Shan Gui is a sweet kinetic novel about the adventures of a young Chinese woman and a mysterious girl she meets on a mountain trail.
Shan Gui begins with the main character, Han Hui, lamenting the heat of the mountain and her lack of water. She’s come to the mountain to recall memories of happier times, when her family used to travel there for vacation. Sadly she is lost, tired, and low on supplies. Worn out, Han Hui settles in at a small gazebo and gives her body and eyes a much-needed rest. She is then awoken by He Jia, a sweet girl who makes it her mission to help Han Hui regain those precious memories as she leads them around the mountain.
The art style here was amazing. I honestly felt like I was looking at a photograph in some moments and had to really look at the background images to confirm that they were painted. The two girls also had a very distinct style, slightly more pointy than what you’d typically associate with an anime-style character. The colors were extremely vibrant and saturated, which only strengthened the overall look of Shan Gui.
The music was all right; very peaceful, but not particularly memorable. But considering that this is a game about a woman travelling through nature in search of lost time, I think that a lack of music helped this game in most areas and allowed the readers to focus on the story and the peace that comes with trekking through nature. Also, I’m apparently alone in this sentiment since others simply gush about the music and their OST is available to purchase by itself.
The story was also well crafted. Shan Gui isn’t the best VN I’ve ever read, but this story isn’t trying to be the best VN ever written. It’s just the tale of two girls helping each other out, bonding over Han Hui’s past and her efforts to move forward. Han Hui starts out seeming like a cynical, whiny girl, but soon develops into a sweet woman who’s going through a difficult time and trying to work out her feelings on the issue. He Jia is there to help, but it’s up to Han Hui to actually deal with her issues and confront those feelings, good and bad.
The complaints I had for this VN were mostly very minor. First, the writing. I loved the story, but you can clearly tell that the dialogue was translated by a non-native English speaker. It’s readable with almost no grammar mistakes, but the language is so flowery that it reads like a Charles Dickens book more than a visual novel. I guess it’s supposed to emphasize how educated Han Hui is (since her educational background is an important plot point), but it really just came off as awkward.
I also had an issue with the way the girls were sometimes drawn. Han Hui has giant, gravity-defying boobs for no apparent reason, which I felt detracted from the overall “natural” aesthetic of the game. He Jia’s images had no problems until towards the end of the story, when she stripped down to her underwear to play in the water and had cameltoe. Cameltoe. On a girl that’s supposed to look like a middle school student. (SPOILERS: granted, I suppose they can get away with this because He Jia is actually an immortal ageless fox goddess, but still). Overall though, I liked their looks though.
My biggest grievance, and there’s no way to sugarcoat it, is the game’s handling of references to certain Chinese attractions or heritage sites. They realize that the reader might be unfamiliar with some places or attractions (like the Purple Mountain) so they change the color of the text and let you click on it for more information. However, rather than trying to compile information about these places in the game itself, the text actually serves as a hyperlink to Wikipedia, booting you out of the game to do so. The reader therefore has to choose between breaking the immersion every time they run across an unfamiliar term, or just wait to research them after they finish the game. Other games get around this issue by having an information section in their main menu, and I very much wish Shan Gui had done the same.
Shan Gui is a rather short visual novel, clocking in at an hour for me on the first playthrough and much shorter on subsequent reads. It’s available on Steam for $5 but regularly goes on sale for 50% off. If you’re curious about visual novels and want to see if a kinetic, rather than playable story, works for you, this is a great starter VN. Go check it out.