Through the arcane social magic rituals of ‘I know a guy who knows a guy‘, I was contacted by one Pehesse, freelance illustrator and aspiring game creator. They asked me if I’d be interested in taking a look at their first opus: Honey Rose: Underdog Fighter Extraordinaire, a game that purports to combine visual novel ‘life manager’ mechanics with a 2D side-view beat-em-up.
Of course I said yes. That sounds like a match made in heaven! C’mon, tell me that my month of Sakura terror wouldn’t have been vastly improved if the games paused every now on and again to let me wail on some fools.
Now, here’s the thing. I was given access to an internal test version of Honey Rose: Underdog Fighter Extraordinaire (from here on out: Honey Rose) for review and entertainment purposes. This game isn’t particularly open to the general public yet; think less Early Access and more Steam Greenlight campaign. While I’m glad I’m getting to play it already, though, this does mean I can’t really run a full in-depth review on it. It’s just not finished yet. How ‘not finished’? This ‘not finished’:
With a game this early in development, I’ve never quite sure what I can say depth-wise that isn’t just a result from its unfinished status. No options? Dodgy balance? Screen flickering in certain scenes? Settings seemingly change every time I load up? Hitting the Z button immediately dumps me back to the main menu without so much as an ‘are you sure’? Probably all development artifacts. As a result, I feel I’d have to walk on eggshells when doing a full review: is this real, is that real, or am I commenting on the mirage of a future improvement right now?
What I can do is tell you a little bit about what Honey Rose aims to be. A summary of a development summary, if you will. It won’t tell you very much about the game’s polish or quality… but maybe it’ll tell you what you need to know. Whether or not you want to be following this game’s development. Or not, if it’s not your thing. Either way is a victory for Team Get People Involved With The Games That They’d Like.
Honey Rose: A Little Bit About What It Aims To Be
Honey Rose is a game wherein a young woman wearing a ridiculous outfits skips school to beat up a gang of thieves while duck-walking.
Or, if you want an actual summary:
Honey Rose is a game about a young woman (who may or may not be called Red) struggling to graduate university and get her marine biology degree. It’s a story filled with genre-expected beats: helpful friends, haughty rivals, overly concerned parents, boring classes, weird teachers, unexpected tests. You get the idea. Except that this is only half of our story. Because Red’s real ambition in life is to fight in a masked ring fighter tournament, luchadores in all but name, as the enigmatic up-and-comer Honey Rose. There’s a title to be won, and sponsorships to be had! If only her parents don’t find out.
Honey Rose tries to blend these two ideas. On the surface, its gameplay core is that of the ‘day management’ style of visual novels, a la Long Live The Queen or Flower Shop: Season Of Preference In Fairbrook. If you’ve played the style of game, you get the idea: there are two time slots in a day, and a bunch of conflicting personal objectives to accomplish. Do you spend the day going to school, to raise your math, linguistics, or biology skills? Or do you play hooky and go train? Or hang out with a friend, or a ‘friend’? And do you go to bed early at night to regain your energy? Or sneak out for a midnight walk? Or send out sponsorship applications?
(Note that, for some vague reason, you-the-player don’t actually control the titular Honey Rose at this point. Instead, you are some sort of… external presence. A ghost? Let’s say a ghost. You’re a ghost that controls Red’s life, making all planning and activity decisions for her. And she’s aware of and okay with this.)
But every now and again, Honey Rose will don her suit and get into a fight! And when that happens, we switch to a side-scrolling view to play Honey Rose: Underdog Fighter Extraordinaire. Or Honey Rose: A Not Incredibly Complex 2D Fighting Game, if you’re feeling cynical. Controls shift to a six-button battle system: left and right to walk, down to duck, space to jump, D to attack, X to use various special moves. And simple directional and timing combos to switch things up. The expansive tutorial promises more involved features, like throws and counters and audience interaction meters, but I didn’t actually manage to get to any of these.
As mentioned, Honey Rose‘s selling point is that it tries to blend these two things together. On the narrative side of things, we have the story of the teenage student girl trying to hide her exciting double life from her friends and family. Kind of like if Hannah Montana was a professional wrestler. And on the mechanical side, the time management system represents the different demands Red’s obligations and ambitions place on her life. There are more stats to upkeep than there are hours in the day to keep them up… and you need to sleep and socialize, too. Your mental stats are needed to pass tests and perform well in school, while your physical stats keep you alive and unmasked in the ring.
It’s an interesting and ambitious idea that works out somewhat well. Narratively, Honey Rose does a decent job of presenting the conflicting demands of school and fighting. A well-written and diverse cast of support characters helps with this. Even with my limited exposure, every character I spent more than one scene with felt well-setup and characterized. There’s Alice, the chipper best friend who likes making everyone happy. And Leslie, the haughty class president who genuinely respects performance and consistency. And Curtis and Karine, the opposite sides of the peanut gallery, who have a real Ron-and-Hermione vibe going on in everything they do.
