It's been quite a while since I've written about a Japanese PC Engine game, and even longer since I've added anything new to my collection. So this week I'm finally going to sit down with one that's been gathering dust for a while -- the digital comic CAL II, which I picked up on the cheap a few years back. It was created by Birdy Soft, and published as a Super CD-ROM title in 1993 (and likely ported) by NEC Avenue, which brought a lot of titles from other platforms over to the PC Engine. The game opens with credits, accompanied by a bouncy CD-audio tune and a gallery of big-eyed anime girls, before we get to the simple title screen:
CAL seems to be an acronym. I don't know for sure that there ever was a CAL I -- only CAL II and CAL III made it to the PC Engine, at any rate, so while there was almost certainly a predecessor, my best guess is it was on the MSX or another Japanese home computer platform. And unlike most of the PCE digital comics I have written about here, it's not based on any anime property with which Western gamers are likely to be familiar. So we're just going to have to take this one at face value.
Like so many manga tales, this one begins with a young lad sitting down to do some homework, we presume, in a conference room at school, where he is distracted by a note:
Then his female friend apologizes for her lateness, and talks, like, forEVer -- we can speed up the printed text, but when there's dialogue, we have to listen to the whole thing before we can move forward:
After she pins a rose on our more-or-less faceless hero, she is taken away by some sort of warrior queen:
Before he is suddenly drawn into another dimension by a blonde goddess who, we may assume, represents the forces of good, what with her crystal temple and all. Interactivity is limited, but at least our hero's non-spoken lines can be skipped over:
Now our hero is free to navigate the overhead map to a lively ragtime tune -- well, not free, really, he has to deal with this catgirl first before he has any other options:
The catgirl says Nyao a lot and sings a brief song, but like a department store Santa Claus, her characteristic features look fake up close:
Past this point, our hero encounters stereotypes of all nations, like this vaguely Middle Eastern village:
And, of course, at the heart of the experience are a number of comely young ladies in slightly risque states of dress, most of whom we get to see from several different angles as the scene progresses. There's no real nudity, but plenty of suggestive posing -- at least if you think unhappy-looking girls are sexy:
There aren't very many choices to make between the lengthy dialogue sequences -- sometimes only one. And some of the responses have no real bearing on the story, such as a sequence in which our hero is quizzed about his blood type. But my real problem here is that, given my extremely limited Japanese language skills, for me the interactive bits become yet another exercise in selecting options at random until something breaks through and allows some progress. I assume our hero's ultimate goal is to get back home, but with little clue about the story's development, the quest grows tiresome before the end is in sight.
And this game makes one really awful design decision, at least in the eyes of the clueless Western gamer for whom this title was never meant -- it lets the hero go to sleep, while we are expected to keep playing:
The production values of CAL II aren't bad -- the artwork is colorful and detailed, using one of the PC Engine's higher-resolution graphics modes, and sometimes there's a little bit of incidental animation to liven up the still images. All of the lengthy cutscenes and some of the interactive dialogue sequences are voiced, though CD-ROM space was limited and thus every spoken line suffers from the scratchiness common to digitized audio on the PCE. Background music is played using the PCE sound chip, sacrificing something in quality for the sake of continuity during frequent disc access.
And, in an unusual twist for a digital comic, it is possible to make the wrong decisions and end up with a true end-of-game situation:
At this point I wasn't motivated to revisit the story and try to make better choices, so that's about all I have to say about CAL II. I will probably tackle CAL III sometime soon, just to get it out of my queue... but I'll forewarn you that it's pretty much more of the same.