A lizardman, an orc, an elf, and a dragon walk into a bar – and out comes Bullet Butlers, the “guns and magic and butlers and masters fantasy AVG” 2007 blockbuster visual novel from Propeller. After a week stranded in Ocelot City with nothing more than a dirty-talking magnum to keep me company I’ve come away with the impression of a game that’s been largely undersold in Japanese ratings, so this review tries its best, without (many serious) spoilers, to compensate in the most fanboyishly biased way possible. It’s a whirlwind tour through 2000 years of Goltrock history, Dragoneut society, and Ocelot citizenry, so grab your hats and your magic Tuxedos of Butlerdom +10 and come on in!
Scenario: Higashide Yuichirou (Homepage | Blog | EGS | Wikipedia)
Visual Design: Chuuou Higashiguchi (Homepage | EGS | Wikipedia)
Planning / Supervision: Arakawa Kou (EGS)
Music: Antistar (EGS)
Release Date: July 27th, 2007
Availability: Himeya Shop
In the beginning, there were the gods. They created life, and it was good. Eight races came to populate the lands of the planet known as Goltrock: the hot-blooded Humans, the subtle Elves, good-natured Orcs, craftsmanly Dwarves, swift Goblins, hardy Lizardmen, valorous Dragoneuts, and wise Giants. With the passage of time the God of Death became discontented, however. He launched a bid to cover the world of Goltrock with his accursed shadow, and a band of eight heroes, one from each race, gathered to defeat this so-called “No Life King” and his undead army.
These eight, along with a single servant, fought through the myriad forces of the God of Death. Having fought their way to the demon’s castle they were outmatched by the fearsome might of the undead lord… but in their darkest hour, as the heroes prayed to the high god El Ageas, the band’s single servant, known to history as the “Nameless”, emerged and at the cost of his own life brought death to the deathless lord.
The heroes returned to their respective lands with glad tidings and firm resolve to set aside their differences, bringing an age of peace to the world of Goltrock…
2000 years have passed since the legendary struggle of the eight heroes. The world has entered an age where technology coexists with magic, though the latter is on the wane as practitioners of the ancient arts become more rare. At present magic is most commonly found in the form of magically enhanced items, including the majuu or “mage guns” (enchanted handguns capable of firing a variety of supernatural ordinances; some are even sentient and capable of speech).
The epic deeds of the heroes who overthrew the No Life King are preserved not merely in legend, but personified in the descendants of the heroes themselves. These descendants, dubbed “Mystic Ones”, are chosen by divine providence each generation from a small pool of potential candidates who exhibit the peculiar trait of akai hitomi (crimson eyes). In this day and age the heroes are largely figureheads of their respective societies, serving more as venerated elders than with any official or militaristic function.
Along with the legend of the heroes the legend of their nameless servant persisted through the ages, such that the office of servitude became one of the most highly venerated in society, and the positions of butler, valet, and handmaiden both respected and sought after. The Servant’s Guild boasts a storied history deeper than that of the police forces, and the grooming of butlers for service to the Mystic Ones is the providence of the Follen Sole servant’s academy.
The world is religiously unified under the banner of the high god of life, El Ageas, who continues to exert subtle influence on society through the heroes as his chosen disciples. However over the centuries the cult of the No Life King, known as the Seidou Hyougikai, has persisted despite all attempts at eradication.
Due to the proliferation of guns in the technological revolution, semi-intelligent monsters were hunted to the edge of extinction, but recently “preserves” have been established to protect them and keep their population in a controlled environment. On the other hand, the demihuman races have wholeheartedly embraced Human culture and left their forests and caves to join humanity in its concrete jungle.
The game takes place Ocelot City, a major city in the Ark Melia Confederacy, a country loosely modeled after the United States in the 1930’s. It is still recovering from the recent Majuu Sensou (Mage Gun War) that resulted in the independence of a mineral-rich colony and a prolonged economic recession for the Ark Melia homeland. Ocelot City has a population of roughly three million, and is divided into five sectors by a river, three of its tributaries, and a forest. Until now the influence of the Seidou Hyougikai cult has been minimal, and (the slums excluded) public order prevails.
