Baldr Force EXE Review (No spoilers)

For those of you who may have been familiar with me in my earlier days, I used to write VN reviews on the old Lemnisca blog. After going official, I took down those reviews and since then have generally found myself too busy to devote much time to playing actual VNs. But recently, I decided to try writing a VN review again for a VN I finished a little while back, Baldr Force EXE. Please note that by principle, I avoid writing about spoilers in my review, so you can feel free to read without worrying about spoiling yourself on the route. With that said, I hope you enjoy reading the review.

Baldr Force is a VN/action game hybrid originally created by GIGA in 2002. It is the fourth game in the Baldr series, and the first title in it to be written by current series head writer, Hiei Murasaki. A few months later, the game received an updated re-release called “Baldr Force EXE”, which was essentially a patched version of the original that improved some gameplay aspects. This version would be the base for console ports on the Dreamcast and the PS2, the latter which included a completely new voice cast and gave the protagonist a voice, a feature which would be carried over into the Standard Edition PC release. The game was also adapted as a four episode anime OVA titled “Baldr Force EXE Resolution”.

Note: this review is based on the Baldr Force EXE PS2 version. There are two main reasons I played this version: #1, because I’ve heard several stories how difficult the PC version is to play on modern OSs, and #2, because I heard the PC version voice acting was rather lackluster, so I wanted to go with the version with the better cast. As such, there will be nothing pertaining to the PC version ero content here apart from remaining allusions in the PS2 version.

(Please note that as I actually finished the game about six months ago, my memory is not totally fresh on everything I played, so some parts of my review may feel rather vague. I apologize in advance. Also please note that this is my very first exposure to the Baldr series: I have not played the acclaimed Baldr Sky or any of the Baldr games following that.)

Story: 9/10

The story takes place in future Earth, where cyberspace has become a huge part of everyone’s lives. Toru Soma is a young adult that is part of a hacking group known as “Steppenwolf”, comprised of his friends Yuuya, Tsukina, and Akira. They started out rather small, but have been taking on gradually larger hacking acts ever since meeting a mysterious hacker known only as “Bachelor”. Worried that they’re going too deep, Yuuya announces his intentions to leave the group and go clean. Since he founded Steppenwolf, the rest of the team decides to disband, but also decide to do one last job for fun before disbanding, without Bachelor. They decide to leave their mark in an online base of FLAK, the VR military force, after discovering a large security hole in the base. However, on the job, the team discovers that a group of dangerous terrorists has also broken through the security hole. While Toru and Yuuya are escaping, Toru catches glimpse of a mysterious blue-haired ghostlike girl that he had also seen on a previous job. Afterwards, Toru and Yuuya get caught in a battle between a terrorist and a FLAK soldier. After the battle, the FLAK soldier attacks and destroys Yuuya’s Simulacrum, killing him in real-life. The remaining members of Steppenwolf are then arrested in the real world. A few days after his arrest, Toru is given an offer by a member of FLAK to join their organization. Faced with that or staying in prison, and determined to find Yuuya’s killer and get revenge, Toru agrees, and joins FLAK in their fight against Net terrorists…

The routes order in Baldr Force is essentially linear. At first, only Minori and Ayane’s Routes are available to the player. Once those two routes have been cleared, two more routes are unlocked: Tsukina and Liang’s. Finally, after clearing those two, you get access to Bachelor’s route, and after that, Ren’s Route. Each route follow a common structure: the routes are divided into about 9-12 separate “episodes”, and with the exception of Tsukina’s Route (which branches off towards the very start of the game), there is a common route where you get points until you find yourself on a heroine’s route, generally around Chapters 5-7. Each “episode” is generally divided up into two sections: VN mode and Action mode (more on those later). While you do have more than one route available to you from the start, it is highly recommended you play in the order of Minori->Ayane->Tsukina->Liang->Bachelor->Ren.

The story is developed in a rather unique fashion for a VN. While the routes are indeed based around heroines, it follows the multiple route mystery format, and not in the way games like Ever17 did it. What Baldr Force does is set up the routes in a way that they act like a continuous puzzle: with each route you play, more and more of the answers to the mysteries surrounding the story get revealed while also posing new mysteries at the same time for later routes to solve. At the start, there were three questions I had:

#1: Who killed Yuuya?

#2: What exactly is it that the terrorists are hoping to accomplish?

#3: Who exactly is the blue haired girl?

