The Royal Trap
Madeleine and Oscar have been best friends for years, and it's becoming increasingly apparent Oscar's feelings for Madeleine may run deeper. The problem with that is Oscar is actually Prince Oscar of Ocendawyr, and Madeline is... well, she's just Maddie Valois, the young woman who has been his companion, maidservant, advisor and agent ever since they were both small children and she got him out of trouble. Besides, now Oscar's reaching adulthood and has to start courting a bride from one of the neighbouring kingdoms, and Maddie's final duty is ensuring he finds himself a wife... even if that means her own future becomes more uncertain. But when Oscar is suddenly accused of a crime he didn't commit, Maddie must trust her instincts and put her skills to the test to clear his name... and uncover even deeper treacheries in the process. In The Royal Trap, a fantastic indie visual novel adventure by Hanako Games, as Madeleine Valois you'll have to help her navigate a political minefield, uncover treachery and danger, and discover whether she has to choose between her duty and her heart... or if there's somehow the two can coexist. Provided, of course, she can stay alive long enough.
As the game opens, Madeleine and Oscar have arrived in the kingdom of Gwellinor to allow Oscar a chance to woo its newly eligible princess. As Oscar heads off to attend a royal ball along with several other attending princes competing for attention, he asks Madeleine to read a letter he's left for her in his room... and anyone who's seen a romance novel within their lives knows what's in it. But regardless of how you decide she feels about it, the night's festivities are brought to a screeching halt when Oscar is accused of a crime and it falls to Maddie to prove his innocence... and of course double-crosses are rarely straight-forward, so once one matter has been settled another more complicated one arises. Just click the dialogue choice you like the most when it's presented to you, and right-click at any time to open a menu to allow you to save or load your game. The whole thing is mostly linear up until chapter 5.b, which will present you with a selection almost immediately that will shape certain parts of the rest of the game depending on earlier choices.
Analysis: While at least two of the eligible bachelors fall into the tiresome old "class-A jerk with a secret soft side" category, everyone is well-developed and intriguing, so chances are you'll find someone you'll want to know more about. Especially Gaston. Gaston is magnificent. Look at that sucker. I'm not even kidding either, since behind that exterior of sparkly anime tropes is a remarkably likable, human, well-developed character. It's worth mentioning, however, that at a certain point the game essentially asks you who you're interested in and locks you into that choice. This can be actually a bit misleading, since several of those options actually lead you towards other characters, even other genders, you won't expect. You may even get railroaded into another default option if you didn't choose appropriate responses earlier in the game. In a way, though, this fits with a recurring theme or two within the game... that of people not being who they seem, and of opening your eyes to opportunities. Just keep your mind and heart open, and the experience will be much more rewarding.
Even if you're not interested in romance, however, The Royal Trap still has a lot to offer. The core focus is actually on the mystery surrounding the crime Oscar is accused of, which quickly spirals out into an even more convoluted mess of drama and intrigue the more you play. Nothing is as straightforward as it seems, and the narrative is great at layering mysteries on mysteries in a way that grabs you and keeps you wanting more. A lot of visual novels that include romance options tend to make their heroines a bit vague in the personality department to allow players to project, but Madeleine might be one of the best heroines to grace a game in a long time, regardless of type or genre. She's strong, determined, and intelligent, but also funny, warm, and loyal to a fault. To that end she's... actually somewhat of a Mary Sue, at least in regards to how competent she is compared to everyone else, but it's still incredibly difficult not to like her and want her to succeed. It's also beautifully drawn, though there is a distracting difference in art style between various characters.
Of course, The Royal Trap is a visual novel, not a visual novel simulation, and if your sole interaction being limited to choosing an option between pages and pages of text you have no say in doesn't sound like your cuppa, the game may not be for you. While it's nice that you can always tell what your decisions will get you in terms of where the story will head next, it's a bit disappointing that there aren't more of them more frequently, at least not until chapter five onward. It can often feel like the choices you make seem trivial alongside the action and excitement that unfolds without much prompting from you, and it would have been nice to have given the player a few more options to feel engaged.
A single playthrough of the game probably won't take much players longer than two hours or so, depending on how fast you read, but The Royal Trap's strength is in its replay value. Not merely in hunting down all the endings to its many romances, but also in filling in all the pieces of its multilayered mystery. Each path will really only give you a few bits rather than the full story, and some have entire sequences you'll never see that will drastically change how you look at the story itself and other characters. Some of the romances are definitely more developed than others, and you shouldn't expect a fairy-tale ending with all of them. The Royal Trap is a incredibly well-written tale bolstered by a cast of fun and fully-developed characters that are a pleasure to get to know. If you prefer your visual novels with other gameplay aspects beyond simple choice-and-click, this one might be restrictive. But if you appreciate a ripping good tale, you'll definitely want to try out the demo for this one, since it comes highly recommended.