In addition to regular law enforcement provided by the police, the recently formed FBI (Federal Bureau of Inquisition) was established to deal specifically with the threat from the Seidou Hyougikai. As it has traditionally been the role of the Nameless (the Servant’s Guild) to protect their Mystic One masters from the threat of the No Life King’s minions, there has been some friction with the upstart FBI since its founding.
The game’s story deals primarily with the Fortenmayer house, the Mystic One ancestral house of the Dragoneut race. Dragoneut affairs are governed by a council of ten elders known as the Tokiryuu, chosen from among Dragoneut citizens in positions of power in the spheres of finance and government. Other races also have territorially non-exclusive (extragovernmental) alliances of mutual welfare in place, but the Dragoneut organization wields the most potent political clout among them. Its power is especially strong in the Ark Melia Confederacy, home of the Fortenmayer house.
Of the various demihuman races present on Goltrock, Dragoneuts have the least obvious traditional fantasy equivalent. They are virtually indistinguishable from humans in all respects (physical appearance, lifespan, etc.) with one important difference: they have the ability to transform into dragons at will.
This ability manifests itself in one of three ways depending on the individual. At one end are those known as “lackers”, who are able to manifest wings which grant them the ability to fly but little else. The majority of Dragoneuts transform into standard dragons of three to four meters (10-13 feet) in length, with the ability to both fly and employ a dragon breath attack. Finally, a handful of Dragoneuts in each generation are able to transform into the legendary Favnir, eldrich beasts of over 30 meters (100+ feet) in length with stamina and destructive powers so fearsome they are known as gods among monsters.
The more potent transformations require several seconds of concentration to complete, and in modern times the ability to transform has become next to useless in practical matters of daily life. However, within Dragoneut society those able to become Favnir are still given special respect (the Tokiryuu is largely composed of Favnir), while “lackers” are treated as defective second-class citizens.
Race: Half Elf
The protagonist. Twin brother of Alfred Arrowsmith, Rick is a butler attached to the Fortenmayer household at an early age and later assigned to serve Selma Fortenmayer. He devotes himself wholeheartedly to his profession and his appointed master, striving to be the best butler he can in the tradition of the legendary “Nameless”; he is the wielder of the mage gun Bale Hawter, and he is haunted by the troubled past that granted him mastery of the weapon along with the cursed fate it brings. He has a mild, polite and congenial personality that endears him to most of those around him.
The main heroine. Born to parents of insignificant background, when she was discovered to bear the crimson eyes that mark Mystic One candidacy she was adopted into the Fortenmayer house. Though raised in the Fortenmayer mansion she had little contact with her adoptive father, the current Dragoneut Mystic One; due to a traumatic incident in her childhood that left her a “lacker” she is deemed an unlikely candidate to inherit the mantle of hero. She has a quick wit and a slightly sadistic sense of humor, but bears a deep affection for those close to her (Rick, Valeria, and Yuki). Her childhood trauma resulted in psychological wounds that never fully healed.
An elven girl of a minor noble house, she has lived alone with her butler Yuki for the past three years with her parents abroad for work. She is a mage apprentice under Ernesta Dietrich, and though she lacks confidence she is actually quite skilled in the magical arts. She met Selma Fortenmayer when they were very young, and the two have been best friends ever since. Valeria is a soft-spoken girl, outwardly timid and shy but with a surprising amount of courage that comes to the fore when it really matters. She is fiercely loyal to her best friend Selma, and harbors secret feelings for Rick.
An accomplished swordswoman and butler who graduated at the top of her class from the Follen Sole academy. She has served as Valeria Foster’s butler since her graduation three years ago, and is unflinchingly loyal to her master. Yuki wears her emotions on her sleeve, and is easily provoked by perceived insults to her or to Valeria; she is equally quick to smother her master in doting affection when she does something particularly cute (which is often). She likes and respects Selma for her acquaintance with Valeria, and values Rick as an accomplished fellow butler and friend.
Rick’s twin brother, retained along with him by the Fortenmayer house since a young age. Shortly after becoming part of the household he was drafted into the service of Sid Fortenmayer, son of Land (the current Mystic One), and left the main house to attend Sid in his private residence. He has a cordial brotherly relationship with Rick, though he’s rather distant from most others beyond his master; his reserved demeanor could be taken for unfeeling coldness, or mere professional decorum depending on the viewer. He wields the mage gun pair to Rick’s Bale, Luda Grefind.
