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It’s the 1950s and Japan is in shambles after the end of the war. Detective Takashiro Shugo, roiling from his awful experiences both during the fighting in China and dealing with crime in this brave new world, quits the force and hides out in a brothel, living as a purposeless hermit in a rented room. This is his hollow existence – until girls start turning up butchered in the streets and alleyways of Ueno.

This is the premise behind Cartagra – Affliction of the Soul, a mystery eroge from Innocent Grey, the developers of Kara no Shoujo.  I’m going to put it out there now – this will be an entirely positive review. Cartagra is a truly titanic work, and easily one of the best VNs I’ve ever read. It’s first and foremost an incredibly tight, well-structured and well-written mystery novel, with a solvable crime and clues to follow for the reader to draw his own conclusions. Reading this your first instinct might be to think that it falls into the trap of some other well-written eroge, where the sex is shoe-horned in for sales and has little to do with the developed plot (read, every Type-Moon work), but this is not the case – the atmosphere and setting (a huge brothel in a run-down Tokyo suburb) justify the explicit scenes and help weave them into the plot.

It helps that the art is pretty damn good.


The plot puts you in the shoes of the aforementioned retired detective Shugo, who is tasked by the wealthy Kozuki family to search for Yura, the family’s runaway daughter. Shugo has a personal stake in the matter, having held a secret fling with Yura a year before being sent to the battlefield, and having been left wondering just what happened to her after the war. As he starts investigating with the help of Yura’s twin sister Kazuna, though, he finds himself drawn into a web of lies and bloodshed and realizes that Yura’s disappearance appears to be intrinsically tied to a series of brutal murders of young women that have been occurring all throughout Ueno. Eventually, the Ueno butcher makes things personal, and Shugo vows to unmask him just as he vows to find out what happened to Yura.

A mere paragraph-long summary just doesn’t do Cartagra  justice, though. This eroge really, really puts the novel in “visual novel”. It’s a fantastically well-constructed mystery story, with incredibly well-written prose and a grasp of tropes, atmosphere and style more befitting a professionally written detective story than anything you’d expect from an indie H-game. In short, Cartagra is what every VN aspires to be – total artwork, a blend of great art and great music with fantastic writing. A book that is more than just a book due to its audiovisual and interactive elements (your choices affect routes and possible endings), but also one that doesn’t forget its roots lie in prose, and so makes for a story so satisfying that you could enjoy it even if it was just plain text on white pages.

“We’re not delicate little princesses, Takashiro! We’re whores. We work ourselves to the bone just to put food in our mouths.” {.align-center}

A huge strength behind Cartagra‘s success as a story is its fantastic setting and a great cast of characters. Japan immediately after the war is a wreck of a nation, trying to rebuild but still heavily scarred – psychologically, economically, physically by the brutal ordeals of the war. Besides Yura’s sister Kazuna, and his own sister Nana, the vast majority of the characters Shugo interacts with are the prostitutes who live in the brothel he’s staying in, lending a completely new dynamic to character interaction. Madam Ujaku’s girls are just as human as the rest of us – they fear, dream, and love, but they’re also defined by their sex work, which is for them—living in the huge brothel as in a communal home—a 24/7 occupation. Often, their day-to-day interactions with Shugo take on a strong sexual tinge – not because they necessarily want it to, but because it’s the only way they know how to express themselves. There’s emotional torture there, too – if one of the girls falls in love with you, she’ll make it painfully aware that an actual relationship is impossible due to how her work makes her public property. How Shugo responds is up to you, and it will define the route the story will take, as well as the endings.

This being a murder mystery with a brothel as the main location, sex is just as present as bloodshed, and there’s a LOT of bloodshed. {.align-center}

The strong sexual themes are woven into the brutal violence Shugo is a witness to, and help define the murder mystery itself. The killer is a particular kind of monstrous – he (or she) only targets women, and the method of slaughter is bloody torture followed by ritual removal and consumption of their sexual organs. This translates into a lot of sexually charged guro when the crimes scenes come up. Even if you do happen to be very into guro, the murders will still border between titillating and horrifying, and even emotionally destructive. This is because, depending on your choices, nobody, not even the most developed of named characters, is safe from the killer’s knife.

“So that’s why he’s been killing crows?” {.align-center}

On the technical side of things, Cartagra is also absolutely fantastic. You’re stuck at 800 x 600 resolution, but this is sadly a normal thing with eroge. The art itself however is amazing and downright shocking with how beautiful and hideous it can be at times, depending on the scene. From the very first bar of the opening theme, the music is fantastic and dripping with a sad oppressive atmosphere. There’s full-voice acting, all of it extremely competent in delivery and style, and that’s without mentioning what an achievement it is to voice every single line of such a huge novel.

She’s his cute little sister.

Bottom line – Cartagra is an amazing, amazing, amazing game. If you didn’t consider visual novels a proper literary medium before, you’ll walk away with a changed mind after reading through this fantastic mystery. There’s something for everyone here – this is the kind of game all VNs, with sex or without, should aspire to be. It’s well worth MangaGamer’s asking price of $35 , or $60 if you buy it bundled with Kara no Shoujo, another incredible work by Innocent Grey. You will not regret it.

Usually, I am quite picky with literary works – it’s very hard for me not to find and point out flaws, even if I later regret being harsh about it. But this? This work is a masterpiece. If only every VN were like this. Indeed, if only we tried, as a community, to strive for a standard where every VN were like this. Keep in mind that the core of what makes Cartagra a great work, beyond its awesome production values, is the writing, which is the one aspect of a VN that requires no budget. It may be a bit of a pipe dream, but if an Original English VN could be developed with writing this good, I think it’d change the medium forever.

Pros

  • Fantastic writing
  • Excellent art
  • Amazing atmosphere
  • Great music

Cons

  • It only comes CLOSE to perfect
  • Story
  • Writing
  • Art and Graphics
  • Sound

LewdFactor

Tons of vanilla sex. A LOT of guro involving cute girls as part of the murder/mystery plot, though never during a sex scene.

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