These last few years have been pretty good to otome games fans, with tons of new English language releases of Japanese otome titles and two upcoming otome anime adaptations. One of the games that has been getting the most attention lately is Idea Factory’s mystery/detective visual novel, Collar x Malice. Within the span of a month fans were treated to an upcoming anime announcement and at Anime Expo 2019, Aksys Games announced that they would be releasing both Collar x Malice and it’s new fandisk, Collar x Malice: Unlimited for the Nintendo Switch in 2020. So, after dragging my feet for two years, I finally carved out some time for the game and I am kicking myself for waiting so long to jump on the Collar x Malice hype train. This is by far my favorite localization release to date!
Collar x Malice was published in Japan by Idea Factory under their Otomate brand of games in 2016 and release exclusively for the PS Vita handheld. In 2017 Aksys Games released an English language edition of the game. 2017 was a huge year for western otome games fans, with a ton of great titles making their way stateside, but of all of them Collar x Malice stood out the most for me. The game follows a rookie police officer, Ichika Hoshino living in Shinjuku. The city is currently under a mass quarantine after the terrorist organization, Adonis commits a series of violent crimes known collectively as the X-Day Incidents. One night while on patrol, Ichika is kidnapped and fitted with a collar set to dispense a lethal dose of poison into her neck. A voice from the collar instructs her to investigate the X-Day Incidents and uncover the “truth” behind Adonis and their plans for Shinjuku. With her life and the fate of the city on the line, Ichika must rely on the help of five strangers, each with their own reasons for wanting to solve the X-Day cases. Together, they might be able to remove Ichika’s collar and liberate Shinjuku from Adonis’s grip.
As a young police officer, you must save a city under siege! A terrorist organization’s brutal attack has left you fitted with a deadly souvenir – a poisonous collar that could end your life at any moment. With time running out, five strangers offer their help – but which of them can you trust?
Will you be able to save your own neck, and the lives of those around you, or will this case end in disaster?
The otome games genre is very niche, even with the growing popularity of the genre outside of Japan. As a genre that is targeted towards women, many of the games that fall under the otome games umbrella focus primarily on romance. However assuming that otome games are only about romance is a great disservice to games like Collar x Malice that go beyond the reverse harem premise. Of all the otome games I have played, Collar x Malice is the one that has stuck with me the longest, because it simply a story of good vs. evil, rather it delves into the meaning of justice and how we as individuals determine what is just and what isn’t.
Throughout the game we see the characters struggling to reconcile their personal definition of justice and morality with what society considers just and moral. But, what I really like about Collar x Malice is that despite posing several different moral arguments from Adonis, the Police, Ichika, and Yanagi and his team, it never truly says any one side is completely right or wrong. On paper, the members of Adonis are clearly the bad guys because they resort to violence in order facilitate their goals, which should then make the Police the good guys for opposing them. But, as you delve into the motivations and past actions of each organization you discover that it’s not quite as black and white as you initially thought.
It’s this moral ambiguity that makes Collar x Malice so intriguing because it doesn’t just stop at the easy answers, it goes beyond the surface and lets the player decide what is just and what isn’t. The further you dive into the various X-Day cases, the less black and white things become, and the harder it is to distinguish who the true “villain” of the game really is. Unlike most stories where each route exists within its own self contained bubble, the different character routes in Collar x Malice are just a small piece of the whole overarching story.
Each route delves into a different aspect of the X-Day Incidents, revealing new information that is integral to solving entirety of Adonis’s X-Day plan. Usually, you can skip one or two routes in a game and not miss out on anything important, but here, YOU HAVE TO PLAY ALL THE ROUTES or you’ll miss out on crucial details along the way. Each of the main love interests focuses on a different X-Day case that feeds into the others, with side characters in one route showing up in other routes as suspects or perpetrators of the X-Day crimes. Play order is very important, since the suggested play order (Mineo → Takeru → Kei → Shiraishi → Yanagi) helps keep the flow of the overall story and cases. Though, I will admit that I did play Kei’s route first and aside from some minor spoilers (that I didn’t know were spoilers at the time) the rest of the story wasn’t too flipped around. Granted you can’t unlock Yanagi’s route until you play all the others… but, for the love of god, DO NOT play Shiraishi’s route out of order!
