Key is credited with creating the term “kinetic novel”, meaning a visual novel without choices. One of the earliest of these, and probably one of the most well-known, is Planetarian.
The game is set in a ruined world devastated by nuclear war, in which the few remnants of humanity struggle to survive amid acid rain and automated machines that kill on sight. In this world, the novel's unnamed protagonist is a junker who scavenges for useful items in order to maintain a living. On one of his expeditions, he comes across an abandoned building that is home to one Yumemi Hoshino, who inexplicably congratulates him for being the planetarium's 2,500,000th customer (although, she quietly admits to him, she told a little white lie, and he is in fact the 2,497,290th customer). The junker finds himself roped into helping Yumemi repair her beloved projector so that she can give him the special presentation reserved for the 2,500,000th customer, and meanwhile tries to figure out why this unusually optimistic girl is living alone in an abandoned building in the middle of a war zone.
In a story with only two characters, everything rides on their interactions and overall relationship, and Planetarian is carried by the powerful bond between the junker and Yumemi. The junker starts out emotionally distant and pragmatic, but gradually feels more drawn to the dreamlike Yumemi, who functions as the one bright spot in the sea of waste that the world has become. There's a fine line between endearingly cheerful and obnoxiously optimistic, and happily, Yumemi remains in the former category, at least for me. Something about the poor girl makes me want to root for her, even if the junker doesn't initially feel the same way, and the pair of them have a great contrast and bounce off each other really well.
The visuals have aged well, especially considering the original release date of 2004. Most of the backgrounds are static images, but they're simple and effective, and the CGs in particular are gorgeous. The soundtrack is beautiful, and kind of painful to listen to at times in the most emotional way, but I also really liked the points where there was no background music, just the junker and Yumemi speaking; those points felt like some of the most powerful to me, for their sense of realism.
As mentioned, there are no branching paths in this visual novel, just one story that you follow to the end. It's not necessarily a surprising ending, but it nonetheless packs a gut-wrenching punch right in the emotions. Themes of human-robot relationships, the folly of man, maintaining hope, and what it means to thrive and be happy in a broken world are handled adeptly. Key would later go on to further explore these themes in games like Rewrite and Harmonia, but I feel that they're at their purest form here.
It's weird to think about, but there was a time when the phrase “kinetic novel” wasn't ridiculously well-known. There was a time when this game was one of the first of its kind. Nowadays, it's a classic; if you haven't played it, you've probably at least heard something about it or about its parent company. And like any classic, it sets a certain bar for others to meet. Happily, Planetarian sets a magnificently high standard for the interactive fiction genre, combining a bleak world with the promise that things can get better to make for a moving tale.
Planetarian is available on Steam.
Final verdict: An unassuming but deeply moving tale, Planetarian is so beautiful and heartfelt that it will deservedly stick with you long after you finish reading it.
Planetarian is developed by Key Visual Arts and published in English by Sekai Project. The opinions are expressed in this review are my own. I was not compensated in any way for this review. This review was originally written for Anime Backgrounds.