Shira Oka is an original English dating sim that you might have heard of. It’s notable, sort of–the OP has real animation in it–but it otherwise flew under the radar in anime fandom (the indie game crowd might be different). The game is charming where it counts and flawed in forgivable ways. Flaws are flaws, though, and “charming” is as close to emotionally affecting as it gets.
Let’s back up for a bit. Essentially, dating sims are meant to be immersive. While never entirely realistic, much of the fun comes from challenging a seemingly real world and working your way up the social ladder to win the heart of your chosen girl. “Too light winning may make the prize light”; even simulated love is no fun when it falls into your lap.
Shira Oka scores well here, and it’s challenging in a believable way. The game unfolds through an ostensibly believable development of the main character’s stats rather than through complicated branches based on decision points. The player is given choices to develop different aspects of Protag’s social abilities (intelligence for schoolwork, athletics for attractiveness, etc. etc.), opening different options based on character stats. They call it Second Chances for a reason, by the way: you’ll have to New Game+ once or twice to get a good end. But it doesn’t feel like level grinding. The early in-game months are unpredictable and you’re more likely to get caught up in the story than to stop and ponder which part of the common route you’re in.
The key here is that what I call the skeleton of the game–the inner mechanics that move the story along–remains invisible for a very long time. I imagine this is the goal of most dating sim devs. By not directly telling the player what impact taking a rest on the weekend or raising their intelligence stat will have, you encourage them to play the game as they would real life, exploring options on their own. Shira Oka succeeds in creating a playground of sorts in which you can experiment with your life and observe the consequences. There’s rarely a distinct, obvious set of decisions to make to win a specific girl’s heart. Nothing is as simple as meeting the bookworm in the library three days in a row to unlock her route.
Yes, you will want her to be your waifu, and no, you won’t get her on your first playthrough.
So the gameplay is good and immersive and all that. The more pressing concern with Shira Oka is its story.
Or at least that depends on the type of story you’re looking for. It matches the tone of the game and the word that I used in the beginning: charming. The overall plot would make for a fun late 90s/early 2000s harem romcom anime with drama sprinkled here and there.
Trouble only emerges at the end of each route when the game starts to take itself seriously. Crazy Ken Akamatsu-style transitions between zaniness and fantasy drama are abound, and they clash with the relative realism of the game’s trunk. What’s worse is that the crazy (and I mean crazy) twists aren’t all comedic or self-aware. It’s fun, but it’s too silly to be dramatic and the twists are too dark to work as a goofy postmodern romcom.
By crazy I do mean crazy.
The writing isn’t bad. It’s effective, though not particularly moving. It operates well with the fantastic design of the game in that dialogue is rarely transparent and the characters don’t betray their feelings in too obvious a way. Even the less subtle lines are endearing; words slip here and there, revealing feelings coyly rather than blatantly. On the technical side, the game is held back by its lack of a good “skip previously read” option but there’s probably a good reason why they couldn’t implement it like in normal visual novels. I really, really hope there’s a good reason.
So the game is okay-but-not-great and it’s nearly impossible to play every route because of the poor dialogue skipping, but where does that leave us? The plot isn’t my cup of tea and I honestly think it undermines the realism of the “trunk” of the story, but the characters make an impression. Add that to the well-crafted design of the game that forces you to think when you’re on a date and you get something more than a solid attempt. It all comes down to how long it takes the player to uncover the structure and break their suspension of disbelief.