A few hours in
It turns out…
…they totally can.
So, I played through every Rose of Winter story. Some more than once, for reasons that are probably unrelated to dumb achievement-hunting. With my speed-reading and a liberal application of the ‘skip previously read text’ button, the whole thing clocked in at a little over two hours, if my Steam stats are any valid. And… I pretty much had a good time throughout! It turns out that I was right: Rose of Winter is ‘only’ four relatively short stories, and they’re fairly condensed as love stories go, but it packs much more punch and imparts many more feelings than most 30-hour world-saving epics manage. I want to say it manages that in spite of its short length, but it’s probably more likely that it manages because of it: constraints shape the strength of art, after all, and Rose of Winter has had to effectively package four whole arcs of discovery and romance and pathos into 30-60 minute segments. It forces the stories to be to the point.
And these stories are interesting. Whichever ends up resonating with you the most is probably a matter of personal preference, but they all have interesting turns and observations, predicated on two major themes. The first of these is deception and honesty. Take Crow, for instance, my first beau of the hour. Early on, there is a segment where — if you play your cards right — you can get him to admit that he’s lying to you about something. But then he spins that into admitting that he was lying about lying about something, and plays the whole thing off as a joke. Easy to buy into, the first time around, until the twist — and then the other twist — and then the third twist. Truth and Crow are casual acquaintances at best. And as Rosemary falls for his dashing rogue act head over heels, you’re left to ask yourself: how much of anything is real, here? Crow himself explicitly says he’d never use real-magic to make women fall in love with him, and I’m inclined to believe… but with the stacking facade of lies he’s built up, can you really be sure?
Tirune, my second story of choice, is equally not what he seems. He’s more overt about it than Crow is, with the whole ‘I’m actually literally a dragon’ angle. But even that obfuscates more than it actually tells. I won’t spoil too much here because the reveals are played in a slow, interesting way, but let me just give you this Pro Tip: when an elf-shaped dragon remarks that ‘you look so good, I could just eat you up’, don’t casually flirt back.
Falkner, the dashing fae prince, brings more of a self-deception vibe to the table. On the surface, here’s a man who’s seen the good things in life: traveling the world, tasting the finer things, sleeping with women many times his size… And now he’s off, willingly, to put an end to all that for the good of his kingdom. It’s what he wants. He tells himself it’s what he wants. Is it what he wants? It’s probably what he wants. Is it? Of all ending scenes, Falkner’s plays with this deception theme the clearest and the cleverest, in a way that can be bittersweet or just straight-up bitter, depending on how well you can guess the attack patterns of wild wolf packs.
And Kuya… but I’ll leave that one for you to uncover. Just imagine what kind of story Rose of Winter could tell about a big, horned, spike-armored beast prince that involves deception.
One theme, four stories, four different interpretations. It’s fairly impressive, as far as group packaging goes. And a similar exercise can be done for Rose of Winter‘s second theme: the conflict between ‘responsibility’ and ‘following your dreams’. Crow is the ultimate free-wheeling spirit, but he has to give up everything to look after himself in a rather literal way. Tirune believes that happiness and peace between dragons and humans can exist, but has in the past not trusted himself to keep his baser instincts at bay — it’s his ‘responsibility’ to make sure he never gives into temptation, even if that means making both himself and his loved ones unhappy in the process. Falkner, again the literalist, embodies this directly: his duty and responsibility lie with his kingdom, but… And Kuya, big buff warrior prince sweet boy, starts out believing that gaining responsibilities is his dream. Rather than strain against what he must, he strains against what he can’t — a narrative that everyone who’s ever been a surly teenager can relate to, and everyone who wistfully looks back on their surly teenager years can empathize with. It’s no surprise that Kuya’s ‘bad’ ending is him finally getting what he thought he wanted — at the expense of what he just learned he actually wants.
And then, of course, there’s Rosemary herself. The Girl Who Would Be Knight. In more stories than not, she actually achieves that dream, too. I’ll leave it up to you to divine how many of those stories are the ones consider good endings.
In summary, Rose of Winter uses two relatively straightforward themes — ‘being true to others’ and ‘being true to yourself’, which I guess you could even consider a single theme if you wanted to — to tell a couple of short, sweet, interesting romance stories. It studs these with good character writing and a robust sense of humor, which is something so many visual novels dearly miss. Even in the short time you spend with the love interests, it’s easy to get and extrapolate a good sense of their characters and personalities. None of them are two-dimensional: Crow is a charmer, but also a scheming liar, Falkner is a dashing gentleman, but not above bossing you around and pulling rank when he feels belittled, Kuya means well, but he alternates between playing a blustering persona and being blunt and socially awkward, and Tirune… well, Tirune is literally a dragon in disguise, with all the incomprehensible species problems that entails. And Rosemary, with whom we spend the most time, is expertly painted as a slightly-naive, sometimes homesick, often headstrong woman who’s driven to do what she thinks is right — even if she’s not always sure what ‘right’ means. She’ll risk her life to save a man she barely knows, but is more than happy to help that man ruin the future of his kingdom if it means spending more time with him. That… actually happens in all four stories, come to think of it. Rosemary is very anti-monarchist. Maybe that should be a sequel: Rose of Winter 2: Long Live The Republic.
And it’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the lovely art style once last time. Guys, it looks really good. And the palette use is even more clever than I gave it credit for: since most of the world follows Rosemary’s light-pink-and-white scheme, this helps the four princes stand out in the crowd. Go look back up: Falkner has a blue colour theme, Crow is green, Tirune is yellow, and Kuya is red. Broadly speaking, anyway. I can’t be sure that this is intentional, but I’m gonna give the artists the benefit of the doubt. They’ve done such great work throughout the whole game; it’s easier to believe the thematic colouring is also by design than it is to believe it’s a happy accident.
And that’s it, really. I’m out of things to say. Rose of Winter is a lovely, funny, pretty visual novel about a girl on a quest for knighthood and the four princes that can try to knock her off it it — and off her feet. It’s short, but also sweet and to the point, which is generally all I look for in visual novels. It might feel a little short for twelve Steam dollars, but I like to compare buying games like these to buying books: a one-time investment that, sure, you can only experience for the first time once. But once you own them, it’s easy enough to revisit and re-experience that wonder later, once you’ve forgotten how everything goes again. And Rose of Winter… seems like the kind of game I might want to revisit, at some point in the future.
Jarenth didn’t expect the blustering beast-prince storyline to be the best one, but there you have it. Defend your own guyfu 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?