Norn9 lets players fall in love like a superhero

When I was young and all of my friends were wishing they could be Elizabeth or Jessica Wakefield, I wanted to be Kitty Pryde or Jubilation Lee. They wanted to date J.C. Slater, while I harbored secret affections for Nightcrawler and Chamber. The X-Men called to me as a geeky girl who loved video games. Seeing outsiders do amazing things while leading normal lives on the side was encouraging. Norn9: Var Commons is Aksys and Idea Factory’s love letter to not only nine-year-old me, but I expect many other girls who grew up nerdy.

The Espers of Norn9 aren’t mutants, but they may as well be. The 12 characters, three women and nine men, are called together by an organization known as The World for an unknown purpose. Before accomplishing this mission, they must go on a journey. This experience traveling together is as important as the objective as the end, as the experiences along the way will help them make the all important decision at the end. Each one is a bit of a misfit, perhaps like the people playing the game. As accepted as gaming is, we don’t see many titles specifically geared toward female audiences, especially one with three heroines who are strong in their own way.

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It’s a game built around connections not only between the women and bachelors, but the player and the heroines. Rather than being forced to follow in the footsteps of an avatar who might not share the player’s sensibilities, there are three candidates. Each has her own unique disposition, viewpoint and adventure to undertake. I went with Nanami first. She had a smart mouth, a ninja background and a way of being blunt but kind. She probably wasn’t too similar to myself, but her clever quips and sharp nature were something I admired. They were things you didn’t often see in an otome heroine.

With the route I chose for Nanami, in which she partnered with Akito as the group attempted to suss out the three traitors in their midst, she wasn’t concerned with love. Rather, it was a means of making amends. She knew Akito from before, had committed an awful sin against him and knew siding with him was the only way she could perhaps even come close to making up for what she had done.

The others have similar stories. It’s fairly clear that Koharu is likely considered to be the “true” heroine, but that doesn’t mean her route is any more important than Mikoto’s or Nanami’s. If anything, it felt like the routes for Mikoto, a strong warrior who constantly pushes herself to protect others, were geared more towards love. She still attempts to solve the mysteries surrounding the ship and everyone’s abilities, but the potential connections between her and either Sakuya or Itsuki are more obviously and instantly romantic in nature.

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Speaking of which, that’s perhaps what I appreciated most about Norn9. Like with the various X-Men storylines, these Espers aren’t always happy with or adept at using their powers. Characters like Koharu and Nanami go out of their way to hide their abilities, because they know exactly what they’re capable of in the wrong hands. There are others that seem more at ease, like Heishi and Kakeru, but even Heishi ends up unintentionally broadcasting his thoughts around due to his unfamiliarity with his telepathy. It’s as realistic as such a game with an outlandish premise can be, which is what makes the finished product stronger.

The paths that Norn9 can take feel more accurate as well. Something important is going to happen once the Espers’ ship reaches America. It’s an undertaking which will require use of each of their powers. However, encounters with the traitors and outside forces occur along the way. Each person’s route proceeds differently and there isn’t one set result. The World’s goal could be accomplished, but it might not. The characters might get to live happily ever after or could become caught up in battles. It’s a very unexpected situation.

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I’m glad I avoided the “recommended” route for a first-time Nanami player and pursued Akito, because both its happy and standard ends were more than satisfactory. When I dabbled with recommended initial bachelor Heishi, there was a twist that the Akito route suggested, but I really didn’t expect to appear, in his normal end. Meanwhile, my first run with Mikoto was downright tragic. I set her up with Sakuya and, well, let’s just say it’s an emotional rollercoaster.

Getting to Norn9‘s best endings can result in some counterintuitive actions. This is one of those games where there’s an affection page that can be checked from the options menu, as well as visual indicators when the “correct” response is chosen in response to characters’ actions. The best end doesn’t always mean making a choice that gives you that visual confirmation, and getting the best ending with Akito didn’t mean his affection bar had to be completely full at the end. At one point in Nanami and Akito’s storyline, he asks her to do something. Following his order will increase his affection, but won’t get you the happy ending. It’s interesting, and I encourage people to keep at least two save points for each route to ensure they reach the best ending.

Especially because the best endings provide Norn Points. These are used to unlock additional side stories, comics and images. There is also a Norn Quest minigame to unlock, in which characters basically talk it out to earn points. Actually playing through the game is the best way to get earn supplemental content, since it also opens up voice acting snippets for the Norn Ensemble.

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It’s funny, because when Aksys announced Code: Realize ~Guardian of Rebirth~ and Norn9: Var Commons would be their 2015 otome games, I was disappointed. I had hoped for something like Diabolik Lovers, not titles that passed under my radar. Norn9 turned out to be exactly what I wanted and needed in an otome visual novel and I believe it is the strongest entry in Aksys’ line, minor, occasional spelling errors aside.

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