The son of Dragoneut Mystic One Land Fortenmayer, and possessor of crimson eyes that mark a candidate for succession to the title of hero. A charismatic leader and veteran officer of the Mage Gun War who saw nearly all of his squadron obliterated by enemy forces, the trauma of the war never truly left him. Sid is one of the few Dragoneuts of his generation capable of transformation into the legendary Favnir, a trait that has led many to presume him as the most likely to succeed the role of Mystic One. He appointed Alfred Arrowsmith as his butler when he saw in him an affinity of personality at a young age.
The current Dragoneut Mystic One. A taciturn, almost stoic man with a busy schedule of public engagements that have left him with little time to attend to his adopted daughter Selma, superficially he seems to share many traits with his son Sid (who derived much of his charisma from his father). Seemingly distant and unfeeling he actually cares for Selma deeply, and is concerned about her future. He lost his personal butler Oliver in an incident several years ago and since then has retained only the services of the FBI for his personal protection. His transformation ability is that of most standard Dragoneuts.
Gara Ra Redwood
Age: 80 (Human equivalent: 40)
An ex-military officer, ex-FBI member, veteran of the Mage Gun War. Currently a beat cop on the Ocelot City police force. Foster father of Yuki Watarase, he loves her dearly and objects to her line of work as a butler that might put her in harm’s way. While retired from both the military and the FBI he remains highly respected within both organizations and has a reputation a brave fighter and an honest, tenacious and tough-as-nails law officer. Has a taste for VERY spicy food.
Age: 120 (Appearance: 30)
A master magic user, Ernesta is one of the Nine High Warlocks – the most powerful mages in all of Goltrock. She supervises the training of Valeria Foster, as well as employing her in the magical goods shop she keeps in Ocelot City. She fought alongside Gara, Sid, and Pookey in the Mage Gun War, and is one of the most experienced and knowledgeable people in the City – though her advice often comes with the consulting fee of being subjected to her fickle sense of humor. She has placed an enchantment on herself that makes her appear as an old woman to those of little magical ability.
Hope A. Sharma
The son and heir apparent of the Sharma family, owners of the Sharma Motor Company, a major Ark Melica auto manufacturer. He is a dandy and a persistent, unquenchable flirt, who relentlessly pursues Selma’s hand in marriage despite countless outright refusals of his advances. Despite their endless banter of proposals and rejections Selma and Hope are actually good friends, and his high spirits and jokes help lighten the mood on otherwise grim occasions. As his father has his hands full with mechanical work at the motor factory, Hope acts as his representative on the Tokiryuu council of Dragoneut elite.
An FBI officer assigned to protect Land Fortenmayer and the Fortenmayer estate, Ash is the image of a conscientious workaholic public servant. While he has personal misgivings regarding the usefulness of the Mystic Ones, he sets those aside in pursuit of law and his assigned duty. He doesn’t completely trust anyone not in the FBI or police force, and seldom breaks from his grim, jaded demeanor. He’s chronically short on sleep. He is proficient in a variety of small arms, and wields a magical short sword known as Gladius.
Age: appears 18, real age unknown
The head maid of the Fortenmayer estate, she has been in its employ since before Rick arrived. She has a sharp tongue and quick wit that often result in verbal sparring with those she secretly likes (Ash) and those she likes to hate (Yuki). Despite her assertive presence she’s highly competent at her job and knows to pipe down when necessary, and is generally a morale booster to have around. A member of the obscure humanoid “Medorabbit” race, little is known of her background and her true age is a jealously guarded secret.
Age: 63 (at time of death)
The former butler of Land Fortenmayer, he died in a tragic incident around ten years before the story opens. In life he was an image of calm professionalism, acting as both father figure to Rick and his instructor in the butler’s trade. He was survived by his daughter Cosette, who left the country after his death and whose whereabouts are currently unknown.