And these character storylines and interactions do a decent job of preventing Honey Rose from becoming a stale retelling of Red’s daily routine. Why was Curtis out late at night in the Underground League district? Why was Leslie so surprised and embarrassed to be caught training in a general gym? Why are mom and pop being so weird and secretive about their ‘movie night’? Could it be that any or all of them are secretly masked fighters that you’ll have to face? I’m not in any way sure, but if anyone starts a betting pool, put down fifty for me on ‘all of the above’.
Mechanically, I’m a little less enamored. I like the conceptual idea that Honey Rose puts forward, but…
Okay, so there are two things. First, I understand the idea of connecting your fighting performance to the stats you train in the time management section. Nothing’s more frustrating in games like this than training for ‘hours’ to get your stats up to the right level… and then you hit a challenge, and the game just passes or fails you with a cutscene. ‘Good job, player! You made our arbitrary deadline!’ Let me see results, damnit.
But it feels to me that making the brawls an actual fighting (mini-)game incurs the same risk as the lockpicking minigames in Fallout and Skyrim. If you as a player get skilled enough at it, your character stats by and large stop mattering. Depending on the weight and the numerical behind-the-scenes effects, player skill can end up having such a modulating effect on performance that investing in stats becomes pointless.
I’m worried this might happen in Honey Rose because, traditionally, 2D fighting games live and die by player skill. And while I haven’t actually gotten into any major ring fights yet, I managed to skill-cheese my way through all street brawl sections with terrible stats, no problem. Could be this goes differently in the big fights? In the small fights, I never had the idea my training ever really mattered.
(This is assuming I was reading the stat windows correctly! Honey Rose doesn’t actually assign numbers to your stats: it just shows you a summary Honey Rose Face for each one. Anxious shaking red head, content-looking yellow head, or overtly happy blue head. I don’t actually know if the behind-the-scenes number stuff changes when the heads don’t change. Or if there are more levels. Of why, and how fast, stats degrade over time and/or with use. I don’t really understand much of anything with this system, if we’re being completely honest.)
The second thing is that Honey Rose is kind of a slow-paced game. You might be expecting, from the premise, to be getting into ring fights all the time, but nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve played through a month and a bit of in-game time — that’s five weeks, or thirty-five full game turns — without even reaching my first scheduled fight.
I understand why! Cognitively, I understand. Honey Rose is shooting for a sense of realism here. School takes time, and fighting leagues take time, and things need to get planned out in advance. You start the game in February, and your first official fight is planned for March 17th. Not a strange thing if we apply real-life logic. But as far as game enjoyment is concerned, it feels kind of sluggish. Game days take just long enough, and generally involve just enough reading and decision making, that you can’t really blast through the less interesting ones. There are between two and three major school tests to prepare for alone! And character stories to follow, and sponsorship applications to send out, and trainings to follow… But while all of this is well and good, this game is majorly themed around fancy ring fighting. So I feel I’m justified in saying that I want to fight.
But Honey Rose takes it sweet time with things. You’ll wait for your fight and you’ll like it. Hell, all that training for fights I just mentioned? You might think you’re getting a single tutorial for that, or maybe two. But no. You have to dedicate your day to visiting Coach something in the vicinity of six times to get the full controls and possibilities overview.
It’s not necessarily a bad decision, or a poor one. But I do feel that Honey Rose undersells its main interesting fantasy this way. Maybe stuff’ll pick up after that first fight, and interesting things will start happening. But as it stands, the sluggish progress speed — combined with a lack of clear progress information — just tired me out over the course of several in-game days. There’s good stuff in the horizon, but it’s stuff that you reach in a journey of hours, not minutes. A positive spin on it would be that Honey Rose intends to be a game for the long haul; a more cynical spin could be that a few tweaks to flow and speed might be in order.
There’s more that I noticed during play: the in-game calendar is bad to the point of being useless, the font selection option at the start is silly and neat, the game has a bad habit of surprising you with select-an-option dialogues when you’re hitting the skip text button and causing you to blind-select the first one, I dig the art style and the almost casually super-diverse cast of characters, it’s unclear what kind of information I’m supposed to glean from the giant energy ball, Red’s ‘parent from Cow & Chicken‘ mirror look makes me giggle…
But that’s all ancillary. Core of the story is this: Honey Rose is an interesting idea and blending of gameplay styles, studded with nice art and decent writing, that currently kind of struggled to make the best of its interleaving mechanics. If that sounds like a cool idea to you, keep an eye out! I have no doubt that it’ll get better, smoother and more stable and carefully tuned, over time. If you don’t care for the underlying idea, there’s probably no change that’ll make you like it. But if you enjoy the thought of juggling university studies and social life with beating on thugs and winning ring bouts before an adoring audience… Well, like I said, keep an eye out.
Jarenth’s not much of a fighter, although he’d play one on TV. Explain wrestling to him on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?