The routes tackle these questions in order, solving one of them completely before moving on to the next one. Each successive question also widens the scale of the story, showing more and more aspects of the setting and making the conflicts of the routes grander. This style of storytelling kept the game consistently interesting, as it makes you interested in finding out exactly what is going on, and just when you feel like you’ve gotten your answers, the story will introduce new mysteries to keep your interest piqued. As such, you’re not just looking forward to each route for entertainment, but also to see where it lines up the pieces of the puzzle, until by the end, you have the complete picture and can look back on everything from beginning to end with total understanding. The story itself also has a lot of intrigue and action to go with it to entertain you.

If I went over each route in great detail, this review would be a tad too long, so I’ll just go over them fairly briefly. Note that while I tend to list negatives more than positives, that does mean I had a negative reaction to the route, just that I have more to say about the negatives.

Minori’s Route: 5/10:
You could tell the writer was holding back in this route, as while you do get the basic story here, this route reveals virtually nothing, doesn’t develop its characters all that much and the story stays pretty straightforward from beginning to end, the chapters falling into a formulaic pattern. While the basic story is good and all, you can tell there’s a lot more to things that you’ll have to wait until later to see. Minori is also not all that interesting, as while she’s nice, your impression of her will more or less stay the same from beginning to end, and I also felt that her and Toru were just too incompatible to work as a couple. Toru’s main conflict was also resolved in a rather unsatisfying matter.

Ayane’s Route: 6.5/10:
Similar issues as Minori’s and has a lot of overlap with her route, but this has a better heroine with a more interesting character arc and development, along with additional story elements and character developments that got me more invested in the characters and interested in seeing what came next. That said, the reveal in this route is also blatantly obvious, and the climax feels really abrupt and out of place. I also felt that the ending seemed a bit rushed.

Tsukina’s Route: 8/10
The point where the game finally gets really good, with an interesting plot, twists, and reveals that really brought the story to a new level. This route had one section in particular that left me legitimately scared and creeped out, feeling hopeless. The climax is also really exciting and one of the game’s best. That said, some parts of this route felt a bit forced, as the plot could have easily be avoided if the characters had been smarter. Tsukina herself is likeable, though I really can’t say too much about her.

Liang’s Route: 8.25/10
Good route that allowed us an in-depth look at one of the more interesting aspects of the game, introduced a bunch of interesting aspects, good character interactions, nice balance of light and serious moments when they were needed, and it subverted my expectations by deconstructing a common aspect of stories with routes like this. However, the route didn’t use the setup to its full potential, some of the battles in this route felt forced (at least two of them felt like they were only put in to satisfy their imposed “one battle per chapter” quota and could have been cut out with no change to the story), the heroine wasn’t quite as interesting as she could have been (probably because her personality was a bit bland in some areas), and overall, it felt more like a setup for the following routes, leaving the route with a somewhat unsatisfactory conclusion. Some parts also felt a bit repetitive after Tsukina’s Route. On the other hand, the route also probably had the most emotional moments to it, as it really made you feel the consequences of your actions and how situations like this come with a price.

Bachelor’s Route: 9/10
Best route for me. Intriguing and good story, Bachelor was a great, fun character, the route’s conflicts were very interesting and had a lot of the best aspects of previous routes, the climax and ending were good, and the way the route was set up led to some very interesting character interactions. That said, like Liang’s Route, some parts of this route felt more like a setup for the next route rather than it’s own thing, and some parts of Bachelor could be frustrating at times.

Ren’s Route: 7/10
The finale of the overall story, it has some really good parts, but is hampered but three major issues. First of all, despite being the final route, the conflict of this route doesn’t really feel like what the overall story was building up to, as it didn’t really start foreshadowing it too much until Bachelor’s Route. It’d kinda be like watching Star Wars chronologically, only for Count Dooku or Darth Maul to show up halfway through Episode VI and take over as the main villain. Second, over half of the route is spent basically building up to the reveal of twists that I’m sure 99% of readers had figured out long before that point, and as such feels like a waste of time that could have been used better on the characters’ interactions or reactions to the revelations. Third, Ren herself is a weak heroine, but more on that later. That said, the ending was pretty conclusive and ended the story on a high note, and the final third of the route has this one section which might have been my favorite part of the entire VN.

 

Every route has three endings: One good and two bad (with the exception of Minori and Liang, who only have one good and one bad, but they also have a single brief “Game Over” in each route). Ren also has three endings, but none of them are labeled good or bad, though the first ending is clearly intended to be the true ending. The Bad Endings in this game were great, as rather than simple “game overs” or something like that, they were interesting “what-if” stories that showed how much things could have ended differently had you taken a different course of action, some to the point where I would have actually loved to see a lot more of the scenario they’d set up. I’d have to say my favorite non-good endings were Bachelor’s first bad ending, and Ren’s ending “Eternity”.

