Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Seventh Circle Review: a visual novel lacking in story

Seventh Circle aims to grab your attention immediately. You’re a mage of the elite group Trillion and have magical duels in the arena for the entertainment and adoration of the public. You join a uniquely diverse cast of some of the best young mages in the world, who are constantly pushing the boundaries of the magical world. The world promises to be interesting, the characters deep and not simple tropes, and last but not least, a lot of mages to smooch.

But unfortunately, while it’s still a fun experience, Seventh Circle falls short in creating a compelling world and fleshing out its characters, leaving a visual novel that feels lacking in its story.

Seventh Circle begins when you complete the Trials and become an arena mage for Trillion, one of the top organizations for magical entertainment in the world. Following in your aunt’s footsteps, you’ll fight with and against your fellow Trillion mages, learn more about them, and uncover the seedy underbelly of arena magic.

At least, that’s what it seems on the surface. You’ll quickly meet the other mages, get hints that the mysterious CEO is up to no good, and have a few events with the mages so you get a feel for their personalities.

But then you’re dropped into a screen where you just pick names and watch events as you want. It ends up being a disjointed experience, as every character’s storyline needed to be stand-alone. This feels especially obvious when playing through paths of characters that are practically attached at the hip, such as Will and Jem. While from a completionist’s standpoint this makes it easy to determine what ending you’ll get, it completely butchers the story itself.

This is exacerbated by how not every storyline actually focuses on the Trillion. While ultimately Seventh Circle is a dating sim and getting to know potential love interests will be at the forefront of most players’ minds, it’s not great to forget at multiple points that I’m even interacting with mages in the first place. The game never once even talks about anyone’s arena fights first hand, which seems like a glaring omission in a game about fighting in an arena in magic. While I did not expect a ton of flashy visuals and cutscenes from a visual novel, I at least expected a description of a match even once throughout the game.

The storylines that do focus on the Trillion and what’s going on behind the scenes tend to get cut short, encouraging multiple playthroughs but not really giving a narrative reward for doing so. I even got locked out of one character’s path entirely because I didn’t have the information needed from another path to advance without a warning.

Essentially, Seventh Circle sets up this strange mystery and the idea of some systemic corruption within Trillion and arena magic as a whole and does nothing with it. Some endings get bookended with the supposedly evil CEO vaguely threatening you, but when it’s literally the last scene of the game, it doesn’t really matter, does it?

All the magical backstory, the arena magic scene, and the overall mysteries of Seventh Circle are so poorly utilized that it’d be better if this visual novel dropped it all and went for a pure dating sim.

As such, my favorite times with Seventh Circle were essentially playing matchmaker between the members of the Trillion. What initially caught my attention about Seventh Circle was its claim that not only could you pursue each character romantically, but you could also unlock platonic endings and even match characters together. Normally in a dating sim, if you fail to actually date someone the game makes it feel like a failure, and Seventh Circle’s alternative endings promised to be as fulfilling as it was to smooch the character themselves.

For all that this VN falls short on, this is not one of them. After persuing some romantic endings, a platonic ending, and matching two of the cutest boys alive up, I felt that each was satisfying in its own way. I definitely didn’t feel like I was cheated out of a good ending by being good friends with Robin as opposed to being in a full romantic relationship. 

It’s also important to stress Seventh Circle’s effort to provide a fully diverse cast. A variety of ethnicities, genders, and sexualities are represented here, and you can also choose your own pronouns, as opposed to having a particular forced upon you like most dating sims.

It was also exciting that the first character I shot for a romantic ending with turned out to be ace. As an ace person myself, I was unreasonably excited to see that I resonated the most with someone the same sexuality as myself. In another romantic ending, the character asked for permission to kiss me, an important boundary setter and one so often missing from most pieces of media. It’s in these moments that you can see how much the developers cared about making a dating sim that lets everyone feel comfortable.

If only the characters themselves were fleshed out a bit more. Each character only gets somewhere between 4-6 events before hitting an ending, and it’s simply not enough time to scratch more than the surface of each character before the game is over. The members of the Trillion are not particularly trope-y, with their own emotional baggage and problems to work through, but you don’t really do much with that information.

When I was talking to Bowie, for example, one of his events is him messaging you late at night due to him being in the middle of a bad anxiety attack. However, due to the ending I was going for with him, none of the information was pertinent to me as I effectively pushed the problem off to his friend so they’d eventually hook up. When going for Will’s romantic path, it was mainly him being standoffish and awkward until he does a sudden 180 in the final two events, causing a bit of emotional whiplash and some big questions about him unanswered. 

Finally, there are the bugs. Seventh Circle is a beautiful game, with nice character, pretty background art, and an easy to read typeface (all things many visual novels struggle with), but these tend to trumped by the bugs I faced while playing. There was more than one occasion where a character portrait would disappear, leaving a large white block. The DMing feature sometimes has dialogue choices assigned to the wrong character, best highlighted by me asking Marius about the CEO and suddenly the DMs cut to Bowie talking. I was stuck in a dialogue loop in one of Robin’s events, causing me to redo the conversation until I picked the right option. A couple of times I froze the game entirely, requiring a restart.

It’s unfortunate. The Seventh Circle has a lot of promise, but it feels like so much of the game was left on the cutting room floor in an attempt to finally just get the game out. You see hints at interesting lore and deep characters, but it never goes anywhere. Between the bugs and the disjointed feeling story, it’s hard to recommend this visual novel.

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