A tale of two girls, not only learning to speak with each other but also learning how to express themselves to one another. Will it be a happy ending and what can you learn along the way? Let’s find out.
This game is fascinating. I enjoy games that challenge me intellectually. Sometimes, it’s a well-written mystery that I find myself trying to solve like in Dangaronpa. Other times, it can be something simple that gives me pause. Like the way, the relationships in Kindred Spirits on the Roof build off each other thematically. But, it’s rare that a game comes along where I find myself actively wanting to learn something instead of continuing the story. The Expression: Amrilato is one of those rare gems.
Now, while you might think that’s some high praise, keep in mind something can be fascinating despite not being good overall. While The Expression: Amrilato has certainly captured my interest, we’re here today to see how well it holds up as a visual novel. So, does a VN about communication succeed in communicating with me? Or does a lot of its message end up lost in translation? To answer that, let’s first establish what The Expression: Amrilato is and isn’t.
A Different Sky, A Different Tongue, Yet Compassion is Universal
The Expression: Amrilato is an educational all-ages yuri visual novel developed by SukeraSparo and published by MangaGamer. In it, 17-year old Takato Rin suddenly finds herself in a strange world where the sky is pink and no one speaks Japanese. Lost and confused she is found by Ruka, a young girl who can speak tiny bits of Japanese. Ruka takes Rin in and the two start to bond as Rin begins to learn Juliamo; the language of the world. In addition, the game tries to teach the player bits of Juliamo as well. While that alone would make for an interesting title, there was controversy regarding the game’s launch.
When The Expression: Amrilato was released, Valve refused to carry the game on Steam. Claiming that the title sexualized minors. An odd decision since this is not an 18+ title. This is also despite GOG carrying it from day one and, of course, the game being available on MangaGamer’s own website. If you want to know more, I’ve written an opinion piece detailing my own thoughts on the subject, however, there’s been a recent development.
Valve has since reversed its initial decision and is now carrying the game. In addition, it can also be bought on Discord. Kudos to MangaGamer for not taking this sitting down. It seems rare these days that such reversals occur, but I digress. Instead, with our foundation laid let’s delve into The Expression: Amrilato by looking at its graphics.
A World Existing Under a Pink Sky
One of the most striking features about The Expression: Amrilato visually is its pink sky. This may sound odd, but it really does help to give an alien feel to the world. While things may look similar, it’s clearly obvious that this is a different universe. Thankfully, the graphics team did their best to make sure it didn’t overpower everything. It’s strangely complementary to the design and colors of everything else in the game. This same level of detail is also shown in the characters and CGs.
Both and the characters and CGs have a hand-drawn look to them. In practice, this is gorgeous and really does help to show off little details about the scene and characters. Even facial expressions have just that extra little bit of detail in them that helps convey a scene. Unfortunately, this also works against the game when it comes to non-CG backgrounds.
As much as I like the character designs, the backgrounds always looked odd to me. And after staring at the game long enough, I figured out the issue. The backgrounds have a depth to them. In other words, they feel 3D. The character’s meanwhile still have a distinct 2D feel to them due to their hand-drawn nature. This, unfortunately, leads to them sometimes feeling like a cutout pasted against the background, instead of being seamlessly blended in with it. Your mileage may vary on this issue, but I found it to be more than a bit distracting. Another thing I noticed was leftover sketch marks in one of the CGs. Again, not a deal-breaker, but certainly not on par with the rest of the experience. In fact, let’s delve into the sound next to talk about one of the most complex parts of this experience: the voice acting.
When Even the VAs Need to Learn Another Dialect
One of the things that deserves the utmost praise in The Expression: Amrilato is the voice acting. The reason? These voice actresses not only had to voice lines in Japanese but also needed to do so in Juliamo. Since Juliamo is so critical to the experience, the pronunciation, cadence, and inflection need to be consistent. In essence, the voice cast had to learn a second language themselves. And, I think they did a fantastic job. Especially, Ruka’s actress.
Ruka’s VA, Uchida Shu, had probably the hardest job of the entire cast. Not only does she primarily speak in Juliamo, but she also needs to speak in broken Japanese. In addition, she’s often having to mix both bits of Juliamo and Japanese together in various sentences while still conveying the underlying emotions of the character. Making this sound natural is not easy in the slightest, but she pulls it off masterfully. Seriously, I tip my hat to her. So, if the voice acting is this good, the music must be amazing, right? Well, sort of.
