Indie Wonderland: Rose of Winter

Rose of Winter! What a lovely name for a lovely game (by developer Pillowfight, but be sure to check out the more accurate credit assignments on the game page) to lead in a lovely winter with. Unfortunately it’s early fall right now, and living in the Netherlands as I do that means a lot less ‘lovely weather’ and a lot more ‘why did I forgot my umbrella again, it’s grey and rainy here literally always‘. But you can’t win ’em all, I guess. I doubt I’d have picked up a game called Dreary Grass Patch of Autumn.

For real though: I ran into Rose of Winter a month ago, and decided to save it in the limbo of my Chrome tabs for the oncoming November. It genuinely looks lovely at first glance, art-wise, and I feel that a story about an up-and-coming knight escorting fancy princes through a snow-covered mountain (or so the website tells me) will be a lot nicer and a lot more interesting to talk about than yet another slog through the land of anatomically implausible anime boobs.

(Spoiler levels: Narrative, medium-high-ish. Mechanical, I guess completely?)

(Game source: Bought it myself.)

Opening

Look at this lovely pastel-pink title screen.

It immediately sets the mind at ease.

The options menu is equally lovely and aesthetically matching, which is always a plus — even if I have sort of come to expect this from visual novels. The pleasing visuals also don’t do much to distract from the fact that there’s not a lot going on. Again, that’s par for the visual novel course, and I suppose you don’t really need much more than ‘sound’, ‘text speed’, and ‘what’s your preference re: skipping’. And I do appreciate the ‘Display-High Contrast’ toggle, which removes a lot of the visual ambiguity in favour of a much more readable screen.

This is the normal options screen. Notice the subtle hatching and general lush colour use.

And this is the options screen on high contrast. Notice how the aforementioned hatching — which is probably a significant distractor for people with poor eyesight or colour differentiation — has been taken out.

And that’s it! Opening segment over. One of the perks of talking about visual novels, I guess. Story time!

Initial impressions

Some visual novels open with prose, or character ambiguity. This one doesn’t.

“Beware, evildoers! For I am Rosemary, the Knight of Winter!”

A strong opening statement, followed up by an only *slightly* less strong statement.

I know I keep harping on this, but this game just looks so all-around pleasant. Look at this! A hatched pink-purple doily for a text box, how can I not be relaxed at that? Some equally lovely triangular buttons, reminiscent of small banners, round out the look. They’re marginally in-aesthetic, too: while you can’t go wrong with a cog for ‘options’ and a left-facing arrow for ‘back’, the scroll icon that opens the log of all previous sentences and the save menu hidden behind a feather quill are much appreciated.

Too bad about all the darkness in the center of the screen. If only I had som-

Oh, there we go. Something to look at.

Hello, Rosemary! Pleasure to meet you! can I just say: excellent colour coordination between your outfit and your game’s colour palette. And I love what you’ve done with your hair!

Rosemary, who I assume is my main character for today — I don’t know if she’s supposed to be me, since she talks as if at an audience — babbles on for a little bit. She’s a knight! Except, you know, she’s not a knight-knight. She’s not, like, knighted or anything, or backed by any kings or royal houses. Rosemary is a knight in the same way that I’m a professional games writer: completely lacking in formal qualifications, but telling everyone about it anyway and hoping that word of mouth and gradual accumulation of experience make it stick. The ‘fake it till you make it’ approach to notoriety. As a result, I bond with Rosemary almost immediately. You can do it, girl. Let’s be the best knight we can possibly be. Monsters to slay, gold to be won, that sort of stuff.

Hey! No need to sell yourself short. Fifty percent of knighthood success is believing in it.

There we go, that’s the spirit!

Right now, ‘being the best knight’ involves a choice selection of escort quests, which I guess isn’t actually too far out of the wandering knight ballpark. Rosemary is currently hanging out in a cozy tavern at the foot of treacherous snow-covered Mount Needle. On the other side of the mountain is Starlight City, simply the place to be in Whatever The Kingdom We’re In Is Called. Which is to say, it’s the places that four princes of four different kingdoms really need to get to, quickly. Each of them is looking for a guide slash bodyguard for the trip ahead. Can you say ‘valorous adventure’? I like the sound of what we’re getting into.

Can you also say ‘four hottie princes’?

Because *I* sure can.

