which if you’re lucky might have the right phonetic options available so that the other characters can pronounce the name fully (otherwise you just get possible broken down alternatives). Then you select your date of birth and blood type, which relates to how your horoscope, a mechanic that helps you decide your weekly activities. And lastly you choose your room, which relates to which female friend will appear as default at the start of the game. You can’t decide what your character looks like as this is already preset in the game. What you get to see of your character is rendered as a chibi avatar; her most notable feature is her pinkish-brown bob. Beyond a black silhouette within ending cutscenes, you never see her beyond this deformed chibi sprite. Once you’ve got all these elements sorted, you can begin the game!

The opening prologue introduces us to a fairytale surrounding a church, where a Princess was said to have waited for her Prince to return to her. The story is told to our character by a mysterious young boy, who is vaguely recalled though the protagonist’s dream. This occurs shortly before her first day at her new school, Habataki High. On her arrival, she surprisingly finds the church she’d dreamt about on the school grounds. As it is locked, she is unable to investigate it, though runs into – literally – a fellow freshman, Hazuki Kei, at the same spot. He is the first default boy the protagonist can pursue, and you could say technically he is the ‘canon’ route of the game because, SPOILERS, he was the young boy in her dreams, having been childhood friends but for reasons not clearly explained, they were separated.

Kei is a sort of ‘princely’ figure, cool as a cucumber, though mostly reserved and withdrawn emotionally from others. He is the cool kid who can do everything with little effort, and has high expectations – thus, he’s actually the hardest boy to win over in the game. Though he is aloof in his attitude, he does have a hidden warmth to him that reveals itself if you start to win him over. He can be one of the most charming characters in the game with many cute moments to boot. It took me two attempts to get his ending, and even on the second try, I only just managed to meet the requirements to win his heart. But it was worth it. My inner school girl swooned.

But I’ve gone off track talking about Kei, and will probably find a way to gush about him more at some point, but anyway, where was I? Oh yes, after meeting Kei, you go to the opening ceremony to be given a motivation speech by the principal before settling into your new high school life. Shortly after, you are introduced to your new friend, which depending on the room you selected, can be one of four girls. Arisawa Shiho, a studious girl who is conscious of her height, Sudo Mizuki, the snooty rich girl who talks in third person, Fujii Natsumi , an energetic and easygoing individual, and Konno Tamami, a sweet and shy young girl with a penchant for sports. These girls can be your best friends through and through or potentially your love rivals, depending on whether you are pursuing the particular boy each girl likes while you’re good friends with them. Engaging rival mode can really wreck your chances with a boy if you don’t manage to get the upper hand or win over your rival with the power of friendship. Break them with love dammit!

You are soon introduced to your teacher, Mr Himuro, another potential catch (because they had to go there!), who is a criminally good-looking and stoic taskmaster. Though, he isn’t as bad as the older, creepy principal, who is also a love option (he shouldn’t be taking a register, he should be put on one!) Once you’ve had all your default introductions, you head home to be confronted by your annoying younger brother, Tsukushi, who has an unnatural desire to hook you up with guys, lest you die an old spinster. Because she hasn’t got her whole life to find love, right?

Despite his questionable interests in your love life, Tsukushi becomes your go to for information on all the guys you can pursue (besides the secret ones). It’s a wonder your parents let him out to do his questionable sleuthing, but they are nonexistent in the game, so we’ll just have to guess on that front.

Your main hub for most of the game will be your bedroom, where you monitor your stats, check up on the in-game internet – for the likes of new events, fashion advice and horoscopes – and choose your activity for the week. The eight stats on your menu are as follows: -

• Stress: Pretty much most of the things you do in-game will incur some form of stress, so you have to keep an eye on this. If it goes over 100, your character will fall sick and have to take time off (I think this is a week or so in-game time), which will affect all your stats like crazy. Though, if you are particularly close with a boy, he may actually visit you while you are sick for a sweet exchange.

• Money: To buy the plethora of outfits that you’ll need to impress the boys or to get them presents, you’ll need a nice chunk of pocket change. You do get a very meagre allowance over the course of the game, but it won’t be enough to support your frequent shopping trips, so you will have to subsidise this by getting a job – more on this later. You can work in a few different places, like a fast food joint, coffee shop, gas station, multiple boutiques, flower shop and a games tester (The last of which will earn you money, but wreck your stats! Yikes!)

• Intelligence: Boosting this stat is done through studying or other studious endeavours. If you want to do well in most exams, this is the stat to be focusing on. It’s nice to get top place in the rankings!

• Arts: You can improve your artistic skills through painting or other such artistic endeavours.