Keep in mind, the music is not bad. But, it does feel standard. I found the music enjoyable while I played the game, but I can’t really think of a particular track that stood out to me. Which is a shame. Music is one of the things I adore about games, but this one just didn’t leave a lasting impression personally. Still, the music is enjoyable and does fit the setting. So, no issues there. What about the overall design of the game, however? Well, let’s talk about that now.
Sometimes Textboxes Do Need to Be Reinvented
Visual novels are a medium that has had decades to mature. That means, in terms of game design, there are established elements and formulas for how a visual novel works; including how the text is presented to the player. We’re all used to seeing a textbox in the bottom of the screen as well as the having the contained text flowing naturally. This is one of the reasons I tend to be critical of games like The Princess Guide that have messy formatting. This isn’t anything new, it’s an established convention. There are very few instances where you want to stray from these standards. The Expression: Amrilato, though, is one of those cases.
The text is presented in a larger font than normal and with an extra space between lines. At first, this really bugged me. It didn’t feel natural. The large gap was just something that I found really distracting. However, as you may have noticed from a few of the previous screenshots, this space is necessary. It’s used to provide a romanization of the various bits of Juliamo the game uses. And, I think this works out for the most part.
Don’t get me wrong, The Expression: Amrilato has a unique challenge in that it’s trying to teach you a language. As such, you need that extra space between lines to allow for that romanization to be displayed. However, it does feel a bit messy at times. Especially when you start adding in things like Rin’s internal translation or the actual translation of Ruka’s lines; which is unlocked after clearing the game once. The problem is I don’t really know of an elegant solution to this problem. It feels like the developers just needed more time to refine things. Which, I think is the core of many of The Expression: Amrilato’s problems. While this is a complete experience, it’s not exactly a polished one.
Immersing Myself in the Study of Juliamo
The Expression: Amrilato has two goals. The first is to teach you Esperanto though Juliamo. The second is to tell the story of Rin, Ruka, and the relationship they form. While the game does do this. It doesn’t really do either part exceptionally well. In fact, the biggest problem is that the game can’t decide what it wants to do more. Teach you a language or tell you a story. Let’s tackle the language portion first though, so you can see what I mean.
As part of the story, Rin will try her best to learn Juliamo. Not only to survive in the world but also to try and communicate and express herself to Rin. The game does this by starting with the Juliamo alphabet and slowly introducing various concepts of the language. If you’ve ever taken a foreign language course, you’ll feel right at home with this. The progression of topics does feel very academic. And that’s a good thing. In fact, the game will introduce quizzes at certain points.
These quizzes can be turned off in the menu and thus skipped. However, I did every one of them. I genuinely enjoyed not only testing myself, but I often found myself repeating any lines that were in Juliamo in order to practice my pronunciation. Basically, the game succeeded in getting me immersed in the learning experience.
This was all well and good for the first half of the game since there’s a focus on learning the basics of Juliamo and it’s well integrated into the story. However, once we get past those basics, the story takes over and the integration falls apart. Rather than using each situation to build and test the player’s knowledge, it focuses on Rin trying to fumble her way through learning and practicing Juliamo. Which, while this sounds good on paper, breaks the immersion in a hard way.
Practice Might Make Perfect, but Watching Rin Do It Isn’t Enjoyable
Rin is not a great student. She certainly tries, don’t get me wrong, but it takes her a while to catch on to even basic patterns. There were several times I was able to figure out a concept the game was explaining long before she would. Sure, I have experience with learning a language, so I’ll probably be a bit quicker on the uptake than her. But I really think they drew out the process of her putting things together far too long. So, is there a reason the developers would do that?
Well, I think Rin was being written in a way that was meant to encourage the player. Basically, if she can do it so can I. However, this left me waiting for her to catch up while I was ready to either practice the concept or move onto the next thing. Which also applies to the integration of the academic sections and the story.
