Review: Iwaihime

VN Game Den was provided with a review code for Iwaihime.

Our story begins at a train station, where a girl named Tsubakiko is awaiting the arrival of her distant relative, Suzumu, who is coming to stay with her family. As she waits, she finds herself drawn into a strange conversation about suicide and soon imagines the train tracks as a beautiful sky into which she can leap to find true freedom. It then turns horrific, as she sees limbs and heads and grasping hands of everyone who was crushed under the train over the years, now pulling her under as well.

As she dies in a horrific manner and becomes another tormented soul trapped with the rest, Suzumu calls out to her and she comes to her senses, realizing it was all a morbid fantasy. This unsettling scene sets the tone for Iwaihime, written by Ryukishi07, the creator of the popular When They Cry franchise.

There are long stretches of time when everything appears normal, just as it did when Suzumu arrived at the station. As the main protagonist, Suzumu settles into his new life and quickly makes friends with Tsubakiko and several others at his new school. In these scenes, it feels like any slice-of-life visual novel, with hints of romance and wacky antics as Suzumu and his friends go about their daily lives. These scenes are charming and funny, and the entire cast is pretty likable. It also has beautiful art work and voice acting, as well as music that really helps build the mood of each scene, be it lighthearted or dark.

At other times, the story becomes twisted into a nightmare, just as it did when Tsubakiko imagined herself being crushed beneath the train. Suzumu finds himself strangely drawn to a mysterious girl in their class, Toé Kurokami. She barely speaks and always seems to be in her own world, and she carries a creepy Japanese doll with her. Although his friends warn him that people say anyone who gets involved with Toé will be cursed, Suzumu can’t shake the feeling that she is in trouble and it’s his duty to save her. Yet when he tries, the world distorts around him and horrific things happen while he’s helpless to stop them…

Only for normalcy to once again be restored, leaving the reader with the eerie impression that only Suzumu and Toé saw what happened—if it happened at all. In this way, Iwaihime switches between happy slice-of-life scenes and ghastly nightmares, and the sudden reappearance of normal life is often as jarring as the shift into horror, especially when things seem to clearly contradict what you just saw. At one point in the story, a character comments that it is difficult to see when reality ends and the nightmare begins, and it’s incredible how Iwaihime manages to achieve that same sense of unease and uncertainty in the reader. There are plenty of familiar romance tropes here, but you never know what darkness is lurking beneath the surface.

All of Iwaihime is well-written and enjoyable, with only an occasional line that sounds off. It sometimes switches between viewpoint characters, which can be confusing since most scenes are narrated in the first-person, but it’s never too difficult to recognize whose point-of-view you’re in. Yet the horror scenes are where it truly excels. Iwaihime features some truly grotesque scenes, and it doesn’t shy away from the dark, twisted details. Iwahime deals with heavy content both realistic and supernatural, and it renders it all in the sort of gruesome detail that really gets under your skin.

At first it might seem as though the horror scenes are completely random, but as you read further, everything slowly starts to come together. Even little details that felt insignificant at first take on a greater meaning later on. Everything is connected, and all of these nightmarish scenes happen for a reason, because Iwaihime tells a story not only of a boy named Suzumu and his friends, but of a tragic and terrible curse that has spanned 1,000 years.

Iwaihime is a well-written horror visual novel with a truly compelling story, and I was gripped from the moment I started reading it. It’s mostly a kinetic novel—there’s a point near the end where it appears the story will branch based on your choice, but reading each of the three outcomes is required—but it’s also a full-length story that should keep you engrossed from start to finish.

You can purchase Iwaihime from Steam.