I am the kind of person that is particularly foolhardy when it comes to controversial media and taboos. Like a moth to a flame, if somebody tells me game, book, manga, or anime is morally reprehensible, that just makes me really want to check it out. Not because I get a kick out of being the edgy dude that loves everything society disapproves of, but because I like forming my own opinion about things, and divisive topics like these are particularly interesting to think about.
Song of Saya is one such work of fiction. A gore-filled, cosmic horror eroge visual novel, which released in Japan in 2003 and somehow eventually made its way overseas 10 years later. I was eager to revisit this game.
Fuminori is a 20-something medical student at a local university who has just recovered from experimental surgery. His mother and father both died in a car accident and he only barely survived after months of recovery. However, since opening his eyes, Fuminori has discovered that he now sees the world as if it’s made of rotting flesh, and its people have turned into hulking, pus-filled monsters.
In his mind, Fuminori knows that these are doctors and his friends, that he is in a clean hospital room, but to him, it’s like a vision of hell. Soon after, taste, touch, and smell adjust accordingly, giving him the full experience of being the only person in an alien world. Still, there is one beacon of hope. One night, a mysterious girl named Saya appears over his bed and greets him in surprise when Fuminori isn’t scared of her. Desperate for a shred of normalcy, Fuminori begins to meet with this Saya every night and, eventually, invites her to live with him in his otherwise-empty family home.
The game is a Japanese-style visual novel with a very classic approach. The story is initially followed from the perspective of Fuminori, which renders the visuals and soundscape gruesome. However, it does switch to other protagonists, like his former friends Koji, Omi, and Yoh who are concerned about the changes in his behavior, his doctor who is trying to keep a secret from him, and his neighbor who watches Fuminori turn into a neglectful hermit as his house deteriorates around him.
The story is intense, especially when told by Fuminori. Months of exposure to the most horrific visions have rendered him hateful and cynical. He can no longer enjoy time with his old friends, he’s absolutely disgusted by them and treats them cruelly in the hope they’ll go away forever. His every pleasure in life has been torn away from him and he begins to entirely devote himself and his daily routine to Saya. He is desperate for her presence and worries when she is away when he doesn’t expect it or that she might leave if he doesn’t make enough progress finding her missing “father”.
At the same time, we follow the stories of his friends and doctor wising up to the fact that Fuminori is not as alright as he presents himself to be. He is trying to appear mentally stable to avoid being researched further with no promise of a cure, but his actions become deranged and even violent. Not to mention, they soon begin to figure out that something is spurring him on, causing this reclusive behavior.
The style of writing is wordier than the other visual novels we’ll tackle in this themed month. It elaborately describes the characters’ thought processes, environments around them, and discussions, which are pasted across the entire screen in a transparent box, rather than printed line for line. The language used is also less accessible than Katawa Shoujo‘s, so it is more geared towards those who are actually into reading.
The horror in this, at least that which isn’t visual and auditory, comes from the growing realization of what Saya truly is and what she is doing. After all, if everything Fuminori sees is hellish and filthy, what does that imply about Saya, who in his eyes is the avatar of purity and beauty. The story escalates in tension rapidly and revelations about Saya and what is happening come frequently enough to give the novel good pacing.
The game alternates between illustrations as backgrounds over scenes and having a static background with shifting sprites, neither of which I liked much. The sprite art is static and often a bit awkward. The character designs aren’t very nice at all and many of the alternate poses looked slightly off. The full-color illustrations are nicer, but these are few and often on screen for a long time without variety. You also have to press a button to get a good view of these, as per default the game immediately puts text over them. The backgrounds themselves are bad. The gore looks like it was a “realistic” render made on the Playstation 1 and many of the normal backgrounds are just photoshopped pictures, which isn’t uncommon for visual novels like this.
Truly, the game’s real strength lies in its soundscape. The music is hauntingly eerie and the entire game is voice-acted, which includes the monstrous howling that Fuminori hears in place of speech. It’s like the cries of every RPG monster played through a distorted speaker at once, somehow given the vaguest resemblance to actual words. It’s effective and something many a horror game could stand to learn from. Sadly, the actual voice-acting is Japanese-only and kind of mediocre.
The game offers various choices that steer the direction of the story. Most of these revolve around how Fuminori decides to pursue his romance with Saya. Does he welcome a potential cure or does he accept this new world as it is, knowing he’ll be able to share it with her. Choice moments are, however, very rare. There are only a few portions where players are given influence, which is a shame because I found myself wanting to interject more often. Scenes like Fuminori being confronted by old friends and deciding to tell them off seem tailor-made for a potential choice moment, where players can decide whether to cling to old relations or further push Fuminori into an isolated life with Saya. Instead, no choice is offered at all, and this makes it feel like Fuminori isn’t really our character at all.
Even then, the choices you do get lead to three distinct endings that all kind of suck in their own way. One is a quick cop-out ending that cuts the story very short, and the other two are different flavors of miserable. Then again, this is a story written by Gen Urobuchi, who loves cynical and depressing storylines. Unlike a show such as Madoka Magica, though, Song of Saya doesn’t offer any likable, relatable characters for the player to be invested in. Saya and Fuminori go far beyond the moral event horizon and the sane protagonists are all just kind of boring and underdeveloped. The “bad” ending that ends the story immediately is honestly the best deal here and leaves all the characters in a somewhat redeemable state.
So. What. About. The. Sex?
Well, there is a bunch of that and… it ain’t to my taste. Fuminori and Saya have a very sexual relationship and one I couldn’t really invest myself into. It always feels like Fuminori is into her just because she looks normal to him and a lot of the sex scenes feel as if the writer honestly didn’t want to write them at all. They are very awkward and the art I found to be unappealing. Not just because Saya really isn’t my type, but also because Fuminori looks off in these scenes.
Not helping at all is a late-game twist that plunges the sex scenes from “kind of bad” territory straight into “tasteless trash”. I won’t spoil the specifics of what happens, but it pulls a plot twist out of its ass that is so contrived and pointlessly evil that even the biggest edgelords will find it a little absurd.
And this kind of handicaps the entire experience of reading Saya no Uta. It has a strong central premise and the potential for much body horror and gore, but the lack of choice in its narrative and its determination to be as dark as possible leave it kind of alienating and mediocre. Its gore and sex scenes are pretty bad, so the lack of a satisfying storyline where players have agency is a nail in the coffin for this visual novel. You can only rely on shock value for so long before players wisen up and realize how shallow your writing is.