Cherry Tree High I! My! Girls! (by 773, 2014, for Windows PC)
Cherry Tree High Comedy Club, which I reviewed a few months back, was a game I had a lot of fun with. It was a delight to play and I had a lot of nice things to write about it. Also, I was able to play it, unlike most visual novels that are meant to be read. That makes things a little trickier for it's sequel, I! My! Girls!, which is definitely not a game. That's not to say it's a bad visual novel, but it does disappoint, to an extent.
I! My! Girls! picks up right where the previous installment left off, following the best ending, in which Mairu manages to recruit all six potential members for her club. Cherry Tree High is as eventful as ever. A new girl, idol-in-disguise Ai Fujino, is transferring in, looking to join Mairu's comedy club. Chitose manages to threaten the club's existance again with more technicalities. And, to top it all off, a rival comedy club, lead by Imari Kobayashi, threatens to edge out the CTHCC for the school's award for best entertainment club. Readers are treated to seven main chapters and five side chapters. Like it's predecessor, it's short but sweet; reading through all the chapters at a casual pace probably won't take more than a couple of hours.
Since this is a visual novel, it'd be kinda silly to review based on gameplay, since you don't really have any agency at all. Instead, I'll examine the writing itself, hopefully without spoiling any key points. There are three new characters, two of them mentioned above: Ai Fujino, better known by her stage name Ai Towano, a pop idol looking to become a comedian; Imari Kobayashi, childhood rival of Mairu, and head of the Classical Comedy Club; and Utena Katakura, one of the female school faculty whose personality falls just short of suave and swan-dives straight into dramatic. And boy do I have a lot to say about the new girls.
Ai's visual design is pretty nice, and makes up the bulk of the new visual assets of this entry. Unfortunately, her actual character is... lacking. Besides her backstory--the student-that's-secretly-an-idol-- being not especially original, during the course of the story, it's trivialized completely. Maybe that's a gag in itself, but when you take away that key defining characteristic, you're left with a fairly one-dimensional moe-blob. In a cast mostly filled with moe-blobs that also fit pretty neatly into existing anime archetypes (and I mean that in the nicest way possible), it seems at first that Ai would fit in perfectly. Unfortunately for her, most of the other characters had their own story arcs in the game that defined them more solidly and made them more than their archetypes. Ai Fujino is a two-trick pony, bouncing between "being an idol is tough ;n;" and "hahaha i'm so kawaii and also kind of a ditz!! ' ^u^". The most interesting she gets is when she's in a face-to-face conflict with another girl, and she gets real mean seemingly out of nowhere, but that lasts maybe five or six dialogue boxes, before they quickly resolve it by laughing it off and deciding that they're friends.
To my chagrin, the main chapters are mostly about Ai and how her arrival affects the comedy club. Mairu is still present, of course, and features most prominently at the beginning and end of the story, but otherwise, the spotlight is on Ai, and as a protagonist she's definitely a trade down, but, surprisingly, she's only the second most uninteresting character in the story.
The top prize for least valuable addition to the Cherry Tree High cast? Imari Kobayashi! Come on up here, girl, take a bow! Keep in mind, neither the additions of Ai or Imari are particularly frustrating or offensive in the course of the story, but in retrospect, where Ai could have used some adjustment, Imari could have been omitted entirely. Her personality and background are almost tit-for-tat the same as Chitose. Childhood friend/rival that feels threatened by the presence of CHTCC? Check. Mean to Mairu up-front but secretly admiring? Check. Snobby class (or club) rep type? Check and mate. The two qualities that make her unique are that 1: in a couple of chapters, she's revealed to have a crush on Shinnosuke, and that 2: yes, she really does wear that kimono and carry that fan everywhere like a weirdo. Her personal arc in the story mirrors Chitose's almost perfectly; she initally antagonizes Mairu until finally reaching a peak, relenting, and revealing their past together. Chitose was already a pretty marginalized character in the first story, and after the first couple chapters in this one, maintains a very backstage presence. Chitose would have benefitted more from getting Imari's role in this story more than the story as a whole benefits from Imari being there in the first place.
The third addition, Utena Katakura, is also of marginal importance, and is only in the story thanks to Chitose's Evil Ploy™, but at least has the benefit of being distinctly different from the rest of the cast. She's a faculty member at the school, and gives Mairu hell with her theatrics before eventually helping the CTHCC. Utena is a goofy caracature, and a bit of an irresponsible adult to boot, but she fits right in at the club. She hardly serves as much of a driving force in the story, but she manages to be endearing anyways. Utena's melodrama kinda vaguely reminds me of someone else, but I can't quite put my finger on it.
Among the new additions are a very few new art and sound assets, the rest of the assets being transplants from the first title. There's the sprites and portraits for the three new girls, of which Ai's portraits are probably the bulk. There's two new backgrounds, both of which are the comedy club room. And there's one new music track. Maybe two? Only one in particular stands out in my memory. While I did say in my review of the previous entry that the music "outlasts a single playthrough", the tracks did start to get stale after I was a couple chapters in. My wishes for more sound effects were answered only with a single slap sound that's played in a couple of scenes. I do recall a significant reduction in laugh tracks, though, so that's a relief.
While the canned laughter may be in shorter supply, the comedy in the writing is still solid. If you liked the sense of humor in the previous story, you'll be pleased to find that this is where I! My! Girls! really shines. The banter between the characters is great, a graceful balance of sincere discussion and cheesy comedy. The contents of the story deal more with the intricacies of comedy and Mairu's quest to form a solid comedy duo, wrapped around the tale of Ai and her struggles to keep her identity secret and adjust to balancing her club and school life with her professional life. There's also a central theme of separation and jealousy that Hoemi brings to the table. The plot manages to be consise and interesting, just as in the previous Cherry Tree High, but the conclusion lacks a certain punch. I can't quite place whether that's due to the abscence of the time management sim aspect, or if the course of the story itself just isn't quite as exciting.
I can only speculate on the reason for the change of format in I! My! Girls!. There's an interview with Hizume, the guy who represents most of 773, on the official english site, but it mostly concerns the first entry in the series, so it doesn't shed much light on the matter. His other works, from what I can glean from his own site, are stylish, but linear, traditional visual novels, so maybe CTHCC was a departure from a format that he's comfortable with? In any case, I have trouble shaking the feeling that I! My! Girls! is a lower-effort product, but that might not be totally fair. At the very least, it's the victim of a low-effort localization, as there's a few weird errors in the dialogue, like the one shown above. There's only a few instances of that, and in most cases, I'd be more lenient, but this is a fairly short VN, which means "play"testing should have been a cinch.
For all my complaints, the most important thing to take away is: should you buy Cherry Tree High I! My! Girls!? I would say yes, depending on how much you enjoyed the last one. This visual novel makes for some pretty nice light reading featuring a familiar cast and the same sense of humor you'd expect from it. The asking price is also very modest, so you could do a lot worse than buying this particular visual novel.
~ Kyle "Kaypar" Parker
(seriously, though. you could do much worse. have you seen some of the stuff available on Steam?)