Bias check: Dramatical Murder has been one of my favorite games ever since it first came out almost a decade ago. It’s only recently become easily available in America however, thanks to its first official English release from JAST Blue. After months of anticipation, when the time came for me to replay the game questions abounded: how would my thoughts on its story and characters change so many years later? What new insights would I glean from its themes? And, chief of all; would the game as good as I remembered?
For those of you who weren’t avid Tumblr users in 2012 and thus understandably missed out on the niche fandom surrounding this erotic boys’ love visual novel, here’s a plot summary courtesy of Jast:
Aoba’s vibrant cyberpunk world is one of contrasts: high-tech virtual reality battles versus street gang turf wars, ultra-exclusive luxury resorts and tiny junk shops. The choices you make will shape the path of Aoba’s journey into the dark secrets lurking beneath the glossy sheen of the city.
I’ll start by discussing this glossy sheen. One look at any trailers or promotional materials makes it clear why this game created such an instant splash. The art is gorgeous, with an aesthetic that’s just plain pleasing to look at: bright, poppy colors and general a sense of excess define the characters and what they wear. Aoba himself leads the ensemble in bright blue, with a jacket instantly recognizable for its puffy sleeves and weird brain motif. Then there’s the resident hacker bachelor Noiz, who looks like he fell on three racks of Hot Topic merch at once and said “I’ll take it.”
Ren’s human form, meanwhile, is a perfect ridiculous mix of beefcake and early ’00s .hack stylings. Even the more comparatively understated characters like Koujaku and Mink would stand out as flamboyant in a less visually loud game. Speaking as an avid Digimon fan, this unapologetically over-the-top approach to character design hits all the right buttons for me (and I haven’t even gotten to the love interest who walks around wearing a gas mask 24/7 yet).
Midorijima, the fictional island where the game takes place, is also very well-designed. Most of the early game takes place in the Old Residential District, where the background art really captures the sense of a living community. There’s a good variety in architecture and billboards and shop signs jut out in all different sizes, fonts, and colors. The inclusion of unnamed passersby in most of these backgrounds also goes a long way in reminding the player that Aoba and co. are just some of the people hustling and bustling around; this isn’t an empty world desterilized of any human presence save the core cast. The setting design ramps up to a further level of extravagance in the second half of the game when Aoba and his flamboyant would-be-harem enter Platinum Jail, a city accessible solely to the rich and initiated. Platinum Jail is the crowning achievement of Toue Inc., the corporation responsible for literally every bad thing that happens in the story. Art imitates life, after all.
Fortunately, the cyberpunk themes are integral to DMMD’s story and aren’t just used as a lazy aesthetic shorthand. While the focus remains prominently enough on the characters and romances that the game never descends into extended social theory territory, there aren’t any punches pulled about the economic state of Midorijima and its residents. The class divide is enforced by literal gigantic physical walls separating Platinum Jail from the rest of the island, and the premise of Toue’s entire plan comes down to profound social control concurrent with the subjugation and elimination of undesirable factions.
The focus on tech giants’ abuse of genetic data as a means of empowering corporate-government surveillance feels particularly relevant. The game’s bright colors and tendency to lean into extravagance rather than generic dark grittiness also resonates well with contemporary dystopia: a world in which innovation is promised while human rights and basic privacy are stripped back regardless of the general populace’s disapproval.
With that said, this isn’t a game that truly dives into the difficulties of poverty and real-world oppression. Your mileage may vary on if this is disappointing or if you’re content without that level of socio-economic commentary in your anime gay sex simulators. Personally I’m mostly just impressed by the atypically high level of thought put into DMMD’s setting, and I liked Tatsuo Toue (the figurehead after whom the corporation is named) as a villain a lot more this time around than I remembered from way back when. His dialogue displays a grandiose sense of overblown self-importance and penchant for tempting God and fate that rings true for a Lex Luthor type, even if he is unbelievably competent in comparison to real world equivalent dipshits like Musk, Gates, and Bezos.
The game’s concept of Allmates also deserves a special shoutout. Allmates are a type of mechanical companion, available in a wide range of models including various common pets such as dogs, cats, and birds. They have programmable personalities and assist their owners in various daily functions. Imagine a customizable Siri or Alexa taking on corporeal form in align with its owner’s tastes and you get the basic idea.
Beyond its themes and particular sci-fi concepts, DMMD also succeeds in its general design. It is a visual novel, so a vast majority of the gameplay does simply consist of reading. With that said, all of the support features go a long way in enhancing the player’s experience. The story branches off significantly after the first half (generally referred to as the “common route”), at which point you choose which eligible bachelor has struck your fancy and begin his story, each of which has multiple endings. Not all routes are available automatically however; the player is prompted to make a variety of choices which determine how much other characters are interested in Aoba. His affinities with them impact which parts of the story players have access to.