However, there is one huge problem with the game: the pacing. The game is very fast-paced, and each episode rarely takes longer than an hour to finish. This works as a double-edged sword. On one hand, it does keep things brisk and consistently interesting, meaning there’s rarely a dull moment and you’ll find yourself not really running into many dragged stretches. But on the other hand, it also means a lot of events are rushed which means plot developments can happen rather suddenly and be resolved quickly instead of giving you time to really take it all in. Had they been slower paced, they could have allowed some events to have more impact and develop and even greater connection with the story and characters. But as it is, you’re constantly left with a feeling that “this could have been even better/had more impact had they devoted more time to depicting these events/characters”. I recall Liang’s Route falling victim to this in particular. In total, I think it took me around 35-40 hours to finish the game (including all the alternate endings), which may sound like a pretty decent amount of time, but it feels too short when split up amongst six routes. Also, most of the plot twists are predictable because the writing overdoses on foreshadowing, making the twists too obvious. Fortunately, with the aforementioned exception of Ren’s Route, this didn’t hurt the story too much because Baldr Force is not mainly a mystery story or gets distracted with building up to the answers all that much.

A pet peeve I have with the story is the scenes that were clearly put in there seemingly just for the reason that the game was an H-Game. I don’t mean the H-Scenes, as they can be more or less removed from the plot with no consequence. I mean stuff in the story that was sexual. It felt really forced and always took away from the actual story. The romances were also all very poorly done, never feeling believable and clearly only forced in there as an excuse to give justification to the H-Scenes. Given how plot-heavy the story is otherwise, this aspect really stuck out in a bad way. This perhaps reared its head at the worst time at the end of Ren’s Route, where they interrupted an otherwise touching scene to have an H-Scene, then continued the scene, but it loses a lot of impact because the H-Scene totally killed the mood they had been building up until that point.

The PS2 version did remove anything explicitly sexual, but it didn’t exactly put much effort into what was really happening in the original PC version, as they kept the PC dialogue for the most part unless they had to cut something explicit. That said, sometimes the PS2 version’s censorship occasionally made parts of the game a bit confusing. For example, in Tsukina’s Route, there’s this part where Toru sees something, and reacts as if it’s the most inhumane thing in the world, yet the CG, while certainly not pleasant, didn’t seem quite as horrible to warrant that reaction. Curious, I looked up what the PC version did there, and let’s just say Toru’s reaction was much more appropriate for that sort of image. Aside from that, there was one character who was very clearly a rapist in the PC version who had any explicit evidence of his deeds censored in the PS2 version, but it was still painfully obvious he was a rapist. One of Bachelor’s bad endings was also clearly much worse in the PC version.

 

Characters: 8/10

The game has a wide variety of characters, both major and minor. One thing I have to praise is that none of the characters felt pointless: even the side characters had at least a single route to shine. The characters were for the most part enjoyable and got good development, though as a result of the story’s aforementioned fast pacing, said development can feel rather rushed, and not as well explored as it could have been, meaning the characters are fairly straightforward most of the time. But they all fill their roles well, and while I wouldn’t say they reached their full potential in character, you care when things happen to them, so I’d say they accomplished their goal. My favorite character overall would have to be Qu Wong, while my favorite character with a route would be Bachelor.

The heroines are generally likable. However, there were two that didn’t quite click for me: Liang, who I didn’t dislike or anything, but didn’t get as attached to as most of the others, and Ren, who I couldn’t get all that invested in because I felt like she was more of a plot device than an actual character. Due to the way her route is written, she didn’t really get many chances to display any interesting aspects or much to enjoy about her character. Also, as mentioned in the Story section, the romance with all of them was poorly done and only existed as a poor justification for the H-Scenes. While I get that’s the purpose of romance in a lot of eroge, they were really blatant here about how little they cared about developing proper romances.

If I did have to complain about anything, I would say most of the main villains were rather two-dimensional (though one of them gets hints of more than that in the final route), and therefore not all that interesting. There were revelations that could have made some of them more interesting, but they sadly don’t choose to really explore those aspects and instead kept them essentially the same from start to finish. That said, the story did succeed at making them very despicable, making me eagerly await their comeuppance.

 

Gameplay: 7/10

Just as a note, since I did not focus on the battle system too much while actually playing the game, I did not go too far in-depth into it. As such, this ranking is based on my overall experience and probably is not a wholly accurate representation of all the ins-and-outs of the battle system.

