This is a review of an early access title, and thus the final product may differ from what I describe.
I've been waiting for this game to go on sale for ages so I could buy it, and it finally did for the Lunar Sale. Having gotten to meet sakevisual at A-Kon 2015 (she probably doesn't remember me, but it was an honor to meet such a prolific game developer in person), and having enjoyed what I've played of hers so far (although I have yet to get to RE:Alistair++), I've been looking forward to playing Backstage Pass for a while, and two days off from the day job provided the perfect opportunity.
Our protagonist is Sian Goodin, a shy eighteen-year-old who's just about to start college with and serve as makeup artist to her childhood friend, Adam Eaton, a newly famous singer. Shortly after arriving, though, Sian gets a call that her father has had an accident that will put him out of work for a while, meaning money is tight all around. Luckily, Sian gets some help. She meets a kid magician named Benito who agrees to pay her for acting as a "plant" in some of his magic acts, and Adam's grumpy manager John recommends her to a photographer named Dale, which snowballs into Sian working on a TV show called Vice / Versus and meeting celebrities like model Matthew Midnight. Already Sian's year is off to a much different start than she expected...How will things unfold for her?
Gameplay is a blend of stat-raising and dating sim. During the week, you select activities for your afternoon, which can raise corresponding stats, affect your GPA, or bring in income. You're mostly free to do whatever, although certain slots will be booked up by jobs or in-game events with other characters and you can only schedule activities for the morning when class isn't in session. On weekends, you can call up friends to hang out, hit up the local shopping scene, or just sleep to lower your fatigue, and weekends are also the only time you can check your e-mail, which is vital to catching job offers from various characters. It's all a bit complex, as you might be able to tell, and while enjoyable, a big fault is that the game doesn't explain a lot of the specifics behind the stat-raising mechanics. For example, running your fatigue too high will cause you to take a significant stat decrease eventually, but I didn't actually figure this out until my third playthrough. The stat-raising sections go by so fast that it's hard to catch the effects it had, and consumable items that you can buy in shops don't have their effects on your stats spelled out. All in all, it makes the learning curve a bit unfriendly, though not impossible.
Another problem I have is that once you've met a goal (say, getting on a romance path), you're often left with not much to do except throw random activities in your schedule until you get to the end. It was one of many mental comparisons I made to Winter Wolves' title Always Remember Me. Where that game went ahead and ended things early if you got to an ending, this game keeps you around for the full year of gameplay. There were decent stretches of time here where I was blatantly just waiting for the ending to come. It feels like this may be an inherent problem with games of this nature, although developers like Hanako Games have proven that it's an issue that can be avoided with titles like Black Closet or Long Live the Queen.
Where this game noticeably outshines Always Remember Me, however, is in its characters. Sian is a wonderful protagonist, a driven girl who doesn't let her shyness get in the way of doing what she wants to do. As someone who shares Sian's social anxiety and panic in crowds, I found myself identifying with her instantly. The four main bachelors are Adam, Benito, John, and Matthew, and while none of them are the best characters in the world, they have enough varied dialogue and characterization to make them far more interesting than any of the ones in Always Remember Me pulled off. Topping the list here are the side characters, who I for the most part prefer to the main guys. Alvin is adorable, and it's refreshing to see an asexual character in a visual novel, although I take extremely pointed objected to his ending being labelled as a friendship ending when it's very clearly a romantic one. The fellow industry workers you meet while working with Vice / Versus are interesting, and I think romance routes with Rachel or Allison could have been very interesting additions. The sole female romance option, Nicole, is much more than she appears at first sight, and I even enjoyed the occasional sightings of Sian's college professors.
One issue I did have is the way gameplay and story don't always match up. For example, in Adam's route, I was hanging out with him every weekend and studying with him all week. And yet, I still got a scripted fight about how we weren't spending enough time together and it was my fault because I was too focused on work. I was quite unhappy to be forced into accepting fault for that situation when I hadn't even gotten into it in the first place. There's also a spot in Alvin's route where he comments on your money situation, but since Alvin's route gives you a mandatory job and you can still work in addition to that, I was rolling in money by the time he brought that up.
There are a total of sixteen different endings, ranging from romance and friendship paths to routes where Sian advances her career, and the obligatory bad ending where Sian is expelled from school (although the game is so generous with your GPA that hitting the bad ending by accident is pretty much impossible). All the routes are sufficiently fleshed out, with appropriate characterization and interesting events, and it gives the game plenty of replayability.
The production values are absolutely stellar as well; you can see how much work went into making the GUI look good, and the soundtrack sounds nice. I've seen the game catch a lot of flak for taking so long to incorporate voices, but as someone who doesn't care much for voicing in visual novels, I wasn't really bothered by the wait, and I know firsthand that sakevisual had some issues with getting the voices done due to outside things beyond their control. The voice acting is good, and if I recall correctly, at time of writing it's complete other than Sian herself.
I'm overall quite impressed with the game, even though I have my issues with it. The gameplay and story segregation, while perhaps necessary, messes with the immersion, and while grinding to get to your preferred ending is actually fun, reaching it early leaves you with a long stretch of nothing to do. And I worry that the main four bachelors might not have done their jobs well enough if I'd rather replace their routes with more time among the side characters. Regardless, the amount of work that went into this title shows in the little details, in the user interface, in the believable development of each relationship, and I found it very enjoyable and definitely worth both my time and money.
In closing, I'd like to share with you what is probably the funniest moment I've found so far. Alvin (known on the message boards as Blue Moon) writes reviews of movies you take him to see, but he's not the biggest fan of The Funny Thing About Love...
Backstage Pass is available on Steam or directly from the developer. At time of writing, the game is still considered an Early Access title, although functionally it's complete, minus Sian's voicing and a few minor bug fixes.
Final verdict: Despite some story flaws and eventual fatigue in trying to get to your chosen ending, Backstage Pass does a magnificent job with its characters and its plot development, clearly stands out on the production side, and has enough endings and content to keep you coming back for more and more.
Backstage Pass is developed and published by sakevisual. The opinions expressed in this review are my own. I was not compensated in any way for this review.