I don't normally start things off on a serious note. But to be honest, seeing a thread in the Steam forums about how anyone who plays this game is a creepy deviant pissed me off, especially in light of recent events. So in slightly alcohol-induced anger, I'm going to stick it to the man and play me a nice lesbian road trip visual novel, because I can. That and I've been waiting for this to come out forever and was ridiculously overexcited to see that it was launching early, but you know.
Nineteen-year-old Amber has taken her grandfather's old motorhome and started on a journey across the desert, to get to a music festival. By chance, she happens upon Marina, whose car has broken down on the side of the road. Amber takes pity on Marina and drives her to get some gas, but by the time they get back, Marina's car has been stolen. Luckily Amber isn't in a big hurry, and she agrees to be Marina's chauffeur for an expedition involving a hidden treasure and a new gold rush.
Amber and Marina are a compelling main pair, and have a lot more depth than you might think if you just played their first few scenes. Amber is trying not to deal with the grief she feels for her grandfather, and it's portrayed in a way I can really relate to. She worries about Marina's airy personality, while Marina herself wants to be as helpful to Amber as Amber is to her. The way their relationship develops and the conflicts that later come into play are realistic and at times heartbreaking to read. I also like that this story doesn't even try to make either of them closet keys. They both just know that they're lesbians, something that can be surprisingly rare in lesbian stories, and I appreciate that it's just treated like an ordinary fact, as it should be.
The most prominent side characters are Mariah, her childhood friend Joseph, and her younger sister Tess, all of whom are also looking for the treasure. Well, to put it more accurately, Mariah is looking for the treasure and Joseph and Tess are along for the ride. They're all an interesting bunch, and I actually would have liked to see more of the relationship between Mariah and Tess and learn about why the ten-year-old Tess is traveling cross-country with her sister. Then again, they're in the story about as much as they need to be without being annoying, occasionally providing a rival for Amber and at one point giving her some valuable advice.
The story of the treasure is an interesting one, although at times it feels very secondary to the relationship, which is par for the course in a romance. Still though, the fact that there's all this gold to be found and the characters don't ever mention how they're going to cash it in and how they'd deal with hypothetical fame resulting from being the ones to find this treasure. And then there's the fact that if that many people were already searching for it before them, I feel like someone would have had to have found it out of sheer dumb luck. But honestly, it doesn't bother me that much; it's not meant to be the main focus and it's not treated that way. And yes, it's still cool to be hunting for actual gold.
The artwork is beautifully done, but what adds to it is the presentation. Specifically, it's the use of animation and the Ren'Py 3D Camera System, made by Alice in Dissonance, the folks behind the Fault series. There are all kinds of little animation touches, like when the characters are driving somewhere, and they all add a great sense of immersion and polish. As great as all these things are, though, I regrettably have to mention the fact that on my initial playthrough, I was unable to adjust any of the music or sound volumes or the text speed; the sliders didn't exist. Not sure if this is a bug or what, but much as I enjoy the music, I also enjoy the ability to adjust it. (EDIT: No one else I've found has had this issue, so it may simply be an issue with my computer and not the game itself.) There's also a point where Amber is talking to two other characters and her sprite is transparent...I might just be weird to notice that, but it was a bit distracting.
Never fake an orgasm, Amber. Never do it. It's a bad idea. I guess this is probably a matter of personal taste (no pun intended) but orgasm faking really bothers me!
Okay, I'm done with this tangent now.
Despite some small flaws, I am overall very impressed with Highway Blossoms. A lot of work has gone into it, and it really shows. The story, while not winning any awards, does pull your interest, and the characters are fun to be with and hard to watch struggle. My favorite thing, though, is dat animation. It's just such a nice touch and it adds an amazing feel of refinement that I haven't seen in many visual novels. As a developer myself, I'd go so far as to say that Highway Blossoms is a game to admire on a production level, and I hope to one day make a game as good as this.
Highway Blossoms is available on Steam. The all-ages version on Steam can have adult content added with a free patch available in the Steam forums.
Final verdict: A few bugs and holes in the plot aside, Highway Blossoms shines in its characters and artwork, but most of all in its production quality in regards to innovative camera use and animation, and it sets a very high standard as a shining example of what talented folks can do with Ren'Py.
Highway Blossoms is developed by Alienworks and published by Sekai Project. The opinions expressed in this review are my own. I received a free copy of this game in exchange for my review.