Lux-Pain / ルクス・ペイン

Welcome to Lux-Pain, where we play as Saijou Atsuki, a stoic silver-haired prettyboy high school student with a tragic past and magic powers that cause his right eye to glow yellow that he uses to fight evil as part of a secret organization. That's right, we're full speed ahead on the chuuni train and brakes are broke.

Saijou is a member of the secret organization Fort, whose purpose is to fight the supernatural virus known as "Silent." There are all different kinds of Silents and they each spread and affect their victims in different ways, but the infected all become increasingly mentally unstable and end up harming themselves and others. The game begins shortly after an incident in Shanghai where one Silent caused thousands of deaths. Fort was able to trace the initial infection to one man, and determined that that man had been infected in Kisaragi City, Japan. Saijou is dispatched to Kisaragi City in order to locate and destroy the original Silent that caused the Shanghai incident.

Luckily, Saijou has some magic powers to help him out. The simple version is that he can read minds. The more detailed explanation is that whenever someone experiences intense emotions, their mental energy leave behinds "Thoughts." Saijou can peel away the first layer of reality to access and read these "Thoughts." This is also the layer where Silents reside, so Saijou can combat and destroy them if he comes across any.

Lux-Pain is a visual novel, broken up into a series of short scenes. Kisaragi City is broken up into a number of sectors and locations. You can go to any section that has somebody in it and see what's going on. Once you've gone to all the available locations and triggered all the flags, a new set of scenes will become available. Rinse and repeat. Think of it as a regular visual novel, except you get to choose the order you view certain blocks of scenes. Like most visual novels there are some multiple choice questions, including ones where you respond with an emotion rather than a textual answer.

The other side of the gameplay involves Saijou's powers and uses the touch screen. To read "Thoughts," you need to scratch the touch screen to reveal hidden "Worms," then press and hold them to destroy them and obtain and read the "Thoughts." Battling Silent involves black circles appearing on the bottom screen, which need to be destroyed by tapping, slashing, or dragging, depending on the Silent. Destroying a circle damages the Silent, while failing to destroy a circle in a timely manner causes damage to Saijou. To be honest, these gameplay segments felt mostly unnecessary. They're simple touch screen minigames; they aren't interesting enough to feel engaging or difficult enough to feel exciting. While I suppose these segments serve an important purpose in terms of the lore, in terms of the game they come across as busywork you need to complete to continue the story. Thankfully, the segments are short and easy enough that they never form any sort of significant impediment.

Much of the game revolves around Saijou's daily life in Kisaragi City, and it's a delight. I think Lux-Pain does a great job of world-building; you really feel like you're just one person in a city that moves at its own pace. The characters have their own lives, interests, and schedules. New characters keep on popping up until the very end of the game. (After all, it's not like you can meet every single person in a city in a few days.) While people do have a tendency to rattle off their life story to Saijou within five minutes of meeting him, the game implies that Saijou's magic powers give him an aura that cause people to easily open up to him, so sure, why not. I think it's also sometimes cleverly subverted where people will go to Saijou with their issues because he's the new kid.

The characters are varied and generally compelling. This is in no small part thanks to the world-building, which helps the characters feel more like people. They each have their own personality, and getting to literally see their thought processes helps provide a bit more depth than usual. Many of the characters have to confront some sort of emotional issues over the course of the story, and these problems ring true. Of course, in real life dealing with psychological turmoil often requires a lot of time and healing, while in Lux-Pain they can all be fixed with a dose of Saijou's magic power, which often deprives the emotional climaxes of gravity.

The art and music are good for a DS game. The sprites are done in a relatively standard anime style, with a healthy variety in the character designs. The eyes blink and the lips flap, but aren't otherwise animated. None of the characters have that many poses (excluding outfit swaps), but every character, even the most minor, has a decent number of sprites, so they all feel like they have a certain amount of personality. The backgrounds complement the sprites well and convey the peaceful atmosphere of Kisaragi City. Characters are displayed normally on the bottom screen, and then the top screen displays the same sprites as the bottom screen but with a ghosty filter as well as indicators of the characters' emotional changes, which helps convey Saijou's power to see beyond the first layer of reality. I think the music might actually be too good; it's moving and emotive, but that sometimes makes it ill-fitting for the otherwise tame daily life scenes. A few of the characters have voice acting (and only in certain scenes) and it's decent, but they end up mixing voice acting and text blips in the same scene, which is a personal pet peeve. There is also one particular character that I think really should have gotten a voice actor, but didn't.

On its face the plot is interesting, with lots of mysterious happenings popping up along the way. Silents create mental anguish, which lead to dark and mature themes. But rather than getting neatly tied up, the plot threads usually end up a frayed mess. To a certain extent, I think not discovering and seeing through every part of every happening contributes to the theme of merely being one part of a larger world, rather than having absolutely everything revolve around you, but after a certain point it becomes unsatisfying. Plus I think most (but perhaps not all) of it is from poor storytelling, rather than an intentional design choice. We also don't find out much about the specifics of the supernatural elements. There's a general sense of what the supernatural elements do, but the specifics are ambiguous for the game to do whatever it wants with them whenever it wants.

In the end, this part of the game just falls apart, because it can't pull off any of the hats it seems to be trying on. It fails as a compelling mystery because there aren't any discrete clues and the supernatural parts are too vague to deduce anything from. It fails as a thriller because every obstacle is quickly and easily overcome with Saijou's powers, no matter how much the game hypes it up. And it fails as a psychological horror because we know the cause of the psychological strife from the beginning. (Compare with, for example, Higurashi no Naku Koro ni.) Compound all this with the fact that the pacing goes warpspeed at the end, preventing us from discovering basically anything about the villains, their plans, or motivations, and you have the perfect recipe for a disappointing disaster.

There is a lot about this game that I like. Kisaragi City is a fun, vibrant place with a strong sense of being. The characters are lively and feel like real people. But the gameplay is tedious and boring and the plot is sloppy and underwhelming. The good parts simply aren't strong enough to hold things together. Lux-Pain feels hard to recommend, since whether you want slice-of-life or mystery or both there are better options, and even without comparing it to other works it isn't a fulfilling experience.

All that being said, one aspect of the game remains undiscussed, which will likely either be the final nail in the coffin or the redeeming quality for you. And that is the localization, which is supposedly horrendous. I played the Japanese version so I can't tell you exactly how entertaining it is, but if you're a big fan of awkard, inconsistent translations, maybe you can give Lux-Pain a try. Otherwise, it probably isn't worth it.

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