As I said, the first half of the game is balanced well between learning and progressing the story. However, about halfway through it felt like the focus became more on the story and less on the language. Sure, this is a visual novel. But, remember, a major goal of this title is to teach you a language. This can be done while telling a story at the same time. The problem though is that instead of integrating these two goals together, it shifts between them in the latter half. Which leads to things feeling unbalanced.
If you’ve ever taken a language course, you know that a chapter in the text will probably focus on a topic, let’s say shopping, and introduce both grammar and vocabulary related to that topic. While The Expression: Amrilato tries to do this. It forgets that you also need to interact with the player for them to learn those concepts.
Sure, the game will teach you prefixes, suffixes, and infinitives. However, what I wanted were more dialogue choices. More chances to use the Juliamo I’m supposed to be learning. Instead, we get to see Rin try to use it. Which is not always interesting. In fact, about halfway through the game, there’s a shift away from Juliamo itself. Why? Well, let’s talk about the story a bit and I’ll explain.
The Expression: Amrilato is not The Experience: Juliamo
The story of The Expression: Amrilato is a simple one at its core. It’s the story of a girl who falls into another world and falls in love with the person who extends a helping hand to her. The conflict, in this case, comes mainly from two sources. The first being the language barrier and the second being whether Rin will be able to return home. Let’s focus on the language barrier first.
Rin learning Juliamo is a major part of the story itself. If she’s going to live in this new world, she obviously needs to communicate. In fact, you come to learn that Rin is not the first person to suddenly appear in this world. As such, there are government systems in place to support people like her. This shows a lot of foresight from the writers. The problem here though is that the writers don’t commit to the idea of Rin learning Juliamo fully. Instead, they eventually work Japanese back into the plot.
About halfway through the story, Rin starts speaking more Japanese than Juliamo. There are plot reasons for this, but it robs the game of its unique premise. This was really disappointing for me since it allows Rin an easy out. She no longer needs to immerse herself in Juliamo. She can just get by using her Japanese. Sure, this allows us to move the story along quicker, but it conflicts with the learning aspect of the game. As for the second issue, well it’s here where we can really talk about The Expression: Amrilato’s core issue. It feels a bit rushed.
Commitment: Just as Important in Game Design as in Relationships
The question as to if Rin can ever return home, or if she even wants to return home is the other main conflict of the story. On one hand, sure Rin has friends and family she wants to see. On the other, she has Ruka. And staying with Ruka logically means staying in this world, right?
I’m sure you can see where this is going. It’s the classic sadistic choice. A character must make a tough decision that has major consequences either way. In the hands of a good writer, this can really tug at the audience’s heartstrings. However, it again requires a commitment to the idea. And, sadly, The Expression: Amrilato does not commit.
There are three endings to the game. One is, of course, the bad ending, but the other two should be considered “good” endings. Except, one of them really doesn’t feel like it. I can’t really talk about why without spoiling specific details, but in short, the one I thought would be happy feels regretful. Meanwhile the other is happy but leaves more questions than answers if you stop to think about it. In fact, I’d argue Rin’s in a worse position in that ending than she was at the start of the story. Which, is where my argument about the game being rushed comes in.
The Expression: Amrilato is trying to do a bunch of unique things but seems to just run out of time. It’s almost as if the developers started making this really intricate visual novel, then about halfway through had to suddenly hurry things along and wrap them up. It’s a shame since there’s a lot of potential here. Yet, unfortunately, it’s not fully realized. And, that includes the yuri element sadly.
A Yuri VN Doesn’t Need to Ask “Do I like Girls?” but Should Be About Girls Liking Other Girls
Since Kindred Spirits on the Roof, I have been waiting for another unique yuri visual novel experience. One that would focus on the relationship between its characters and how they fall in love. The Expression: Amrilato does do this. However, again, its also not fully realized.
On the plus side, Rin never really deals with the cliché question of “Do I like girls?”. From the onset, we get a very natural sense that Rin finds Ruka cute and attractive. She seems to have a natural disposition towards liking other girls. And that’s a good thing.
While the discovering of one’s sexual orientation is a major journey of self-discovery, many yuri titles tackle it. It’s nice to see a protagonist who doesn’t ever have any doubts about liking someone of the same gender. Likewise, Ruka never seems to question her own feelings for Rin. So, what’s not realized then? Again, we must talk about commitment.
