Baroque Syndrome: Distorted pearls and the before that came after

In Baroque Syndrome‘s world unsettling visions and rumours of distorted monsters with a taste for human flesh are on the rise, while in the shadows a mysterious sect—apparently led by an angelic being—busy themselves with dangerous experiments in strange places the government is well aware of, but dare not enter. This is the world before the apocalyptic “Great Heat” twisted the land into the scorched remains explored in the wonderful Saturn (and later, PlayStation) dungeon crawler Baroque, and left the Neuro Tower, god herself lashed to the lowest level’s wall, standing tall in a barren wasteland.

Which brings us to what is this visual novel’s biggest selling point if any of the above made sense, and the biggest reason to stay away if it didn’t: this is a companion piece by design, one adapted from BAROQUISM▲SYNDROME, a serialised story published in Japan’s Sega Saturn Magazine. The shock of its plot twists and the weight of its grand reveals rely in no small part on the reader understanding how these details relate to the deliberately fragmented story found in an entirely different game.

This compelling/impenetrable (depending on your point of view) story embellishes its text with a variety of full screen illustrations created from a mix of digitised real-world photos and computer generated imagery. It’s a combination that probably shouldn’t work but looks almost seamless in practise, as much because of as in spite of the considerable technical difficulties in blending the two together at the time. The relatively low resolution, heavy dithering, and artistic tendency towards bathing scenes in shades of one dominant colour make it much harder to tell if the object or person you’re looking at has been captured or created, and that in turn lends the game a welcome “unreality”, the unsettling almost right of it all a feature, not a bug.

This unnerving approach carries through to Syndrome’s rarely-seen character portraits, every face either cloaked in deep shadows or deliberately out of shot. Like King’s Field‘s textureless people and painterly illustrations, this helps to keep us at arm’s length: no matter how much time we spend with the game we can never quite connect with the friend or foe standing before us; their faces remain inscrutable and expressionless.

The manual takes this to the extreme. Several major characters are given a full page containing a short biography and a higher quality still of an in-game image each, their faces obscured as ever. The main character, Kitsune, is the sole exception: his page has no image at all. It’s just a black square with a little text in the corner. You never see him (beyond “a Japanese man’s arm”), you are never supposed to see him, so you are simply not shown him.

Unfortunately for everyone the cover of the game’s budget re-release breaks this rule in a spectacular fashion for no good reason, but we’ll conveniently call that non-canonical.

As perfectly judged as the art is, the music that accompanies it can only be described as a disappointing sort of serviceable. It’s appropriate enough, and it does deliver standard-issue dreamlike ambience and moody tension as required, but it never becomes more than fine. In isolation this would have been an easily forgettable problem… if only Syndrome hadn’t used a few tracks from the original Baroque soundtrack for a handful of key events. It was the right thing to do—the original music’s a masterclass in conveying melancholy ambience and distorted threat—but they completely blow the new compositions out of the water, and you’re left wishing they’d come back.

The text is of course the star of any visual novel, and Baroque Syndrome ensures its cryptic passages are easily digested thanks to the inclusion of several typical genre features. A considerate button layout makes it possible to play much of the game using just one hand, earlier screens can be re-read at the push of a button, previously selected choices are highlighted in an unmissable red, and you can even save any time you like, in one of three save slots. There’s no autosaving in this version of the game (it does seem to be a feature in the modern Android/iOS ports), although that’s really not an issue outside of a power cut because every game-ending choice is followed by the option to retry that segment from the moment before your bad decision, regardless of when or where you last saved.

It’s a small detail that completely changes your relationship with the numerous bad decisions you can make along the way. Thanks to this, choices don’t come across as “hopefully the right one” and “probably the wrong one” but are read as “this sounds most interesting right now” and “I’ll try that next time” instead, safe in the knowledge that at the very worst nothing more than a minute or two’s progress will be lost either way.

Even with several fatal missteps Syndrome’s a short game. I didn’t time my runs, but it seemed to take about 2~3 hours to clear: just the right length for a game with five major routes to work through. Although there are no scenario charts available to pinpoint these major plot shifts, your save file information does show which routes you’ve already cleared and keeps track of every option you’ve ever selected, making it easy to find new paths simply by choosing B instead of A, or finally plumping for that risky C.

These branching storylines may echo each other in several places and come to some variant of the same conclusion, but they also offer plenty of minor and major differences along the way. I did feel my subsequent runs were entirely worthwhile and I looked forward to seeing what would happen, or what clouded reference to the original Baroque I’d catch this time. It never drastically peels away from its own core story beats or throws up wild what-if tangents of any truths established in the first game—there’s no Syndrome equivalent of Silent Hill 2‘s dog ending, for example—but each route is different enough from the others to be worth seeing through, another interesting facet of a doomed tale in a dying world.

Although as keen as it is on maintaining reasonable ties with existing lore, Syndrome doesn’t make the mistake of including things purely because Baroque fans would want to see them. The more direct connections are haphazardly scattered across multiple storylines, and even then often only offer a mere ghost of a hint towards the inevitable future at best. It really is up to you to understand their significance in relation to the first game’s post-apocalyptic world and if you don’t then… well, you don’t.

This isn’t what I would’ve asked for if I had the chance to wish for a new Baroque game. My heart yearns for another chance to wander through some fragment of the original’s shattered world, to have one more first time in that broken place. But my head knows that’s not what I, or Baroque as a whole, needed. This imperfect story told in another genre, on another format, and happy to throw up more questions than answers, is perhaps the best follow-up we could have got.

I’m a hair’s breadth away from grasping some fundamental truth. I’ve got more questions than ever before. I’m happy.

And I will continue to hold Baroque inside.

Further reading:

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