With that said, one need not fret too long or hard about these choices. The main menu has options for skipping to and from them so that you don’t have to slog through in-between material you’ve already read in previous playthroughs, and there are also more than enough save slots to make back-up files before all major decisions. In the first half of the game the corner of the menu even displays tiny dots (color-coded with the five core love interests) to help one keep track of how Aoba is fairing with the various love interests. Beyond all this there is even some creative reinterpretation of the choice screens in the second half, including what I’ll just describe as a false choice in order to avoid spoiling any specifics.
DMMD’s sound design is also well worthy of praise. First and foremost, the soundtrack is great. The most memorable bops are largely those used for the ending credits, which vary depending on which story end the player has just finished. Particular highlights include the upbeat “Only Finally There is the Free End”, hauntingly brutal “Immer Sie,” and could-justifiably-be-a-major-rock-hit “Tears.” The voice actors’ performances are also largely fantastic, with my favorite being Ryota Takeuchi as Ren. His ultra deep voice is all the more charming and funny considering it comes from a tiny cute dog Allmate when he’s not in his human avatar form.
Speaking of Ren, it’s time to discuss the bachelors themselves. Ren’s route is only unlocked after completing the other four major character’s “good” (read: not premature and traumatizing) endings, and is the source of many of the decade-old memes about the level of sheer “What the f*ck?” content in DMMD. Nonetheless, it’s also emotionally affecting and touches on notes of accepting different facets of the self and coping with fears of becoming obsolete to one’s loved ones. Koujaku, meanwhile, is the game’s designated childhood-friend-turned-lover character. His route includes my favorite antagonist in the game (a cartoonishly evil tattoo artist named Ryuuhou) as well as an especially sweet good end, even if some of the middle content is less engrossing than that found in other routes.
Mink, meanwhile, is a highly interesting character who’s route directly calls to mind corporations’ unabashed use of racist violence to achieve their goals. His backstory also makes him the love interest with the most developed personal history and hatred for Toue. His route includes less romance than the others and is far from devoid of problematic content, but he remains a memorable figure deserving of more attention than the fandom has given him over the years, especially compared to certain other characters who commit as bad of or even worse acts in-canon.
That leaves Noiz and Clear, who have probably the most satisfying and polished stories in the game in terms of romance. Of all the love interests, Clear is the most visually startling: a figure in ill-fitting clothes with a gas mask and who constantly holds an umbrella regardless of if it’s raining or not. He’s definitely the the resident kooky weirdo of the cast and is central to many of the game’s funniest moments, including a dramatic-turned-camp comic book-style fight sequence. His route also features some of the most tender scenes in the game, and with that mixture of humor and heart it’s no surprise that he’s so beloved. His good end is likely the best written in the entire game, but it’s virtually impossible to describe at all without veering into gigantic spoiler territory. As such I’ll just say “Play it!” and entice you with the aforementioned comic scene:
With that said, Noiz, is my absolute favorite character in DMMD. As I already mentioned he is wearing clothes upon clothes, and one look at him makes it obvious why he’s been affectionately called a “Hot Topic trash baby” since 2012. With that said, his route also includes highly affecting conceptual exploration of pain and how it impacts one’s ability to relate to other people. The warping of one’s perceptions and seeds of distrust planted by exploitation are at the center of his backstory, and the development of his character arc is top-notch. Of all the love interests he has his backstory unveiled in the most layered manner, with each new glimpse of depth triggering further desire for more context and character exploration.
This being a boys’ love visual novel, one more genre-pertinent question remains to be addressed: is the sex hot? Yes. Yes it is. The eroticism succeeds thanks to the excellent artwork and vocal performances, and the writing for most of the sex scenes is incredibly poignant and satisfying from a character perspective as well. With that said, that’s not the case for all the sex in the game. Those sensitive to content involving sexual violence should be aware that, like other Nitro+chiral games, DMMD has scenes featuring it. With that said most of these scenes are confined to the “bad” endings, so players should be able to easily avoid most of them by paying attention to what routes they’re headed toward and by doing minimal research online.
Whether you love it, hate it, or are entirely ambivalent, there is little room for argument regarding how utterly unique of a game Dramatical Murder is. As far as my tastes go, it’s fantastic. The artwork is gorgeous, with deeply affecting character art, memorable fashions, and world designs that clearly had a lot of thought put into them. The sound and gameplay design are also top notch, with multiple bops and gameplay features that help make the task of playing the same game twelve times (if you want to experience every last facet of the story) easy and not too tedious. There are a lot of disparate themes and ideas at play here, and while they don’t all get a ton of deep exploration, it’s frankly mind-boggling to see so much covered in a porny visual novel. If you’re looking for sanitized Twitter-approved Gay Representation™, then steer well clear of DMMD because you’ll get the furthest thing from that. But if you’re interested in a story with memorable characters, poignant romance, excellent music, and a unique poppy cyberpunk flair, then check this game out. As far as I’m concerned it’s a modern classic well worthy of its cult following.
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