Before I talk about the love interests, I want to take a moment to talk about how much I loved Ichika. She is by far one of my favorite otome heroines, man do we need more MCs like Ichika Hoshino! Most otome heroines are little more than self insert characters, with little to no agency in the events of the game. Thankfully, that is not the case here! Ichika is a well balanced character that is at times vulnerable, and other times kicking ass right alongside the guys. She’s a very human character with flaws and rather than shy away from them, she embraces them, she learns from her mistakes, she does a damn good job of overcoming her shortcomings.
She doesn’t just let the guys handle things for her, she works hand in hand with them at every step of the investigation. If there is something she doesn’t know she doesn’t wait for the answer to just fall into her lap, she goes out and does her own research! But, best of all she doesn’t just let the guys push her around, she has thoughts and ideas. She isn’t afraid to tell them what she thinks, actively engaging with them when they don’t agree on something. Seriously, Ichika is the real MVP of Collar x Malice. She has a strong sense of justice, but she is sympathetic and compassionate towards others, she takes the time to stop and think before leaping into action. I COULD GO ON ABOUT ICHIKA FOR DAYS!! But, seriously, Ichika is perfection!
I even loved that she had relationships with people outside of the romantic interests. She has a rocky relationship with her younger brother Kazuki and she spends a good part of the game trying to reconnect with him while keeping him away from all the Adonis stuff. And after Period Cube and 7’scarlet both blindsided me with Bro-Con romances, I’m just happy to see a healthy and normal sibling relationship!
But, Ichika even has friends! She’s really close with her supervisor and she has a male friend Yuzuru Saeki who she goes out for drinks with and honestly he is such a really nice guy… I really wish he was a dateable character, I ship him and Ichika so hard… but alas, he is stuck in the friendzone… SERIOUSLY, Yuzuru needs his own route…
There are even some female friends too and I really truly love both of them, Sakuragawa and Mukai are exactly how BFFs should be! They go out for drinks, trash talk about coworkers, help each other around the office…. have interrogations/interventions about each other’s choices in men…?! They really help ground Ichika, giving her a life outside of the collar and the rest of the X-Day investigations and it’s refreshing to see some wholesome female relationships in my otome games!
The love interests pretty much run the gambit, and if I am being honest, I can’t say that I hated any of them. I do have my favorites, believe me I do, but as a whole, I really did like each of the guys and I like that their routes were different enough from one another to really give them each a chance to shine. But, what I really enjoyed were the relationships between Yanagi and his crew, they really felt like a family and not just a group of guys working together. They fought with each other, they ate meals with each other and even though they had their own reasons for investigating the X-Day cases, there was this chemistry between them that you don’t see too often in otome games. Minato and Takeru butt heads and bicker all the time, Yanagi is the dad of the group keeping everyone in line, Shiraishi and Kei are the weird uncles that just kind of hang around…
VA. Saitou Souma
I was really surprised that I liked Mineo, since I usually hate brash, impulsive, and LOUD guys like him. But, oh my gosh I love Mineo! He is such a dork! He’s the typical genki guy, simple minded, good natured, impulsive, charging head first into everything. He is enamored with the warriors of the Segoku period even wearing an eyepatch to emulate his hero Date Masamune (the love of my life) and he’s always spouting various mantras about justice. He was initially a member of Field Ops, but like most of Yanagi’s team he quit to investigate the X-Day crimes independent of the police.
I really like that despite being pretty easy-going, Mineo doesn’t immediately welcome Ichika with open arms, in fact she spends the bulk of his route trying to get him to trust her. Out of all the guys I think they had the most chemistry, since they both have similar personalities (which leads to them butting heads a lot) and they are pretty close in age. I could really see them just hanging out as friends or working well together in a non romantic sort of way. Though, I will say the romance between them was super cute, Mineo is so awkward around women, but he’s too stubborn to admit it. His route felt more like an introduction to the mechanics of the game, his case wasn’t as intense and a lot of the interactive portions were pretty simplistic.