Age: 74 (Human equivalent: 37)
A beat cop in the Ocelot City police force and partner of Gara Ra Redwood, he’s a military veteran who fought in the Mage Gun War alongside Gara, Ernesta, and Sid Fortenmayer. His jovial and unthreatening appearance makes him the “good cop” by default in criminal altercations, and he’s known for being quite fond of food and for being kept on a very short leash by his wife.
A holy nun with her life devoted to the service of El Ageas, she inhabits a small church in a secluded corner of Ocelot City and offers advice to those who take shelter within. It seems she had some interaction with Gustave in the past, but the nature of their relationship is unknown.
A professional assassin also known as the Crown Ghoul, Wraith’s reputation precedes him when he appears in Ocelot City. He is rumored to possess the frightening ability to regenerate from any damage, including dismemberment and disintegration, and thus to be effectively immortal. He wields a massive scythe and takes cheerful pleasure in the destruction of his opponents, cursing away mortal injuries to his own body as mere annoyances. He is certainly insane, but the extent of his madness is unknown.
Age: appears 20, real age unknown
The current leader of Seidou Hyougikai cult operations in Ocelot City, he is a master sniper and gunsmith who fights with a heavily enchanted long-barreled rifle. The conflict that left his face irreparably scarred simultaneously bred in him an undying hatred for El Ageas, prompting him to join the cult of the dead god; his motives may not be as simple as pure hatred, however.
A blind woman pressed into service as a prostitute in one of the Seidou Hyougikai hideouts in Ocelot city. She is bound to serve any men who seek shelter or refuge in the compound, and refusal of their advances brings punishment. The unhappy events that led to her blindness and current position of slavery are unknown. She has taken to coping by shutting herself off emotionally and complying with the wishes of guests as best she is able.
Cowra Roy Ragastia
A mysterious masked figure who has appeared at crime scenes and in cult hideouts around Ocelot City and who has managed to outrun the FBI’s attempted questioning several times. The figure’s identity (including gender, race, and age) is unknown, but it seems to possess superhuman speed and reflexes. Evidence suggests that it fights with bladed rings known as chakrams.
Race: Mage Gun (sentient)
A weapon of ancient lineage, possessing the rare quality of sentience. Currently sworn to serve Rick Arrowsmith, Bale’s spirit is foul-mouthed, ornery, impolite and impertinent, and definitely male. This clash of personalities causes Rick trouble at inconvenient moments, though over years of partnership they have come to respect each other. Bale cordially detests Luda Grefind and offers a bout of verbal sparring whenever they meet. Bale is strongly cursed, and the use of his magical abilities inflicts a harsh penalty on the wielder.
Race: Mage Gun (sentient)
A weapon of similar properties to Bale, Luda is the property of Alfred Arrowsmith, her chosen master. Her personality is the polar opposite of Bale’s; she is polite, respectful, orderly, and generally even-toned – except when Bale is around, when she can’t resist getting off a few good snarls in his direction. She comes across as an almost motherly type, though she is just as powerful as Bale (and just as powerfully cursed).
As noted earlier, the story of Bullet Butlers is centered on the life and times of the Fortenmayer family. The game chronicles the events surrounding the death of Land Fortenmayer and the disputed succession of the Dragoneut Mystic One, and ultimately involves most of the major players in Ark Melia society, whether on the side of law or chaos, good or evil. A large part of the story is told in flashbacks and historical sequences as well, primarily involving the childhood recollections (or lack thereof) of the various characters.
As a viewing of the demo video suggests, the overarching story of Bullet Butlers is a modern retelling of the original legend of the eight heroes and their nameless servant, writ small – the stage is a single city, and the demons that must be fought are personal rather than divine. While the characters are important players on the world stage, the world they inhabit is larger than they are, and they must operate within its realities; the drama that unfolds is thus epic on a profoundly personal scale rather than the cataclysmic struggle typical of more traditional fantasy fare.
That said, it’s hard to classify Bullet Butlers as anything other than an epic in the finest Western fantasy tradition. All of the themes are there – cursed relics, an evil cult struggling to reincarnate their dead god, political intrigue, assassinations, angsty anti-heroes, a highly developed setting and unique history and cosmology that live on from the legendary past to the present. What sets the game apart, broadly speaking, is that despite the dramatic tension that increases throughout the story the heroes still have time – and indeed, the responsibility – to indulge in the pursuits of their daily lives.