First, let’s get the VN aspects out of the way. VN-wise, the game is pretty standard: you get choices every now and then, which factor into getting onto certain routes. As mentioned before, you start out with only two routes, but unlock the remaining four as you progress. The game has a flowchart which, while you can’t use it to warp to spots, does show you how the routes run parallel to each other timeline-wise, which I found pretty helpful.

One weird thing about the PS2 version was that it had a cursor if you wanted to use it, but it felt mostly pointless as you could do things faster with standard directional pad movement.

Let’s talk about the main gameplay aspect: the combat. At least once an in-game chapter, you will be brought into a scene in cyberspace with your digital avatar mecha, known as a “Simulacrum”. Here, you will have to fight a series of battles with enemies until you clear the level, with story bits in-between. The player and enemies fight on a simulated 3D plane using 2D graphics, where each Simulacrum, represented as 2D sprites along with the background, move around. You fight until you wipe out the current unit of enemies, where you will be brought to a results screen. While damage you received from a previous battle is carried over, you also recover a set amount of HP with each enemy defeated. You have four separate types of attacks: Normal Dash (attacks used while dashing), Short Dash, Long-Range (attacks used at long distance when standing still or walking), and Short-Range (same as Long-Range, but at short distance). You can assign three separate weapons to each one, and those weapons will gain experience points up in proportion to how many times you used them in-battle at the results screen. Leveling weapons up generally increases the power, range, or size of your attacks, and there are a total of two full level ups per weapon.

Whenever the player is about to dive online, they can access a weapons menu where they can adjust their weapons. Over time, new weapons show up that take one battle first to develop, then can be equipped at the next dive menu. New weapons are determined by how much you’ve leveled up your other weapons- in other words, if you tend to use close-range weapons often, more close-range attack weapons will come up, and vice-versa for long-range weapons. Also, you have one “ultimate” attack that you can unleash when you maximize a certain gauge. You can customize your ultimate attack in the dive menu, as you can gain a variety of ultimate attacks by progressing through the story and, on occasion, by completing certain hidden “extra conditions” in certain parts of the game (for example, defeating a certain group of enemies under a specific amount of time, defeating a boss with more than a certain amount of HP remaining, etc.)

I found that for most battles, all I had to do was really keep circling the enemy from long distance and pelt them with machine guns and explosives (or lasers when they became available on later routes), which effectively got rid of the enemies with little hassle. Close range was more often than not a chore, as the game doesn’t really give you any definition of what exactly is “close range” apart from standing right next to an enemy, and it’s frustrating trying to use Short-Range because it requires you to stand right next to the enemy and be absolutely still, which is pretty much just asking to get damaged, making it not worth using. Of course, it’s perfectly possible to set close-range melee weapons to your dashes, meaning you can dash in close to your enemies and use them, but I found it more natural to set projectile weapons to dashing so that you can attack your enemy from afar while avoiding closer range stuff. That said, later in the game, as enemy HP got higher and higher, battles became longer too, sometimes to a dull degree as you wait for your attacks to whittle down your enemy’s health, not helped when your opponent intercepts your attacks with their own, cancelling each other out. Also, with the exception of certain melee moves that allow you to do so, there was no sort of jumping in this game, which would have made battles more engaging and add a new layer of strategy to them. In short, by the end of the game, I think I was finding battles to be more of a chore than exciting.

In terms of difficulty, the game wasn’t that hard. There are four difficulty modes: Very Easy, Easy, Normal, and Hard. Normal is the default mode, and that’s what I played from start to finish. Some bosses took me a few tries to beat, but I never felt like they were unfair or anything like that. The only times I really had any trouble was the final boss of Tsukina’s Route, as at the time, I don’t think I really had the right kind of weapons available to fight with, meaning the only weapons that can deal any decent amount of damage to the boss require you to get within the boss’ attack range, and the final boss of Ren’s Route, as the boss can deal a ton of damage to you quickly at any wrong stop. The latter was particularly annoying because in order to get all three endings for Ren’s Route, you have to beat the same boss every single time.

One complaint I have about bosses, however, is their lack of variety. The game pretty much keeps reusing the same bosses over and over again for most of the routes save the very last battle, meaning the boss battles can feel repetitive. There was one boss which you fought what I feel was at least ten times in the entire game, which is a lot considering the infrequency of the bosses. What made that particular boss even worse is that the story played them up as a really powerful enemy, but I never lost a single battle to said boss. A wider variety of bosses could have mitigated this issue.

Overall, I thought the combat was manageable, but a bit stiff and could have used more polish. Nevertheless, it was generally fun and added an interesting element to what would have already been a good VN.

