Nicole is a visual novel game that relies very heavily on stat raising traits to progress forward in terms of both the mystery plot and the romantic relationships. Recently released on the Nintendo Switch, it’s joined the throng of other visual novels that have made their way onto the console recently. As a visual novel fan, I’ve played quite a lot of these of late and I love a good mystery game so I was pretty interested to see what Nicole was about.
The game follows the title protagonist, Nicole Grave, as she begins her first year at university in Florida – compared to many other visual novels out there this game is clearly western made but takes many of its tropes from the typical Japanese made dating simulation games. Whilst there, Nicole learns that a few girls there have been the victim of kidnappings and ends up looking into the mystery herself. She also meets four men who can both help and hinder the investigation, ultimately culminating in a romantic storyline for your preferred choice. The way to do this is generally through the stat-raising element of the game – each day you’re giving a selection of locations and activities to perform from working at a part-time job, socialising and studying which can help raise your stats. Each love interest is linked to a certain stat and so by maxing this out, you’re able to progress with their storyline and hopefully achieve that good end. But, you can’t spend all your time balancing your romantic relationship – to fully solve the mystery of the kidnappings you need to devote time to that as well and the timing can be a little tricky considering you only have until the end of December as a deadline.
The game comes across at times like one which would have been better released on mobile rather than on console – the frequent repetition of tips at the end of each day, for one. Ultimately, however, the stat raising element of the game whilst something I usually enjoy in games gets boring quite fast. When trying for a specific route, each day in-game ends up becoming a rinse-repeat of the same activities over and over to max the relevant stats and very little variety in between them. Occasionally over time, you’re rewarded with some scenes which serve to progress the storyline but these often feel thrown in and disjointed, with little differentiation between each route beyond the character-specific romantic stories. It’s worth mentioning as well that the controls themselves for this game can be quite frustrating – selecting options isn’t very visible due to the colours used and it’s extremely easy to click on the wrong one by accident. Whilst you’re able to save whenever you want (and indeed, are recommended to do so), this too feels rather clumsy and it’s far too easy to accidentally save or delete one of your files. I’m also very used to other visual novels I’ve played having a Log option so you can review past text and this one I felt suffered a lot from the lack of this option.
Whilst the art is pleasant enough, it’s nothing amazing and looks rather rough at times in terms of the character portraits. The music too is fairly generic, ranging from general atmospheric sounds to an actual piece for emotional scenes but sometimes it’ll just fade off into silence like it’s been forgotten. The writing and the cast is probably the main problems I found with this game, however. The writing is rather clumsy at times, and whilst there is an attempt to make Nicole and the cast relatable with their modern teen-speak and slang it sometimes across more as cringe-worthy than likable. The game on Switch allows you to play in two modes – the standard stat raising mode and the visual novel only mode – I tried out both but ultimately found that only with the standard stat raising mode were you able to truly solve the mystery which meant the visual novel mode something of a waste of time.
The overall mystery plot would have been better perhaps if we had been given a solid reason from the beginning as to why it was worthwhile looking into it – a reason for this does eventually appear but at that point, it’s often too late if you hadn’t been focusing your stats on finding clues. In the beginning, you’re told that there are kidnappings and Nicole seems vaguely curious but then decides it’s not worth looking into much and as the player, you’re not given any real reason motivation to want to do so. Without that personal hook to get the ball rolling at the start, there just isn’t any major push for you to investigate further. Not to mention that the actual process of gathering clues is rather boring and ultimately just raises your ‘Clues’ stat gradually until you’re given some scenes which often feel totally unrelated to all the presumed research Nicole has been doing. Overall, the writing itself came across as rather amateurish and I guessed who was the real culprit behind the kidnappings very early on, which is never really a good thing in a mystery game.
The cast for me was the other low point of the game – I disliked all of the main male love interests bar one, unfortunately. Most of them fall into simple tropes – the jock, the shy guy, the angry one, the intelligent one. Getting to know them all, I mostly found they put me off more than made me want to get to know them better. The jock guy, Kurt spent most of his time flirting with the protagonist or going on about how great he was – whilst he did mellow over the course of the game this initial impression really put me off him. Jeff, the lab assistant had a twist to his story which ultimately made me judge him as plain boring to extremely unsettling – he was also extremely ridiculous which made any interaction with him hilarious in completely the wrong ways. Ted, the country boy mostly just came across as aggressive or too serious and wasn’t really someone I could see the fun-loving Nicole getting along with. Darren, the classmate with crippling social anxiety, was the only one I truly liked although Nicole’s interactions with him often came across as way too pushy. Still, they at least felt like they had things in common with one another and communicated better thanks to their shared interests. His route also felt much less about romance and more about helping him with his problems which I felt was more natural.
Nicole ultimately feels like a game that’s trying too hard to be an intelligent game, but ultimately failing due to the weakness of the writing and the overall gameplay just isn’t enough to make it hold interest for too long. Add to that a weak cast and isn’t a mystery I can see myself returning to any time soon.
A dating sim with a mystery twist - unfortunately Nicole is rather underwhelming and suffers from it's repetitive nature.