• Fitness: When you decide to do some exercise or participate in sports club activities, you improve your fitness. This can be really useful for the Sports Festival.

• Social: Hanging out with your friends or taking part in group activities will improve your social skills.

• Style: This primarily improves when you indulge in a bit of magazine reading.

• Charm: To boost your charm factor, you need to keep on top of your grooming – which is basically just admiring yourself in a mirror and hoping you don’t scare yourself.

Gameplay has you deciding what activity you primarily want to do for the week, which you can select from your bedroom hub screen. You can choose to be a lazy bum and sleep – which significantly recovers stress but decreases your other stats, study to keep on track for good grades, paint to improve your arts skills, participate in a club activity; though you will need to join one of the many clubs available – which includes cheerleading, gardening or the band for some examples, or you can exercise to keep up fitness, read magazines to become all kinds of stylish, groom for charms sake, or hang out with one of your four friends (depending if you meet them all) with each of them having a particular area that will boost/decrease stats.

On the weekends you have the options to go shopping to keep your wardrobe fresh and keep up with popular trends to please the guys, call the boys to arrange a date, ring up about a job position to earn some extra cash, or speak to Tsukushi to find out the boys info, get their phone numbers and see how you rank with the boys and/or your friends. Keeping on top of your relationship stats is so handy, particularly to avoid bombs, which appear as just that against a boy who is unhappy that you are not paying him enough attention. If those bombs explode, it wrecks your standings with everyone and can stop you winning the guy you want at the end of the game.

Other options can have you to check the in-game internet for your horoscope, which splits itself between study, leisure, sports, and love. One week will be more favourable to one or more types and you are probably safer doing those related things to avoid having a dud week. You can also check Goro’s fashion column to see what colours, clothes and accessories are the hot item to impress your date with. You can also check the news section for information on new date spots appearing and numerous articles for all your Kei ogling needs... yes, many articles... wait, where was I? Oh yes, there is also a public schedule to see what shows are on at places like the cinema and live house, as there might be a particular show on that appeals to your specific love interest. Aside the internet, you can check your calendar for important key dates coming up, like when exams will start and when you’ve arranged to woo your chosen boy for example. You can also check emails from your friends and a secret love interest; it will also alert you to new job opportunities.

Obviously, the focal point of this game is all about going on dates and wooing one or more of the guys in the game. Aside from all star student Hazuki Kei, you have the option of dating some of your other fellow schoolmates. There is: Morimura Sakuya, the bespectacled book-smart lover of botany. Suzuka Kazuma, the sporty jock with a hidden heart of gold. Kijyo Madoka, the aloof ‘cool’ kid with a love for bikes. Mihara Shiki, the androgynous artist with a penchant for flamboyance and narcissism. Hibiya Wataru, an overeager underclassman who loves baseball. You also have the option, as previously mentioned, to date the faculty – though you don’t do so in the conventional way of calling them up like the other boys; they make other arrangements with your character. There is Himuro Reiichi, the homeroom teacher with a stern personality, though he conceals a hidden warmth. And – shudder – Amanohashi Ikkaku, the principal and overtly dandy guy, who shamelessly flirts with your character. Ick.

There are also two hidden characters whom you can pursue, though you technically don’t go on dates with either. There is Aoki Chiharu, your email pen-pal from America who you'll spend most of the game interacting through text correspondence and bumping into him at random on shopping trips with no clue who he is. He has a flimsy grip of the Japanese language and quite a flappable personality. Then there is Tendo Jin, the cocky street thug who – with your character’s assistance – wants to change his ways. He is a smart guy, but has let his grades slip because of his wayward lifestyle. It’s interesting if you do pursue his ending that you can decide whether you want him to keep his dyed blonde more or not.

You can achieve endings for all of these characters, plus an ending with any of the girls you have become best friends with (sorry, no lesbian romances here - though, you might wish they were by how lovely some of the girls are!) if you don’t manage to win a guy, or even Hanatsubaki Goro, the eccentric fashion designer with the weirdest in-game design, or you could end up failing to win over anyone and just end up having Tsukushi turn up to make you realise how much of a fail the situation is.

The date portions of the game involve you dressing up in a suitable clothing style, which is one of four types: Pure, Sporty, Sexy and Elegant. The boys have one preferred style, one they don’t mind and one they hate. Once you’re dressed to impress, you meet up with your date and head to your destination. Really, the main portion of the date is selecting a suitable response to something they say and hoping it makes them happy. Aside this, you also have the ‘Skinship’ feature – a DS addition – where you get to stroke and prod your date in various places (nothing specifically lewd though!) to gain some extra points with them. You get some quite cute responses if you pet the right spot, though, if you touch somewhere they hate, you may quickly lose favour.

