Psychedelica of the Black Butterfly (PC) review

You can always count on certain things with an otome game from Otomate: stunning artwork, excellent writing, cute boys, and a tragic undercurrent to the romance that defines the genre. Oftentimes, Otomate will also use that framework for some sort of big-picture philosophical exploration: Collar x Malice is as much a treatise on gun violence as it is a tale of love between a detective and one of a handful of private eyes; Bad Apple Wars is as much about authoritarianism and rebellion as it is about high-school romance in the afterlife; Hakuoki is as much a reflection on a particularly turbulent period of history as it is a game about dating handsome ronin.

By contrast, Psychedelica of the Black Butterfly is a more personal tale of loss and grief. Without going into too much detail, each character in the game is dealing with their own grief. The process of trying to recover their lost memories in a dangerous, otherworldly setting makes for an elegant metaphor for coming to terms with that grief.

The game opens with the heroine, nicknamed Beniyuri, waking up on a strange, gothic mansion with no memory of who she is or how she wound up there. After a close encounter with a deadly monster, she meets a few others in a similar situation. A wing of the mansion protected by white butterflies becomes their base, and they’re soon tasked by the manor’s anonymous owner with collecting kaleidoscope shards—the key to recovering their memories. Unfortunately, getting those shards means having to hunt the monsters that roam the rest of the mansion.

As things move along, Beniyuri and her companions slowly start to recover snippets of their past and get closer to the truth. Naturally, friendships and budding romances form, but Psychedelica of the Black Butterfly is very much a mystery novel first and a romance game second. None of the twists are especially surprising, but when all the cards are finally laid down, it all comes together nicely to fill out that metaphor of people processing their grief—the fragmented memories, the gothic setting, and the kaleidoscope motif all fit neatly into that.

When I say it’s a mystery novel first and romance game second, that extends to the very structure of the game, too. Typically, an otome game will see you branching off at some point from a common route to one of a handful of different paths for the various characters that lead to a variety of different endings. Psychedelica of the Black Butterfly has plenty of different branching paths, but the common route runs right through to the first “main” ending, which doesn’t have a romantic element in sight.

Only after completing that common route do the character-specific routes start to become available. Aside from the obvious romantic element, they also serve to flesh out the story you’ve already seen through to the common route’s ending. If that sounds tiresome, worry not—a built-in flowchart makes it easy to skip around between different chapters and jump to individual choices, keeping skipping through previously-read text and unwieldy save file management to a minimum.

As much as I say Psychedelica is a mystery novel first, that doesn’t mean the romances aren’t cute. The boys all largely fall into otome tropes—there’s the tsundere, the charming flirt, the shy guy, the boisterous chap—but they all still manage to find their own niche within those archetypal trappings. You’ll like some more than others, naturally, but each of them is interesting enough in his own right to be worth exploring all their routes, to say nothing of how that builds upon the central mystery.

They’re also all absolutely gorgeous, but that’s no surprise from Otomate. The art style oozes with style, mixing gothic influences with a modern design sense: bold colours couple with fragile lines and patterns that channel stained glass to bring the personality of each character, and of the mansion itself, to life. That extends to Beniyuri too, of course, who has plenty of her own character to share and is far from a simple player-insert heroine.

The PC port, however, leaves something to be desired. It’s a direct port of the PS Vita version, complete with a user interface designed for buttons that’s hardly been altered. That’s fine if you’re playing with a gamepad, but if you’re using a mouse and keyboard, you get weird side effects like having to click twice on any menu items or dialogue choices—once to move an invisible cursor to highlight your chosen option, and again to confirm it. The default keyboard layout maps functions that were bound to face buttons on console to a recreation of that layout with letter keys (A, S, Z, and X), instead of the more logical options, so you’ll be doing things like confirming selections with the X key, or opening the menu with S rather than the Esc key typically used by most games.

It’s fine once you get used to it, especially given the relatively limited mechanical interaction of a visual novel (though there are a couple of action-based minigames), but it definitely feels awkward at first. This is especially true if you play a lot of visual novels developed for PC first, since Psychedelica mostly ignores the control scheme that’s become fairly standard for the genre.

I’ve also experienced a handful of crashes, and browsing the Steam forum for the game, it seems I’m not alone. Mine have mostly been confined to when I’ve been fiddling with the settings, rather than disrupting the game proper, but it’s still frustrating to have to deal with. The good news is that Intragames, the publisher for the PC port, have been very proactive with getting things fixed.

As such, I’d recommend sticking with the Vita version if that’s an option for you, but if it’s not—or if you just prefer playing your visual novels on a PC—I wouldn’t let a less-than-perfect port dissuade you from playing Psychedelica of the Black Butterfly. It’s as beautiful as we’ve come to expect from Otomate, but with a more personal tale wrapped around its mystery-story hook.

  Psychedelica of the Black Butterfly
Genre: Visual Novel / Otome
Developer: Otomate / Idea Factory
Publisher: Intragames
Platforms: PC (reviewed), PlayStation Vita
Release Date: 15 November 2018 (PC), 27 April 2018 Vita)
The publisher supplied a copy of the game for this review.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.