There are a lot of people who don’t see visual novels as “real” video games, and to be fair, I guess I fall into that category, too. I mean, for it to be a game, there needs to be some sense of gameplay, right? Even walking simulators have a world that you can move through and explore, but with visual novels, however put-together they may be, there are only so many ways that you can go. When you try to move outside of the very set pattern that exists, you’re immediately reminded of how restrictive visual novels can feel.
Brilliant Shadows—Part One of the Book of Gray Magic is no exception to this rule. I had funded the project on Kickstarter, mostly because I was drawn in by the description, which stated:
“Overall, there is an astounding lack of variety and diversity in the world of mainstream gaming. Gender, race, and sexuality are often not present in modern games or eroticized when they are.”
Brilliant Shadows seeks to address that lack by having a story where the main protagonist is a lesbian with supporting characters who are of different sexual orientations and ethnicities. Does it make it? Yes, I suppose. There definitely is a lesbian protagonist, but at first, Brilliant Shadows was slow to win me over.
Perhaps it was the lack of gameplay that had me trying to do something more than just scroll through text screens, or maybe it was the sudden switch between voice acted dialogue and silent prose. Whatever the case, I wasn’t interested in the story like I probably should have been. I found myself wanting to skip through the setup in order to listen to the characters talk more.
Brilliant Shadows begins in a magical school where two different classes of magic are trained. There are the Paladins who practice light magic and the Necromancers who practice dark magic. At the end of their training, each Paladin and Necromancer perform a ritual to be paired with someone from the opposite class, bound together for the rest of their lives by a mark on their hand.
It follows the tale of a young necromancer named Veronica Ashmar (Ash) and her best friend, Prudence Celeste (Prude) as they try to unravel the mystery of the ritual and, in the process, discover some lessons about growing up.
Where Brilliant Shadows truly shines is in its characters and writing. One character in particular—an unashamedly outspoken necromancer named Belinda—made me giggle on multiple occasions. She embodies the best parts of the game, and it’s her who dissects the fantasy tropes and brings a dash of the unconventional to what would otherwise be a fairly conventional story. The main characters, charming though they may be, lack the vibrancy that I found in Belinda.
It might be that I’m being unfair to Brilliant Shadows. After all, it is a game that comes through on its promise of diversity. It’s also a game that features strong women without randomly assigning traditionally masculine traits to them or sexualizing them. The characters are believable and the way they interact with each other is worth the price of the game alone. Once I could get past my snobbery about the standard fantasy setting and my frustrations with the visual novel gameplay, I was hooked on the game.
A large part of the story relies on the pining of Ash over someone she can’t have, and many of the story’s larger reveals are set in motion by her jealousy, but I was able to overlook that as the rest of the characters brought life to the world. I found myself taking for granted that there would be diverse characters and that this was a land, however fantastical, where I wouldn’t have to struggle to find some representation of myself in the characters.
Brilliant Shadows, for all the quibbles that I’ve brought up in this article, was thoroughly enjoyable. It was a much-needed break from the strictly heterosexual, white-as-snow world dominated by men that video games so often present to us.
If you have a chance to, pick it up and play through it this weekend. Then you can join me on the sidelines to wait for the continuation of the story to come out.