There are times where, after a long day at work, the only thought flooding your mind is to sit down in a nice chair, grab the controller (or keyboard and mouse) and just enjoy some video gaming R&R. Sometimes, a visual novel is all it takes to wind you down. In order to experience such a feeling, there must be a compelling story, with interesting characters and excellent dialogue and writing. Beautiful visuals and an inspiring soundtrack are also a must. For Gakhthun of the Golden Lightning, written by Sakurai Hikaru, developed by Lair Soft and published in English by MangaGamer, it seems it’s a big mash up of great moments mixed in with dull and boring moments. The writing was absolutely repetitive and uninteresting at times, but the characters can bring life to the story. The narrative is cliché and boring, but also had moments of greatness. It’s hard to absolutely love or hate this visual novel.
So, what is this visual novel about? Gahkthun takes place in a alternative 20th century Europe as steam power rapidly developed in the 19th century, creating a more steampunk inspired world. It follows students at the Marseille Offshore Academia, which is off the coastline of France, near the city of Marseille. At first, the story focuses on Neon, a first year student still amazed with the floating island. She studies by day and works by night at a restaurant in one of the shadier parts of the academy. One night, the restaurant owner fires her from her job, only to be bought for 30 silver coins by a new student, Nikola Tesla. This is the same Nikola Tesla who developed AC inducted motors and radio. From that day he bought Neon, Neon becomes Tesla’s assistant. The visual novels then follows the several students and their link to the mysterious Bell of Gahkthun.
The idea itself is interesting and intriguing. It’s a steampunk world with an altered history to our own. Bringing one one of the most brillant scientists/inventors of the late 19th and early 20th century adds more intrigue into the story, considering his past is quite secretive. However, the writing is hit and miss. After doing some research on Hikaru Sakurai, it seems she has written a fair few visual novels. Without knowing her style, though, it’s hard to compare with her other work. With that said, her writing does capture the characters very well and there were time it was great. There’s a bit of maturity in the script, too. It wasn’t over the top made the narrative realistic and believable. But the repetitive nature of the style eventually wears off and it becomes hard to focus on what should be a great story. It get tiring and tedious and it almost makes you lose interest in the story and its characters.
It’s a bummer, because the characters are actually great to follow. The pairing of Neon and Nikola happens to be a good one. Their chemistry shows when they interact with each other and it all comes down to the great characterisation of the two. Tesla comes off as cold and distant, but in reality he has a kind heart and want to protect Neon. Neon herself is high spirited, evident in the life she lives. As Tesla’s assistant, she isn’t afraid to speak up against Tesla’s rude remarks, often changing her pitch in the process. Even the romance that builds between the two (all the signs point to one early on) is a slow, realistic build, complement by their personalities. The supporting cast are also a joy to follow. However, thanks to the hit and miss writing, following these characters may be more of a chore rather than a great experience.
In a strange move, it also focuses on characters that appear for one chapter and that’s it. It gives them some time to develop, but it feels wasted as they are not heard from ever again. It happens often, in fact. What’s worse is that they follow the same pattern: character is introduced, has problem, Tesla solves it, character disappears. It interjects into the plot unnecessary and distorts the flow of the narrative. It doesn’t work at all. Instead of focusing on some nobody that doesn’t appear in the visual novel after their chapter, the writer should have expanded on the already established cast of students introduced at the beginning. Izumi and Albert, Neo’s closest friends, should have had more time to further flesh out their characters.
Then there are the action scenes. This is another disappointment in Gahkthun. All of the action scenes focus on Tesla and it’s pretty noticable where these scenes will go as soon as you witness Tesla in action in his first fight. The problem with the actions scenes is a lack of tension and suspence. Like the chapters, they have a pattern: Tesla gets beat up, Tesla powers up, Tesla wins. Again, there is no sense of danger for Tesla. No matter what happens, all he needs to do is activate one of his lightning attacks and he wins. It’s like playing the game on the easiest difficulty and your character is already at the highest level with all abilities at their maximum potential. It isn’t fun because there’s no challenge. Tesla receives no real challenge throughout the game. The only exception is the final boss, but the rest of the battles left a bad taste in your mouth.
The art style is certainly a joy to view. The world is set in reflects on the nature of steam powered technology. Everything is harsh and gritty, just like the Industrial Revolution itself. Because of the singular setting, locations will often repeat. In stark contrast, the characters are bright and vivid. They’re also drawn with a certain softness to them. This is also present during the H-scenes in the game. Speaking of the H-scenes, they actually fit into the narrative of the story. They helped develop character and emotion, rather than having a sex scene for the sake of one. It was handled in a classy and mature way. The music is decent enough, but not memorable. It does its job, however, on creating the atmosphere of the scene.
Overall, Gahkthun of the Golden Lightning is a very mixed bag. There are parts of pure wonder, suspense and joy, but these are balanced out by moments of dread and boredom. The writing has a lot to do with it. It’s sometimes great and it’s sometimes dull. Some of the characters are great to follow and you’ll develop a fondness for them, but then there are some you’ll never care about and want to skip their chapter or scene. The action scenes needed to be better and some chapters should have been cut or replaced. It’s definitely a visual novel that I can recommend to the hardcore fans or fans of Sakurai’s style, but maybe give it a miss if you’re more of an occasional player of visual novels.
Gahkthun of the Golden Lightning was provided to us by publisher of the English translation MangaGamer for the purpose of this review. The visual novel is now available for US$44.95 on MangaGamer’s website.