From the brilliant mind of Miwashiba comes 1bitHeart, an a funny, heartfelt adventure game about making friends and coping with social anxiety.
A few hundred years from now, in a time when everyone and everything is connected to a central network by “BitPhones”, a boy called Nanashi lives alone in his room. Agoraphobic and socially awkward, he hasn’t seen the world outside in months, ever since he dropped out of school and took up residence at his cousin’s place. He says, quite casually, that he hates himself; that he’s a piece of trash, and that other people find him weird and unlikable.
Despite all this, Nanashi’s a cheerful boy who wants nothing more than for other people to be happy. If calling him a piece of garbage would make someone else feel good, then Nanashi will gladly be the target. He doesn’t really “get” other people, but he’s kind and caring to a fault. “If it’s useful to others, and it makes them happy, I’ll do literally anything!”
Nanashi’s whole world gets thrown for a loop one day when a strange girl suddenly appears in his room, claiming to have lost all her memories. She introduces herself as Misane, and they get to talking. Nanashi wants to help her remember who she is, but he’s scared to leave his home. Misane manages to convince him that it would be good for him, and even agrees to help him make friends.
So begins 1bitHeart, an adventure game about making friends, from the brilliant mind of Miwashiba (creator of LiEat and Alicemare). Playing as Nanashi, you wander about town, talking to people with the hopes of making connections. This is a place where everyone seemingly knows everybody else, so talking to one person often gets you a clue about someone else—what things they like, their hobbies, or what have you.
Those clues come in handy during “Talking Time” scenes, where you get to exercise Nanashi’s budding conversational skills in an RPG battle of sorts. He and the other person engage in dialogue, and every few lines you get to choose a response: continue listening, ask for more information, or present information. Choosing the right option lets Nanashi get better acquainted with the other person and learn more about them; choosing poorly will cause him to come across as awkward, damaging his mental health and costing HP.
1bitHeart essentially turns into a game of making logical connections between the clues you have and the words that Nanashi’s friend-to-be says, which gets increasingly complex as your collection of potentially relevant clues grows. It can turn into a game of trial and error, but Nanashi has enough HP to weather a few mistakes, and if you’re playing on the easier of the game’s two difficulty settings, you can ask Misane for advice. A few friendships develop as part of the main story progression, but there are 40-odd optional ones that you can take the time to pursue. Each one has its own little story to watch unfold, and the more friends Nanashi can make, the better things turn out in the end.
Things take a turn for the worse when Nanashi and Misane, in their friend-making adventure, stumble upon a conspiracy. In this world, everyone’s BitPhones connect directly their brainwaves, enabling augmented-reality conveniences like automatic language interpretation or the presence of AR pets. A side-effect of this is that people themselves can potentially be hacked, but the network—built by none other than Nanashi’s cousin—has the most sophisticated security imaginable, and hacking is a crime with harsh punishments.
That doesn’t stop people from trying, though, and Nanashi and Misane soon find themselves in chasing the tail of a hacker group experimenting with mind control. At first, they seem interested in little more than pranks and mischief, but as the game moves along, a bigger picture becomes apparent. It has plenty of twists—some surprising, others heavily foreshadowed—building up to 1bitHeart‘s poignant endings.
The ending itself depends on how many people Nanashi’s befriended over the course of the journey—in short, more friends leads to a better ending. Not just a simple game mechanic, this setup shows the culmination of Nanashi’s journey to make friends and learn how to interact with people. If you put in the time to make those connections, Nanashi’s better able to put what he’s learnt into practice. It’s a clever end to a game with a very unique premise.
Much of the game’s appeal lies in the friendships themselves. 1bitHeart’s world is a surreal, ultra-modern place full of weird and wonderful people, from happy store owners to roguish rockstars. A particular favourite of mine is Miumi, who moved to Japan only recently and speaks in a strange mix of Japanese and English—”Yoroshiku to meet you!” (she chooses not to use automatic translators). There’s even a talking dog.
They’re all delightful to talk to and get familiar with, thanks to some excellent writing. The English script is fantastic, and Playism’s localisation team really deserves a lot of praise. It’s a wordy game with a huge cast, and they’ve managed to capture their unique personalities perfectly. You’ll get a bit more out of the game if you’re at least a little bit familiar with Japanese, because there are a few linguistic jokes kept in the English version that just wouldn’t work if they were translated or replace by something similar, like Miumi’s dialogue. There’s nothing critical to understanding the story, but if you can understand a few words, you’ll get a good chuckle.
The other thing that makes the characters stand out are their designs. Miwashiba’s an artist first and foremost, and it really shows—even with such a large cast, each character is visually distinct, and they overflow with personality before they even open their mouths. Miwashiba has a distinctive style—it’s very crisp and modern, with bold lines and striking use of a limited palette of colours. There’s a cyberpunk edge to everything, but with warm pastel colours instead of the usual grit. In a word, Miwashiba’s art is stunning.
A great soundtrack is the icing on the cake. It blends punk, hip-hop, jazz, and techno elements to create something that, like the art, is equal parts soothing, catchy, and sharp. The soundtrack is available on Steam as well for just a couple of dollars, and is well worth it.
1bitHeart is an odd, quirky, funny, heartfelt game that I can’t recommend highly enough. Making friends is one of those weird things that everyone’s expected to just understand, but that you’re never really taught, and here’s a game ready to explore that from the perspective of a delightful and complex young man. Everything about the game is excellent, from its art to its music to its clever use of the friend-making mechanics, but Nanashi’s journey to social confidence is something that’s particularly captivating.
1bitHeart is developed by Miwashiba and published by Playism. It’s available now for PC.
A press copy was supplied by the publisher for this review.