Between your forays into dating, the game does endeavour to add different challenges into the mix to break up the repetitiveness of the gameplay. You will have the sports festival three times, which can be fun or a pain whichever way you see it. You also are given the option to make your beloved Valentines chocolate every Valentine's Day, which requires dexterity and good memory of direction. You also get to venture on a school field trip in the second year, which has the optional mini game of the pillow fight, which is probably the most fun of the extra modes included.

The gameplay can be both addictive albeit cyclical, which is more apparent when you sit down to a long session fawning over the boys. It’s a pretty straightforward game in many respects, and while its simplicity makes it so easy to pick up and get into, it can also make it rather dull on repeated playthroughs when you’ve seen most of the content. Then again, there are loads of original conversations and unique in-game artworks to find and unlock, so there is plenty to keep coming back for.

On the sound front, the music is – for the most part – like 90’s elevator music. They’re pretty laid back tunes with quite a cutesy vibe for a few particular pieces. Each of the main guys has their own theme – with variations on the tune depending on the situation, which accompany them throughout the game. They’re the kind of tracks for easy listening and don’t distract from your gameplay focus, which is obviously chasing guys like a dog after a bone (take that in whatever context you want! Hehe). A lot of the pieces are vibrant and enjoyable to listen to, and I have particularly become enamoured with Kei and Sakuya’s tracks.

Next, let’s talk about the voice acting. To start off with, the performances of the cast involved are all pretty much spot on and well performed, so I can’t fault a lack of effort in expressing the personalities of the characters clearly. I think at times, particularly with Kei, because of his cold nature, his tone can be rather monotonous at times, like he’s some kind of robot; maybe it’s true about the rumour of the androids built under the church?! See the game for that laughable idea. Despite this aspect performed for Kei’s character, I think when you finally crack his shell and he starts to warm up to you, it’s nice to hear the warmth and humour that starts to interweave with his usual stoicism. I think the best of the voices belongs to Himuro-sensei, with that deep, serious tone that expresses such distinctive, logical verbiage at every turn. You can see why he is a big favourite with fans of the game. He is the full package with the sexy visage, the almost forbidden fruit aspect of his character as a teacher, that deep alluring voice... Oh yes, definitely the full package. Okay, I lost my train of thought there. Time to get back on track!

There is a lot of replayability with the variations in the gameplay. With multiple endings to chase and lots of unlockable, partially animated artwork to obtain for your album, you have plenty of goals to aim for which each playthrough. The gameplay has set events within the game, but how you proceed between them is entirely up to you, as it doesn’t function entirely in a linear fashion. The game is what you make it with how you drive the main character to her goals – i.e. a particular guy. The DS version of the game certainly added a little extra element with the ‘skinship’ aspect, which kind of spruced up the dating sections with a bit more interactivity. The shift from the PS2 definitely did the game some favours, with a nicer looking user interface now minus the previous ugly orange colour scheme. They also updated the fashions your character can purchase while shopping from a really horrendous set of designs to much subtler styles included in the latter games. However, there were things that didn’t transition over from the PS2, which I’m guessing was down to console limitations with the DS. Some musical tracks seem to be missing, which is noticeable in the shopping sections where each shop had individual tracks. Also missing in the shopping sections were individual voice greetings for each shop. It is now just one voice and one track default for each shop. A few of the variations of the guys themes were also cut, including their individual confession music pieces at the end of the game, which is now replaced with one universal track for all. Also, just one thing that bugged me offhand, even if the system allows the guys to say your name, the girls had this removed for some reason.

I think one of things that is sadly missed with the DS version of the game is the anime opening sequence they had in the PS2 version. It was such a beautiful piece of animation, capturing the heart of the game beautifully. It really made me wish that this game had become a full-fledged anime series with all the sweet drama and charming romance involved. One can only dream. Sigh.

Tokimeki Memorial Girl’s Side: First Love Plus tugs on the heart strings, offers laughs galore, and even makes you wish you had experienced such an adventurous and romantic high school life with none of the awful aspects. It’s an easy to pick up slice of life simulation, a visual novel of your making, and undoubtedly a colourful and whimsical representation of youth. It offers a simplistic piece of escapism into a world that promises love and friendship that can take many different forms. It’s definitely one of those games you can chill out with, because half the time there doesn’t feel like there is much pressure on you at all as you play through... well, unless you go after Hazuki Kei, and then you’ll be micromanaging like a bitch. I certainly recommend this game to people who enjoy such themes. You won’t be disappointed.

Images (copyright) Konami.

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