VA. Namikawa Daisuke
I am a die hard tsundere fan, so I really loved his route, however I will admit that his constant nitpicking and berating of Ichika could rub some people the wrong way… He’s usually the smartest person in the room and he knows it so he tends to act like everyone is beneath him throwing shade left, right, and center. He is a bit of an ass, and he takes to calling Ichika a “dumb cat” more times than not, which gets pretty annoying after awhile. Takeru was born in Japan but raised in the US, so he isn’t a fan of Shinjuku lifting the Guns and Fire Arms ban in the wake of the X-Day Incidents. He has a bit of a sweet tooth, though he isn’t a fan of traditional Japanese food. However, he LOVES doughnuts!!
He’s a hacker that originally worked for the Cyber Crimes Division, so he’s the intel guy of the group regularly hacking into the police database for updates on the X-Day cases. And you wouldn’t expect a hacker to have an action heavy storyline, but somehow or another they managed it… There were also a lot of really sweet moments between him and Ichika that resulted in some truly beautiful CGs… like the best in the whole game!
VA. Kaji Yuuki
So, unlike Yanagi, Sasazuka, and Enomoto, Okazaki is an active police officer and a member of the elite SP squad. He’s usually assigned to protect important VIPs, but the higher ups have him spying on Yanagi and his crew. His route is a bit different from the others since you don’t start out investigating a specific X-Day incident, you kind of investigate a recent case that occurs at the start of the game, which segues into an incident from his Okazaki’s past.
He’s a bit of a mixed bag, he acts like an airhead, but he is actually very observant and a bit of a badass. Do not let his looks fool you, he sees everything! He has a couple of quirks like he loves weird flavored snacks (strawberry chips anyone?), has a tendency to sleep in awkward places, and enters Yanagi’s office through the window like that kid in Clarissa Explains It All. But, he’s really a sweetheart and I liked that he was willing to put his life on the line for his friends… even if he over does it a bit… He has a partner, Yoshinari who he treats like a gopher…
VA. Kimura Ryouhei
Like Okazaki, he is still an active officer working as a Profiler for the police. He’s another odd bird, he’s always has this sh*t eating grin on his face even when there is nothing funny going on. He likes to mess with Ichika, teasing her mercilessly, but from time to time he’ll steer her in the right direction during her investigations. He and Yanagi are surprisingly close, despite being complete opposites and I’d even go so far as to say that they are BFFLs… Oh and he likes cats and cat accessories…
I loved his relationship with Ichika and how it evolved over the course of the story, however… Anything else I say about him would be a major spoiler, however, I will say this; grab a box of tissues for that Good Ending and DON’T PLAY HIS ROUTE OUT OF ORDER!
VA. Morita Masakazu
Papa Bear Yanagi, keeping all the children in line… No, I am so serious, he spends most of the game keeping Mineo and Takeru from biting each other’s heads off. Cooking their meals so they don’t starve and cleaning up after them. He’s their dad and you won’t convince me otherwise. Yanagi is the oldest member of the team at the ripe old age of 28… we’re the same age and I seriously wanted to cry every time they called him an old man. He used to work in Investigations Section 1, so he’s like the best of the best… the only downside is he’s a chain smoker… nobody’s perfect.
His route is the “True” Ending where everything gets wrapped up in a nice neat bow, so you can’t get to it until you have cleared the good endings for everyone else. I did not like this route as much, sure all the loose ends are tied up and all that jazz, but the chemistry between Ichika and Yanagi is some of the worst I have seen in an otome game. If Ichika hadn’t been so adamant about her affections for him nothing would have happened between them and you know what, I’m okay with that.
The romance, while present is surprisingly toned down, slowly building over the course of the story as Ichika and her partner get to know one another during their investigation. So, if you are looking for a by the book romance game, Collar x Malice is not for you. However, in terms of romance the best routes were as follows: Mineo, Takeru, Shiraishi, Kei, Yanagi.
