Romance is Dead is a short visual novel about what happens when science meets the supernatural in the city of New Orleans, why voodoo should only be done by professionals, and how you should never completely write off the chance for romance.
The story follows Maddie Washington, a young college student studying cell biology at the University of New Orleans. She’s recently broken up with her most recent boyfriend, and upon pondering her past relationships has decided that the kind of romance she’s after “died sometime around the 1950s,” so she might as well devote herself completely to science. This plan might have worked, had she not then encountered a greaser zombie named Adam, a French vampire named Maurice who desperately wants to study Adam, and a ghost named Don who doesn’t think Maddie should trust Maurice because of what he saw about vampires in Nosferatu. Together, the four set out to try and figure out why a zombie with no memory of his past can not only walk and talk freely, but seems inexplicably drawn to Maddie.
I’ll come right out and say that a big part of my enjoyment of this VN is because of Maddie. First off, Romance is Dead has the only black lead female character I’ve ever encountered in a VN. Besides that, she’s a smart, snarky, and capable woman with a passion for science that, barring a chemistry accident which destroyed her sense of smell, has always been a source of comfort for her. She doesn’t swoon, her moments of panic are completely understandable, and she largely makes logical choices. You understand her motivation, you empathize with her emotions, and you cheer when she realizes that the Internet is a great tool to help her find out about Adam’s past or voodoo rituals (but only after she finishes her classes and lab work, because she is an adult with responsibilities). Honestly, she’s one of my favorite lead women in any VN I’ve read.
The guys are pretty all right as well. Adam talks like something out of a 1950′s movie crossed with a cousin of the Fonz, but still manages to come across as sweet and sincere. Maurice is over the top and dramatic, while being oddly knowledgeable and serious about the history and practice of voodoo. And Don is as helpful as a non-corporeal being with an extensive knowledge of combustible engines can be. I’m glad these four are well fleshed out, because you spend 99% of your game interacting only with them. The cast of Romance is Dead is mostly limited to these four: if Maddie has any friends in New Orleans or family she keeps up with, they’re never mentioned or brought on screen.
Each male character has two endings: one good, one bad. There are also three additional endings that are described as not providing any real closure to the reader regardless of what path they took, which in my book should count as bad endings rather than neutral endings. The bad endings are easier to acquire than the good endings, mostly because readers will go into this VN with a traditional otome (girl seeking boy) game mindset. In other VNs, the general rule is that the player must pay attention to one man at a time and rebuff the other available men, sometimes in particularly harsh ways. But unravelling the mystery of Adam, Maurice, and Don’s stories is a team effort, and you need to be on at least OK terms with everyone to get anyone’s good ending (as I found out after several flubbed attempts). You won’t get a kiss with every good ending, or even true romance; and some of the stories will leave your heart sore, but the VN was worth replaying again and again to get every ending.
Overall, the writing was cute and made me laugh on multiple occasions (it turns out that you should not use Babelfish to help read the instructions for a voodoo ritual). Still, I occasionally had some small issues with the writing. Maddie and Don’s race is often brought up, in one instance when Don talked about his time in university in the 1920′s and referred to other black students as Negroes, and in another instance when Adam (still thinking it’s the 1950′s) comments about how bad an idea it would be if he (a white man) followed Maddie to “her part” of campus. Of course these are things that sort of need to be brought up (Don and Adam are both very much products of their time trying to interact with modern girl Maddie), but sometimes the segues into those discussions or comments on race feel awkward or forced in a story about a scientist and her mysterious zombie friend. On the other hand, race is something that almost never comes up in visual novels, so points to Romance is Dead for mentioning these issues at all.
The biggest grievances I had with Romance is Dead stem from technical limitations. I thought the music was all right; not incredible, but fitting for this VN. The art style is very cartoonish; one person described it as being rather Tim Burton-esque, which I suppose means big heads and eyes on top of skinny bodies, and definitely with gestures and poses that draw on old Warner Bros. characters rather than stock anime poses. I liked it for at least presenting a different style than what I usually encounter. The backgrounds are vague watercolors that bring more attention to color and lighting than details of the images, and felt more than a little reminiscent of the original backgrounds from the Higurashi series. The textbox and font style were appropriately creepy, but with the size of the letters and the odd font choice, some readers might have trouble making out what’s being said without the help of their reading glasses (like I did, albeit only a few times). My biggest complaint was the limited number of sprites for each character and the lack of any CGs, especially since some scenes and particularly the endings really would have been that much better with a nice finishing image. The writer and director at least explained this in her comments to the readers, saying she lacked the skill to make CGs on her own as well as the funding and time needed to acquire CGs from a different artist (and she presumably had similar issues drawing more than 2-3 sprites per character). But for a free VN, those are all relatively small issues that should in no way keep a reader from enjoying this story.
Romance is Dead can be found on the Lemma Soft forums and downloaded there for free. All told, I needed somewhere around 2-3 hours to finish the whole VN, and I doubt most readers would need any longer than that unless they just wanted to replay their favorite routes. The studio behind it, Tall Tales Productions, has put out other VNs in the past, but Romance is Dead was the first of their stories that I found and read through. Give this one a shot, and if you like it go look for the other VNs they put out (before mysteriously going silent in 2014).