The Charming Empire is a visual novel approach with a heavy emphasis on otome, or a story setup meant for women. The idea is to give the player a relatively blank slate for the protagonist, imprint your own style on it (usually in the form of putting in your own name), and then running wild as you try and find which man (or men) will be your future. Unlike many stereotypes regarding visual novels that appeal to male audiences, otome games will be more focused on relationships and love instead of physical endgame (though that’s not to say the two are mutually exclusive).
As a straight male who doesn’t enjoy visual novels, I could already tell this was going to be interesting.
Without a good story, there isn’t a visual novel. The Charming Empire gives you a pretty good setup: you’re the estranged step-sister of the sitting emperor, and you’ve been summoned to the imperial palace in order to get polished up and married off for the good of the country. After arriving, you find yourself in the sights of one lucky dude who will do everything he can in order to draw your attention. Oh, there’s also an entire background story about a potential government coup, a downtrodden lower class and a weird East-meets-West culture happening, but that gets swept under the rug for most of the game. Instead, the narrator favors talking endlessly about your thoughts regarding boys, your childhood, how weird the city is, and hands. A lot of mention of hands.
Otome games don’t have to be insipid. Although your focus is on trying to find out who the love of your life is, I think it’s important to make sure that the player understands they are more than a two dimensional projection of insecurities and ugly duckling syndrome in a kimono. Charming Empire, sadly, doesn’t capture a ton of variety in what the character has potential for. With several paths to choose from (including a town rebel, the emperor’s adviser and the emperor himself), you still find yourself walking some of the same paths over again. To be fair, if you only play a single storyline, you may feel frustrated and empty about not learning more regarding the world around you. It actually takes multiple plays and multiples chances at love to flush out entirely what’s happening, but, even then, it’s not that exciting.
Then again, the story is just a framing device for the boys, and it works out in proper fashion. With plenty of opportunities to be wooed, to go to festivals and a lot of grabbing of hands, pats on the head and deep eye contact, it’s clear that OperaHouse accomplished what they set out to do: get a bunch of pretty anime dudes to woo you.
The art is pretty decent, in my opinion. Although several of the backgrounds get recycled throughout the storylines (a cafe in particular is revisited in almost every route), it gives you a good sense of the shape of the castle and the empire in general. Sometimes things were confusing, as the descriptions of the story didn’t match the pictures. A couple of times, our protagonist marveled at chandeliers that were clearly just hanging lamps in the pictures, or looked at the wall-to-wall carpeting that didn’t reach any walls. My personal favorite was her asking if the floor was made of stone, when it clearly was wooden. It’s bizarre and takes you out of the story.
Your love interest, however, is always well drawn, and moves through four sets of facial expressions throughout the dialogue. When we have a cutaway closeup, the male characters are always well drawn and really capture the beauty of his intense, piercing stares. These stand in stark contrast to the fact that the female lead frequently looks like she was drawn by someone else and then superimposed afterwards. I don’t understand how there was such a difference in how she looked, but maybe it’s a trope of otome games where you actually see yourself.
Music, throughout, was kind of bizarre. When I saw that we were wearing kimonos and the townsfolk wore early 20th century Western wear, I was hopeful for an eclectic but fitting mashup of enka and ragtime music. Instead, I was treated to a lot of accordion and piano. It’s not particularly varied and changes abruptly when the tone of the scene changes. Nothing seems inappropriately out of place, but it constantly felt like getting a Pepsi when I asked for a Coke.
The voice acting is also pretty good. Everyone except the female lead gets their own Japanese voicework, and they pulled in some strong performances. They give a great air of sincerity to the lines, but anything more than a single sentence pulls you out of the moment due to weird spacing. A character would speak, pause unnaturally long, and then speak their next sentence. Someone in sound mixing dropped the ball, and it makes for an overall robotic experience.
There isn’t a ton of gameplay in visual novels to begin with, and The Charming Empire doesn’t add anything new to the experience. Depending on your storyline, you may only be given choices when speaking directly to your love interest, and most of them are pretty straightforward. If you want the True Love ending, you pick the choice that seems more romantic (“You were thinking of me?”). If you want the friendship ending, choose the line that would best fit a man you don’t really know invading your personal bubble (“You’re too close!”). On one of the more difficult routes, the brother, the difference between romance and friendship can be very blurry, so you may need to save and back up in order to try again. But The Charming Empire plays like a Choose Your Own Adventure book with unlimited Post-It notes. You can save an indefinite number of slots and go back to literally any decision and try again. Finding love isn’t a matter of skill: it’s determination, however creepy that may be.
I didn’t hate my time with Charming Empire. I found bits of it comical, but I was genuinely interested in how the story unfolded and how my character changed her personality depending on the man I was vying for. I wish she hadn’t been so self-deprecating, but maybe that was my own sign that I needed to get off the computer and find a man the old fashioned way. If you’re a fan of a very simple otome experience, Charming Empire could be a good time, albeit a bit pricey. If you’re not interested in anime boys and hate reading about Earl Grey tea, then I highly recommended going elsewhere.