If someone would’ve told me at the beginning of the year that my favorite game of 2021 thus far would be a niche anime dating simulator I probably would have laughed at them – but here I stand, corrected by the 2019 PS4 release of Japanese comedy romance visual novel Date A Live: Rio Reincarnation. This treasure trove of light-hearted quips and cliched adolescent relationships was previous released on PS Vita in 2015, and also includes the series’ two prior game releases (Rinne’s Utopia and Arusu Install) all of which were previously released exclusively in Japan on PS3 and PS Vita.
The Date A Live story gives high school student Shido Itsuka the responsibility of placating beings responsible for ‘spacequakes’ that are threatening to annihilate earth. These beings, known as Spirits, are – luckily or unluckily for Shido – part of a sexually charged female cast vying for his attention and companionship, but with them liable to ‘explode’ if they become too unstable, Shido, as the unwilling participant, must keep them calm by taking them on dates and ultimately seal their powers by kissing them.
With its ludicrous plot filled with a harem of one-dimensional characters and repetitive scenarios, you might wonder how this was even able to be greenlit by a publisher let alone be an enjoyable video game, but conversely, it’s that very absurdity that makes it work. This anything-goes premise allows the humor to guide the story while the tight-knit cast of characters provides an endearing and familial atmosphere, keeping you smiling throughout.
While Date A Live: Rio Reincarnation won’t be winning any awards for its narrative, what is remarkable is the stunningly large array of story routes available to the player. The branching system integrates your independent choices seemlessly to the main storyline through intermediary scenes with characters constantly referring to the actions and decisions you’ve taken. So expansive is this system in fact, that few will have the same exact experience in any given playthrough due to the 400+ story events and 50 different endings spread across the three games.
Rinne’s Utopia and Arusu Install are both dating simulators, but despite that function quite differently. Rinne’s Utopia is a slow slice-of-life story following the 16-year-old protagonist’s life at school, with a deeper story and longer relationship arcs providing ample opportunity to change your potential ending and partner. Arusu Install, on the other hand, has an AI character trap you in a VR world to show them the meaning of love and ramps up the fantastical and sweaty situations with more love interests and comedy, but fewer branching choices and a less coherent story. Personally, I enjoyed the 2nd game more with its VR concept able to spawn hilarious impromptu situations, but the first is more immersive and replayable.
Each game has a ‘true ending’ which the story arc follows, but the majority of the endings exist as (good or bad) conclusions for your chosen partner largely depending on whether you choose a ‘red flag’ conversation choice to make them lose interest. While there isn’t anything outrageously graphic in the game, there is a lot of suggestive discourse and partial nudity that garners it an M for Mature ESRB rating.
The titular game, Rio Reincarnation, switches gears completely, discarding the branching system and numerous romantic options to instead focus entirely on its main story. This makes the game run like an anime movie with the trilogy’s best pacing, building tension and potential for tragedy right from very the beginning, while also slowly intimating that you’re going to be presented with a gut-wrenching decision at the end. It’s a shorter but more emotional ride than the previous two that brings all its strengths together, ending the compilation on a very memorable high.
What makes these visual novels so effective is not only the excellent balance of comedy and closeness of the characters but also the brilliant visual and audio presentation that blends so cohesively to complement the story. The soundtrack adds a warmth that echoes the camaraderie of the characters and a great Japanese voice-acting cast and detailed, but understated, character animation brings the charming characters to life.
Such is the depth and quality of content on offer here that it’s near impossible to find any areas in need of improvement. It could be argued that there is a slight lack of approachability for newcomers when starting Rinne’s Utopia, as the game restricts most of the backstory to the characters’ own choice-based stories, but this short-term issue soon turns into a positive when playing through the other endings as it makes each 4-hour playthrough (if read at normal speed) distinct. The only real issue is that the games’ true endings can only be accessed after unlocking all the good and neutral character endings for that specific game which, if you’re unaware, might be spoiled by the third game’s recap video. In addition, the unnumbered games are also listed out of sequence in the main menu (1->3->2), so playing them backward is also a real possibility.
Date A Live: Rio Reincarnation is one of those rare games that achieves everything it sets out to achieve and more, offering an assortment of riches that integrates romance, comedy, drama and tragedy effortlessly in a wonderfully creative choice-based gameplay design. This, added to the incredible replay value afforded to the player, makes this a must-buy for fans of the series and genre as well as being highly recommended for more mature anime fans to branch out into. It must be said that the niche genre limits its potential audience, but even so, this does little to affect the quality of the product.