Early Access Review: Heart à la Mode

Early Access Review: Heart à la Mode

The debut game for Yapperu Studios, Heart à la Mode was an Otome Jam 2021 entry. As a young professional, you have an interesting guilty pleasure: a cute character mascot for a stationery company. When you attend a convention for the aforementioned mascot with one of your online friends, you’ll soon come to find that extremely awkward romance is in the air.

A review of this game in its current state was requested via the VN Game Den review request form.

The sprite art is light and feathery, favoring pastels and pinks while still keeping more saturated complementary jewel tones in for contrast. It maintains a gentle softness without ever drifting into cutesy or cartoony. There’s not a huge amount of body diversity work at play, but each character manages to still have a distinct, fun design that matches them well without being “overdesigned.” They’re charming, fun, and highly expressive in face, body position changes, and the way the sprite is moved through the space. There’s also an excellent amount of costume work in separating the casual and professional environments. These changing outfits even speak to the one of the broader story themes, namely, having different versions of ourselves in different places. When the characters show up at one of their “casual” places in their suits, whether it was intentional or not it feels like a really nice visual metaphor for their deepening relationship.

There’s also just a lot of great additional art. The CGs are fun and there’s a fair number of them for the run time. There are stickers in the texting apps our main characters use that you can blow and up and look at more closely. And the addition of little comic-style sweat marks for comedic effect on the character sprites adds a lot of flavor. While some of the backgrounds that are themed around the stationery mascot our main character loves can get a little too cluttered for their own good, the amount of detail in the set pieces as a whole is wonderful.

The writing is very dialogue heavy, which gives a lot of great character insights. When the point of view occasionally switches, it creates a multi-directional perspective on the story as a whole that’s a lot of fun. All the characters are also just very charming in their own right. They’re very believable twenty-somethings. They mostly have it together, but there’s just enough disaster and uncertainty there to really make them feel rich and robust as characters. And the conflicts they face with one another are very real and grounded. That’s not a lot of drama heightened for the sake of it, just two young adults learning how to navigate this weird relationship they’ve found themselves in.

That being said, the pacing can be a bit strange. It doesn’t feel quite as deconstructed as one expects from a slice-of-life while, at the same time, not quite having the story beats or as strong a through line as a typical romantic comedy. Not that it’s not a perfectly serviceable story. It can just feel a little slow before we start picking up toward the end of the route. I also feel like it could benefit from a little more romantic tension. Robin’s is the only route that’s currently available, and I think it’s very well-written as a friends-to-lovers story. It hits all the “should we do this” moments of transitioning from friend to romantic partners, but until right at the end it feels like it’s missing some of the fluffy feeling that goes along with that. I felt like there was just a slight narrative detachment from the player that I think I would have liked to see closed a little.

What struck me as this game’s most impressive elements were its attempts at creating an interesting user experience. It does things I don’t see very often that I think really benefits it overall. I like the occasional blurring of backgrounds to shift focus to the characters. I really love the phone chat segments. There’s a lot of small details in them. I think the baked-in achievement system is a lot of fun, and with how many choices you’re given, the affection up notifications are actually incredibly helpful. There’re so many small details, though, that occasionally the imperfections are a little bit more apparent and could use some smoothing. There’s some weirdness with the textbox sometimes where it’ll flash out, for example, that was really distracting. Overall these flaws are very small.

Heart à la Mode is a simultaneously sweet and adult game, but not in a lewd way. Rather, there’s a maturity to its romance without being melodramatic or gritty. It’s a nice sweet story about normal people falling in a normal sort of love that’s perfect as a light, fluffy read that still feels grounded in reality.

As of writing, only one route is currently available with the plan to release the additional routes at the end of August. Download it now on itch.io.

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