planetarian (Switch eShop) Review
Visual novels are in a bit of an awkward situation in the West. A quick glance at the eShop will reveal dozens of low-quality titles with inexcusably poor translations, and the market on PC is dominated by developers trying to make a quick buck off comedic parody visual novels and scenarios written around simple gimmicks and shock factors. So, when a humble little visual novel from 2004 without any striking qualities finds its way onto the Switch eShop, it’s easy to see why many might overlook it as just another waste of time. But if you’ll give me a moment, I’ll try to explain why planetarian is a story well worth taking a few hours out of your schedule to get comfy with a cup of tea and spend some time reading, whether on the couch or in bed.
planetarian (I have to constantly remind Word that the title is not capitalised) is a short 4-hour visual novel from Key, a renowned visual novel developer in Japan responsible for acclaimed franchises CLANNAD and Little Busters; titles heralded by many as the pinnacle of the medium for their emotional storytelling and unforgettable characters. planetarian stands in contrast to its sister series’ due to its minimal length and lack of player choices, focus on two characters alone, and its post-apocalyptic sci-fi setting. planetarian follows the perspective of a character known only as The Junker, and his journey scavenging the sarcophagus city which leads him to forming an unlikely relationship with Yumemi, a robot long abandoned in the ruins of a planetarium.
The first moments of planetarian are disorienting, as we’re presented with the comical familiarity of an anime-girl robot clumsily trying to greet her first customer in over 29 years, through the eyes of a battle-weary man from a terrifying, bleak world. The Junker was born after an apocalyptic war which brought all human civilisation to ruin, leaving each and every person struggling to survive against the harsh environment, human savagery and the threat of automated weapons that have long since lost the people they were once trying to protect. The reader is constantly reminded of the state of the world by the presence of the rain that’s never stopped falling since the climax of the war, which is always animated in the background of any outdoor scenes. It’s a grey-coloured world devoid of leisure, comedy, or anything remotely pleasant.
First hearing the shout of this robot girl, The Junker’s immediate instinct is to raise his grenade launcher ready to destroy her. Being a robot, Yumemi doesn’t recognise the threat, and continues with her clumsy greeting, offering him a bouquet of assorted junk that vaguely resembles flowers. The Junker, exhausted and on the verge of death decides to seek shelter in the planetarium and is forced to endure the incessant rambling of this ‘broken’ robot that won’t seem to leave him alone. At first, the Junker is incredibly annoyed and can’t help but laugh to himself at this cosmic joke of a last supper. But as we read further, we gradually see the Junker lower his guard around Yumemi and the two begin to form a comfortable co-existence against all odds.
There’s a certain magic to Yuuichi Suzumoto’s writing here, in how immerses the reader in planetarian’s broken world and its broken characters. In a world devoid of meaning where a single wrong move means death, the Junker has an almost spiritual revelation upon meeting Yumemi that gradually makes itself known through changes in his internal narration. The man whose only pleasure was alcohol and cigarettes had begun wishing for the well-being of this machine, risking his life to stay behind and help her. The Junker wonders if he’s drunk from his whiskey, or just drunk on misplaced sentimentality, but in a world devoid of meaning, that small feeling of sentimentality becomes a guiding beacon to the Junker, a streak of light in the darkness of his life.
This all culminates in the projection scene, where the scales fall from The Junker’s eyes and the reader is taken on a journey through the hopes and dreams of a young humanity through the imagery of the night sky; a sight long since lost to the world, and completely foreign to The Junker. The compositions by Magome Togoshi sell the emotional impact of each scene perfectly, and ‘Gentle Jena’s use in the projection scene is no exception, invoking the Junker’s sense of awe and wonder at the beauty of the stars and the hopes of mankind. It’s here where planetarian begins to shine and lets its true value be seen.
It’s impossible to talk about planetarian without acknowledging the themes of environmentalism and religion woven throughout its narrative. Each time I read planetarian, the messages it imparts become more and more real, with our own world growing dangerously close to the brink of man-made disaster, whether environmental or through war. planetarian doubles as both a cautionary tale to its readers to protect our beautiful Earth while we still can, but also as proof of the value of hope in even the most dire of circumstances. Yumemi may not be able to dream in her sleep, but the dreams for the future she carries within her digital mind are unlike any other living being of the era. planetarian preaches the importance of dreams, that to sacrifice our dreams is to sacrifice our humanity. It’s a reminder to never give up on our dreams, no matter what happens to us. I won’t spoil the entirety of the story, but know that you’re in for a rollercoaster ride of heavy emotion with messages that will stick with you long after you finish reading. It’s proof of the kind of artist heights the visual novel medium can achieve when left in the right hands.
planetarian won’t be for everybody, but don’t mistake it for just another story of dating waifus or shock horror. planetarian is here for those who crave a good read, a short story with a tremendous amount of heart and sincerity that will leave you with something to ponder for years to come. It’s as heartwarming as it is heartrending, and it’s bound to leave even the most hardened readers shedding tears by the end.
Rating: 4.5 / 5
-A touching and profound story that will stick with you for years
-Music and writing that tugs at your heartstrings before rending them apart
-Short and easy to read
-Anime aesthetic may be a deterrent for some
-Some people feel awkward reading Visual Novels
-Not really a game