In a normal romance based VN, the goal of the player is to pick the correct options to build the relationship between both characters. Generally, this isn’t too hard. Just be nice, help them, and when given a choice to pursue them, do it. This is a tried-and-true formula dating back to even the old-school eroge JAST USA was localizing in the 90s. So, what does The Expression: Amrilato do differently? Simple. Kissing Ruka locked me out of the golden ending.
The Kiss That Decides Rin and Ruka’s Fates
I want to preface this by saying, there is a possibility I missed a dialogue option somewhere. However, after testing various options over several playthroughs the conclusion I came to was that kissing Ruka on the lips near the climax of the game counts against the player for some reason. The correct choice seems to be to kiss her on the forehead instead. As to why this is, I have a theory.
Keep in mind, this game was written by Japanese developers for a Japanese audience. As such, I think the idea here is that Rin is being the mature one here and showing some restraint. When you consider that Rin is 17 and Ruka is 14, there is enough of an age gap that there could be some concern about a relationship between the two. However, I don’t agree with this idea for a few reasons.
First off, Rin has shown restraint throughout the game. Her thoughts run a little wild at times, but she’s always very aware of Ruka and very protective of her. She’d sooner exile herself from Ruka’s house than do something they’d regret. Secondly, it’s a kiss. Sure, it’s a kiss on the lips, but it supposed to be an expression that crystalizes their relationship. You can have a kiss without it turning into something sexual. Heck, Sakura Trick has more intense kissing than anything in The Expression: Amrilato. It’s frustrating and disappointing, to say the least.
I love the yuri genre and I was really looking forward to seeing how Rin and Ruka bond throughout this story. And they do bond. It is a cute and adorable tale of two girls trying to express themselves to each other through limited language and emotions. But, like any story, the conclusion is critical. And here, I’m just not a fan of the way The Expression: Amrilato handles its resolution regarding the relationship between Rin and Ruka. Anyway, let’s wrap this up
The Expression: Amrilato – A Fascinating Game of Sometimes Confusing Expressions That’s Still Sweet at Its Core
The Expression: Amrilato is a good game. I do honestly believe there was effort and thought put into it. I enjoyed trying to learn Juliamo. I enjoyed seeing Rin and Ruka interact with each other. And I enjoyed learning about the world and the phenomena that brought Rin into Ruka’s life. As I said, I was fascinated by this game! However, the game left me scratching my head more often than not.
The language learning could have been better integrated. Rin and Ruka’s relationship needed a little more fleshing out and a better resolution. And I wanted more time in this world learning about its people and the events that brought Rin into it. While ideas and concepts are introduced, they aren’t committed to and they aren’t fleshed out enough. There’s so much untapped potential here! It just feels like the developers ran out of time. So, where does that leave my thoughts on The Expression: Amrilato?
I’d still recommend this game to anyone who is curious about it. If you’ve never learned a language, you may feel a little overwhelmed near the beginning with the Juliamo segments. However, remember, you can turn off the quizzes and just enjoy the story. If you want to learn the basics of a language though, this will help you. In addition, the story is unique enough that I think its worth a read. While the premise of falling into another world is common these days, the game takes a realistic look at how difficult that may be for someone. The yuri though is where it gets tricky.
If you just want a light and fluffy tale about two girls who develop a bond, I think you’ll be okay here. However, The Expression: Amrilato doesn’t really pay off on the idea of two girls falling in love. While I appreciate the effort the writers put into Rin and Ruka’s relationship, I’m disappointed the game didn’t do more to explore the two’s feelings more. You can do an all-ages romance between two girls. Sadly though, this one falls a bit short for me.
The Expression: Amrilato can be found on MangaGamer.com, GOG, Steam, and on Discord for $24.95. If that sounds like a good deal to you, then by all means! Otherwise, just wait for a sale. Perhaps you’ll find yourself just immersed in learning the language of another world as I was. And if not, there’s always the tale of friendship between two kindhearted girls to keep you entertained.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: PC (reviewed); Publisher: MangaGamer ; Developer: SukeraSparo; Players: 1 ; Released: June 13, 2019 ; MSRP: $24.95
Full disclosure: This review is based on a retail copy of The Expression: Amrilato purchased by the reviewer.