It’s been a few years since I last read a decent fantasy novel (or any fantasy novel), so stumbling rather cluelessly into the beginning of Bullet Butlers was like a parched man who didn’t know he was thirsty falling headfirst into an oasis. Higashide Yuichirou knows what he’s doing with the medium, and does it with such style and sureness that I found myself appreciating the game’s text at least as much as the visuals – a rarity for a visual design freak like myself.
I’ll admit up front that I quickly developed a strong bias in favor of the scenario, not only because it had been awhile since my last good fantasy story but also because the plot, setting, and characters all ring true to the sorts of things I enjoy most about the genre. If I’d been born in Japan and had a confident mastery of the language this is exactly the sort of thing I’d be writing, so when I say it’s great and totally awesome, I mean it was that way for me personally – your mileage may vary.
Diving into the particulars of the writing style, the scenario has several idiosyncrasies that are successful to greater or lesser degrees. The first inescapable fact is that it’s long. This is generally a good thing, as the writer takes ample time to develop character backgrounds and concepts that are central to the story, and provides enough development of relationships to make the eventual romantic encounters largely believable.
As the story develops it seems that almost every character has at least one dark secret in their past which will be dredged up and come to have enormous import to the plot. This is almost to the point of being funny, and would seem like so much deus ex machina gimmickry if it weren’t for the thorough development and exposition these secrets subsequently receive. Due to this pattern of revelation followed by development the plot has a bit of a “to and fro”, swaying feel as it moves forward; instead of a consistent build to the climax it’s more like several small climaxes between periods of calm that gradually build on each other.
I ended the game overall quite satisfied with its execution, but with a couple of criticisms; firstly, I felt the power of the final sequence was diminished by excessive use of flashbacks to provide a recap of exposition that had already been done, and secondly, for all its thoroughness I felt a key scene was omitted from the scenario at the end that should have been there to provide resolution between two of my favorite characters. Those complaints aside, I felt the scenario was overall a quite sound body of work that would stand well against any other recently published fantasy novel.
Oh, one last thing – the author’s use of “ne” as ending punctuation for sentences in character dialogue. There are only so many ways the voice actors can deliver that syllable before it loses all meaning and sounds out of place, ne?
The visual production value of Bullet Butlers is quite high across the board. The Chuuou Higashiguchi character designs serve the ends of the game quite well, and though they’re not my absolute favorite I think they fit the flavor of the story almost perfectly. They’re only a part of the picture, though, as the game’s visual design extends to a large body of graphic work from vehicle and weapon design, to cartography, to architecture. The design work never quite breaks into the stratosphere of true epic opulence, but it does exactly what it has to do to tell the story, and that’s plenty.
A remarkable aspect of the game’s visual presentation is the amount of movement incorporated. Images flip, twist, fade, wipe, zoom, pan, and are otherwise manipulated in every conceivable way to create the illusion that they’re not simply 2D objects being slid around on top of one another. This is what they are, of course, and the game ultimately can’t escape that, but the visual enhancements are largely effective in heightening the mood and impact of scenes (usually combat-oriented ones).
Finally, a potentially controversial visual element of the game is the occasional use of SD cut-in images and character standing poses during humorous scenes. If you’re looking for pure 100% hard-boiled action this part of the game won’t be for you; I personally didn’t mind it in the slightest, and felt that the amount of levity added with these sequences was just right to balance out the more dramatic parts of the story.
Sound (Voice / Music / SFX)
The voice acting in Bullet Butlers is outstanding. There were a few voices I felt didn’t quite fit their character images, but I got used to them quickly, and all of the actors performed quite well when the chips were down and they had to pour out the raw emotion. I especially enjoyed the performances of Kujou Shino as Valeria and Rita as Carol, and was happy to see Isshiki Hikaru as Hell. On the male side Sugisaki Kazuya (Hirofumi from Yume Miru Kusuri) delivers a rousing performance as Bale, but by far the biggest name in the cast is that of Kurenai Manju as Sid Fortenmayer, with this single game credit to his name. Listening carefully to his voice samples on the official site reveals a startling resemblance to a certain Gundam hero of yore…
The Bullet Butlers soundtrack rises to a similarly high level of quality as the other elements of the game. The tracks run the range from calm, piano driven themes to smooth strings and acoustic guitars, to techno / electronica, to hard rocking metal guitar, to expansive horn-heavy orchestral motifs. Of the thirty in-game tracks the three vocal ones leave the greatest impression, but they’re all quite well done.