On another note, the PS2 version also adds two new combat modes when you beat the game, but I never tried those out, so I can’t comment on them.

 

Graphics: 7/10

The general look of the game matches the cyberpunk feel that they were going for, though to be honest, I wasn’t crazy about the character art style at first, but it did grow on me for the most part, though some of the art looks out of place (for example, a few character designs look straight out of a nukige). This was one of the artist’s earliest VN stints, and it shows, especially in how 90s the designs look. Though that said, at least the characters had variety and all looked different, whereas this artist in question seems to have improved his art in later works, but at the cost of having more “sameface” syndrome. The designs of the Simulacrums and other virtual world stuff were pretty neat though, as they made an effort to make them look unique compared to typical mecha stuff, though they do look kinda weird in CGs. The CGs and backgrounds were generally fine, as I couldn’t really find much issue with them (though that said, seeing the characters using nowadays out of fashion cables and monitors for their cyberspace links is a tad silly. This game was made during the height of The Matrix’s popularity, and it’s clear that at least part of the game’s cyberpunk tech look was influenced by that). The graphics were a bit blurry for me, but that appears to have been an issue with my higher resolution TV more than anything, so I can’t fault it for that.

One pet peeve I have is that the font wasn’t really all that good looking and was occasionally hard to read. While usually not that bad of an issue, it did get to be a problem during these sections of the game where you read database files, which are rendered as images, not in-game text, and are written in a smaller font, meaning I really had to strain my eyes to read them on occasion.

Music: 9/10

A lot of the music used for the cyberspace/action scenes are pretty catchy and cool. However, the game tends to reuse the same few songs over and over again for story scenes, to the point where it’s pretty easy to predict what song they’ll play. Also, the music tracks generally used for real world scenes, while not bad, usually weren’t all that memorable. On the other hand, the OP, “Face of Fact”, by KOTOKO, has to be one of my favorite VN opening songs, if not my favorite, as it has a rather unique feel to it that matches the tone of the game.

The PS2 version adds an extra OP and ED song, but they don’t really fit the game. They just sound too generic.

Voice Acting: 8.5/10 (PS2)

As stated at the beginning, I played the PS2 version of the game, which had a completely different voice cast from the PC version, replacing the eroge voice actors with professional anime voice actors. It also gave Toru a voice when he had none in the PC versions, and honestly, I can’t imagine the game without it, as I felt Toru’s voice really added a lot to many scenes, especially since his voice actor put a lot of effort into the role. The PS2 version also allows the player to actually toggle the voices so you can choose whether you want to hear a character’s PS2 voice or PC voice (with the exception of Toru and mob characters, the latter who appear to have kept their voices from the PC version). I went through the game using the PS2 voices, while occasionally listening to the PC voices for comparison. Overall, I feel the PS2 cast is much better. The PC version has a lot of voices that feel either miscast or not talented enough – almost at doujin level. That’s not to say all the PC voices are bad, but even with the good voices, I felt their PS2 counterparts did a better job at capturing their characters. Even so, the PS2 cast wasn’t perfect, as there were some times where I felt some voices didn’t put in the necessary amount of emotion. The one voice I can’t decide which was better was Bachelor’s: the PC voice does a better job at a certain spoilery aspect, but I feel the PS2 voice did a better job capturing/matching Bachelor’s personality.

The voice direction between also seems to have been different, as some lines were delivered differently between the two versions. This was noticeable in the final boss, who gave off a totally different impression in each version. One issue with the PS2 version’s voice acting, however, is that the sound mixing wasn’t always very good. This was especially a problem with Qu Wong, as Akio Otsuka used a very soft voice for the part, which means that due to the sound mixing issues, it was very hard to hear him at times.

Overall: 8.5/10

The overall story is well-crafted and the way the routes are structured are great, allowing the player to enjoy the stories while also piecing together the mysteries behind the plot as they progress and keep them wanting to play to see the whole picture. However, due to the overly fast pace, the story and characters are not as detailed and strong as they could have been. They should have been a lot slower paced so we had more time to savor both. Newcomer players might also be turned off, since Minori and Ayane’s Routes are nowhere near as good as the rest of the game, and thus might need reassuring that it isn’t until Tsukina’s Route that the game really picks up. The gameplay also is decent, but could definitely have used more polish.

In terms of Japanese difficulty, the writing itself is not very difficult, but you do need to have knowledge of all sorts of scientific, medical, and military terms. Fortunately, the game uses a lot of furigana for its technical terms, meaning even if you’re not familiar with the kanji, if you can read katakana, you should be able to understand the English word they’re equating with that kanji.

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