Top left: Falkner, prince of the Fae. The most dashing and elegant gentleman under one meter tall. No, seriously, he’s not large. Crossing Mount Needle’s deep snows is going to be difficult enough when they only come up to your ankle. If you are as high as an ankle…

Bottom left: Tirune, prince of Dragons. Which is to say, he’s actually a dragon. Literally actually a dragon, in human form. He needs help getting through the mountains because, as a fire dragon, the cold environment is kicking his ass. He’s taken a ‘human’ form — more elven, if you ask me, but po-tay-to po-tah-to — leaving him weak and exhausted and in need of help to navigate the unfamiliar terrain he would otherwise probably just fly over.

Bottom right: Kuya, prince of Moonforest. Beast-prince of Moonforest, if the portrait is correct, which… I’m not sure if that’s offensive or not? All I know is that he’s got fangs and spikes and he looked like an orc. That’s all Rosemary seems to know, too; why exactly does this buff warrior dude need travel help? Seems like what he mostly needs is a shirt. Given that we’re looking at a snow-topped mountain and all that.

And finally, top right: little prince Elgandir, of the ‘Southern Kingdom, i.e. the least fantastical narrative of the bunch — ‘humans, but differently so’. It’s equally unclear why he’s traveling in this snowy hellhole at this time of year, nor am I 100% on why the crown prince’s only bodyguard seems to be some sort of perpetually-stubbled ranger man. A… very handsome ranger man, obviously, all piercing blue eyes and perfectly-placed non-disfiguring scar, with his gently smiling gaze and his carefully tousled ponytail…

I’m not saying he’s dreamy or anything, but…

Hey, what do you know, my hand slipped and I picked Elgandir. What a terrible, accidental tragedy. I guess this is my life forever now. Oh well.

I meet Elgandir and his caretaker in the inn. Rosemary has prepared for the trip by getting supplies, and even finding a donkey the young prince can ride on. The caretaker has prepared by…

“That’s not *all* you brought, is it?” “Of course not! I also brought a deck of cards, in case we’ve got time that needs killing.”

Rosemary is learning an important life lesson here: never just get suckered in by a pretty face. Background checks, girl. You’ll thank me some day.

The mystery man introduces himself as Crow, goofs around some more, and then proceeds to casually cuss out the prince, who’s sleeping in. Which is… I’m pretty sure that’s a big no-go in royalty circles? Rosemary, shocked, doesn’t quite know how to react.

Which is to say, I have to pick the reaction *for* her.

Ah, see, here is where my hard-earned visual novel and dating sim experience pays off. Obviously, these choices are not equal: one is aligned with Crow, putting me in his good graces, while the other is orthogonal to his worldview and values. And if dating sims have taught me anything, it’s that if you’re attracted to someone, you should always try to confirm to their worldview as closely as you can to make them like in. Visual novels are terrible sources of life advice, I’m just now realizing.

‘Always be yourself. Unless you can be someone the object of your affection probably likes. Then always be that person.’

And on that cheerful note, and some more casual Crow-started flirting, the trip begins!

He actually seems like a decent fella. Just, you know… a little fast and loose with social expectations.

The initial mountain approach is easy, and pretty, and honestly has more of a date-walk vibe to it than a ‘cross the treacherous mountain while safeguarding a little prince’s life’ one. I mean, look at this:

‘Which one of us is watching the prince right now?’ ‘Who?’

We walk, we chat, we laugh a bit. Well, Crow and Rosemary do. Prince Elgandir doesn’t seem to be too happy about the whole thing. Man, what a… ‘scamp’. He’s riding a donkey through beautiful mountains and it doesn’t make him happy. He’s got books and toys and it doesn’t make him happy. He’s going home to Starlight City for his magical birthday party and it doesn’t make him happy. Wait, why was he even out of the city this close to his birthday to begin with? Never mind, don’t discuss that, it won’t make him happy! What does make this princeling happy?

How about… magic?

Well, that has *some* effect.

Crow is apparently a magician of sorts. He does the old ‘pull something from behind the ear’ trick, which, you know, is a classic for a reason. But where most magicians would go for something easy to palm, like a coin or a card, Crow pulls out an entire rose.

Prince Elgandir is not very impressed.