The sound effects are solid, and generally quite good, though a bit rough around the edges; there were moments when gunfire effects would continue on through dialogue or protracted patches of expository text, which was irritating, and there was a glitch in a scene with Wraith where this rhythmic clicking sound started and didn’t stop through the entire scene; this aspect of the game that could’ve used a bit more polishing.
Make no mistake about it – Bullet Butlers is a fantasy novel with the occasional erotic scene, not a sex sim with fantasy elements. Without spoiling the precise amount or composition of the sex in the game it’s safe to say that while the in-game erotic encounters are generally quite gratifying, the prurient interest shouldn’t drive a purchase – it’s described as a moe (燃え, burning) game and not a moe (萌え, cute) game for a reason, and that reason is that it’s here to kick ass first, take names second, and get swept away in passionate romance third.
Many of the ero scenes are integrated into the plot in a believable way, typically the ones that benefit from the lengthy development of a relationship over time whose natural consummation occurs in the sex act (imagine that – just like real life!). Some of the other scenes are a bit more awkward, a few of them to the point of feeling entirely superfluous and unnecessary, as if they were added to fill a quota; I would have preferred that they leave these out, as they detract from the story more than they add to it.
The ero scenes that do occur in the game are all quite well rendered visually and well acted vocally, though content-wise they’re constrained somewhat by the range of available partners. Seeing that all characters in the game are fully voiced I was curious to see how they’d handle male voices during sex, but it turns out that when “ero mode” is entered the male voice becomes incorporated in the narration (text only), leaving only the female voice active.
Bullet Butlers is not an incredibly interactive or participatory game. In fact I’d shy away from calling it a game at all; it’s one of the few eroge I’ve played for which the descriptor “visual novel” seems more appropriate than any other. What is a visual novel? In this case I’d say it’s a three-part fantasy novel, illustrated by moving pictures, accompanied by a soundtrack and read by professional voice actors. It’s a media experience not quite like any other that exists in the West, and thus it’s frustratingly hard to sell the concept; it’s like an epic movie that doesn’t actually move, and whose course you can occasionally adjust, and that lasts for 50+ hours. Or something.
Regardless of how it’s explained, viewing the game not as a game but as a novel on steroids is probably more instructive (and won’t create false expectations). The number of choice points is relatively limited compared to other similar titles; discovering a route through a twisting path of multiple choice questions is thus not the emphasis here (which is a positive thing, in my opinion). Instead you’re asked to sit back and experience the story as it unfolds before you.
In terms of replay value, if you want to play through the game in its entirety you have to clear two story arcs before you can proceed to the third, “true”, ending. This mechanic is used in an ingenious way, where events that happened in parallel time streams in the earlier arcs, or histories that were unlocked, are referenced obliquely in the third arc but need not be delved into because the game already knows you’ve been through them. To continue the book analogy, it’s like a three-part novel whose conclusion can only be unlocked when the first two parts are read.
If this notion of the bastard child of a hybrid epic fantasy novel / film / book on tape / choose your own adventure game appeals to you as it did to me, I can’t recommend the title highly enough. It’s not the very best example of the genre in existence, but it’s up there – a damned entertaining romp through a deep, creative setting that feels like it was lovingly pulled from the pages of a Dungeons and Dragons handbook (the song list, area names of Ocelot City, and other in-game references are all amusingly familiar).
Ultimately I think the reason I was so drawn to the game is the same reason it hasn’t received as much attention as titles like Fate/stay night or Ayakashibito; namely, that it is so foreign to the Japanese aesthetic, the fantasy eroge equivalent of Cowboy Bebop. I think Bullet Butlers might be the same sort of thing, which is why I’m fervently hoping it gets licensed for translation and international release; until that day I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed, and working on a D20 Goltrock campaign setting. All aboard the Ocelot Meat Train!