Unlike in most otome games where your choices are primarily geared towards raising affection with your chosen love interests, the first couple of choices focus on building trust with the guys. It’s an invisible stat so it doesn’t show up on the affection meter, but there is a little indicator on the top right corner of the screen that will tell you if you were successful or not. After you max out Trust, then you can start in on the Affection raising questions. Though with that said most if not all of the questions are revolve around the investigations themselves, from sussing out motives to analyzing clues and tips. There was even a really cool texting feature where you could correspond with various characters via text instead of in person.
This is definitely one of the more interactive visual novels I have played in quite some time since Ichika plays an active role in each investigation. Whether she is interrogating suspects, searching crime scenes for clues, or shooting bad guys, there is a lot for players to do outside of the usual reading and making choices. The investigative portions of the games are reminiscent of adventure games like the Ace Attorney series with their point and click gameplay mechanics that allow players to directly interact with crime scenes. Most are pretty easy to figure out just click on key items in a room to trigger dialogue boxes with information about the case. While there were some where you had to click on an object more than once to collect all the information you needed.
I particularly liked the Target Practice/Shooting mini-game, where you have to correctly lock in on a target in order to shoot it. What’s more this mini game is seamlessly integrated into the story, as whether or not you fail or succeed determines the course of the story, so it really raises the stakes.
The art was gorgeous, it was the same artist that worked on Amnesia and it was absolutely stunning! I am a sucker for backgrounds and there were some really great shots of the Shinjuku skyline, the rooftop scenes were always my favorite for that reason! The character designs were cool, much more down to earth business/business casual styles since most of the characters are either in uniform or working adults, but they have their own accents that fit with their personalities (ie. Mineo’s eyepatch and tie, Shiraishi’s cat themed tie clip and ears). The side characters had more out there designs like one of the female side characters wears a hoodie with bunny ears, and Kazuki’s obvious teen rocker street wear, there’s even a visual kei artist that shows up and he is pretty spot on fashion wise.
The CGs were of course really well done, each character had quite a few and there were even some with variations depending on your choices. Takeru had the best CGs followed by Yanagi, but the other guys had some great ones too and they weren’t all romantic scenes, there were some action ones in there too.
Collar x Malice had some great instrumental tracks, they weren’t overly light and airy like you see in most otome games, rather they had this urban vibe to them that was perfect for the detective mystery premise. There was just something sleek and sophisticated about the music that kind of makes you feel like you’re watching one of those police procedural shows. The opening theme “Silent Noise” by Plastic Tree was a great high energy JRock song that fit well with the heavier story of the game. But, what really stuck out to me was the voice acting! There were some pretty big names among the voice cast, and they were all phenomenal! There are quite a few otome veterans among the cast and a few who worked on some anime. So if you’re one of those folks that plays otome games with the sound off I highly suggest turning that volume dial back up, because these are performances you don’t want to miss!
And Last, but certainly not least: the translation. Overall, the translation was pretty good, especially early on in the story, however the more I delved into the story the more I noticed some typos or grammatical errors. There was never anything huge, certainly not Alice in the Heart levels of unread-ability, but it was enough that you notice it. One of the biggest errors (at least to me) came at the end of the game one of the choices reads “He wants to kill me” when it should read “He wants me to kill him” or something like that. And I made the mistake of not choosing it because I thought it was the “wrong” answer and it landed me the bad ending… which I was NOT trying to get. But, other than that, I have no real complaints, Aksys did a pretty good job with the localization.
So, final thoughts… Collar x Malice is my favorite otome game localization so far! It tones down the romance, which is unusual for an otome game, however it’s phenomenal detective mystery premise is more than capable of keeping players invested from start to finish. The more story heavy focus may be a bit off putting for folks looking for a more standard otome game, but if like me you are looking for a game with more substance, Collar x Malice is just the game for you! Ichika is one of the best otome heroines I have seen in a long time, she is strong and capable, but also vulnerable and hard working. Honestly, I wish more otome heroines were as relatable as Ichika. The love interests were equally compelling, each endearing in their own way. The whole mystery premise really comes together really well in the end, so it is worth it to play through all the routes and endings if you want to get the full scope of the masterful storytelling.
If you’ve been sleeping on Collar x Malice, you need to get on this amazing game! Even folks who aren’t fans of otome games will love Collar x Malice!!