Rosemary, on the other hand…

Okay, so the prince still isn’t happy. Big deal. If he wants to read storybooks on his donkey all day, who am I to deny that? That sounds pretty sweet, to be honest. In the meantime, Crow and Rosemary entertain themselves with the giving of magical roses and the being of incredibly, overtly flirtatious. And here I thought this trip would be dangerous. The biggest risk I’ve seen so far is trying to get Crow’s reaction choices right, but I’m pretty sure I got this. Flirt back, relax, buck authority, that seems like his kind of deal. The way this trip is going, we’ll be over the mountain in a day or two. And then maybe he and I Rosemary could go…

Oh, dang, there’s a giant crevasse in our path. With no bridge or easy point of passage. Well, that sucks. I mention as much to Crow, but he’s his usual carefree unhelpful self. C’mon, dude, it’s your frostbite as well as mine. Use your goddamn wizard tricks to get us out of here, why don’t you. Maybe you can pull a rope bridge from your sleeve or somethi-

Suddenly a giant owl attacks!

Or as Rosemary calls it, a ‘night-roc’, which I am officially adopting as a descriptor for all giant owls everywhere.

Shit, this seems like a really bad situation. How do you battle a giant angry owl? Do I FIGHT, RUN, or ITEM?

Shit, I don’t have any items!

YOU’LL NEVER TAKE US ALIVE, BIRD! I realize that doesn’t work very well as a battlecry when it’s already intending on killing us stone dead, but listen, I’m under a lot of time pressure here. I grab my sword, take a swing, and get the night-roc straight in the left talon! Haha, nice! But it’s no use; as if a creature of that size is going to be deterred by a little sting. It grabs me, the prince, the donkey, and Crow all in its giant talons, and then…

…flies across the crevasse, puts us safely on the ground, and then flies off.

Rosemary and I are of one reaction.

The prince is alright, so that’s fine. So is the donkey. But Crow’s got a nasty gash on his hand. On his left hand, to be precise. Almost exactly on the spot where I slashed the night-roc on the left talon. And didn’t Crow cry out in pain exactly when that slash happened?…

Anyway, long story short (and relatively spoiler-free): turns out Crow is a wizard. Like an actual magic-user. Naturally, this is a momentous revelation that can only be processed with the finest of make-outs.

He conjured a little warm snow-free grove for us while the prince slept in a nearby cave. It’s cool.

Kissing and… ‘other things’.

Yeah.

Then, just, a whole bunch of things happen at once, that I can’t really replicate here because it’d be spoiling the emotional climax of the storyline. An avalanche is involved, and danger, and declarations of strong and lasting love, and personal sacrifice. It’s touching. And at the end of it, Crow is gone.

Forever.

And Rosemary, having safely escorted prince Elgandir home and now in the good graces of the royal family, faces that eternal disparity between what you think you want and what you find you want. Knighthood, official real knighthood, is within her grasp. But was that really worth losing Crow over? She knows there wasn’t any other way any of it could have played out, should have played out, perhaps, but still. It’s human to wonder, after all. Maybe…

Oh hey, and then Crow’s back.

Lil’ scruffier than usual.

Okay, okay, now I’m just being facetious. It’s actually a really nice story arc with a fairly touching ending. And it all makes sense, I promise, inasmuch anything that happens makes ‘sense’ when magic gets involved. It was a fun story and I’m glad I played through it.

I wonder, though… This whole thing does smack of happiest ending. What if… I play through the game again, same Crow time, same Crow story, but this time picking the opposite of what I picked before. All the options that disappoint or upset the scruffy prince-guarding ranger. And, sure enough, the ending I get this time is different. Only mildly so: the same story play out for about 90% of the story, the magic tricks and the night-roc and the kissing and the falling in love and the sacrifice. But it’s different nonetheless, in a meaningful way.

See if you can spot the biggest change.

So that means… if I’m intuiting this right, I have six plays left, across three stories. Falkner the Fae prince, Kuya the beast prince, and Tirune the dragon prince. And playing through both of these took me… about 45 minutes, generously. I guess that Rose of Winter isn’t trying to be an incredibly long game. Which is fine! I much prefer four well-told short stories over one poorly-told drawn-out epic.

But there’s one problem. I’m pretty sure I played through the best story first. No offense to Falkner, Kuya, or Tirune, but none of them are Crow. Can they ever hope to match up to a love that spanned the universe itself?

Onto page 2. >>

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