VN Game Den was provided with a review code for RB: Axolotl.
There are a lot of visual novels out there that have attempted to capitalize on quirky, weird themes in order to gain traction. At first glance, that is what RB: Axolotl might appear to be, but fortunately, there is much more going on here than you might expect from a visual novel about five axolotls living in a mysterious tank.
It starts by introducing us to Axy, an upbeat axolotl who considers himself to be absolutely awesome, thinks the tank he lives in with the other axolotls is the best place in the world, and can’t wait to have another fun-filled day. Things quickly take a dark turn when one of the axolotls turns against the others, however, and it isn’t long before RB: Axolotl reveals itself to be a story that deals with a lot of heavy themes such as depression, anxiety, and chronic illness.
In fact, it might hit a little too heavily in those early hours, because for quite a while after that, I found myself suspicious of any happy moments, unable to fully enjoy them since I was certain it was only a matter of time before something terrible would happen—which, in retrospect, is probably not what the developer intended, since RB: Axolotl ultimately has an inspiring message. Darkness is there, but it’s meant to be overcome, and there are a lot of fun moments along the way.
Much of the story is presented in the ADV style that has become standard for many visual novels nowadays. Although the cute character sprites for the axolotls are simple, the visual novel uses movement to great effect to help add more life to the scenes. There are a few unexpected moments that use different styles as well, but more importantly, a sizable portion of the story is told through something closer to NVL format, albeit entirely through dialogue in these sections. This mainly occurs in sections related to RB, a mysterious figure involved with the larger plot.
The five axolotls simply appeared in the tank one day with no memory of anything that came before, yet they have knowledge of things they really shouldn’t know about. At first, this might seem like a convenient way to explain these characters acting so human, but it actually ties in with the story’s mysteries. There is a strange void in the tank that items regularly come through, and an unknown figure known simply as RB who sends cryptic messages. RB: Axolotl throws a lot of questions and confusing points at you right away, but as you read, everything slowly starts to make sense—though not without several twists along the way, and what you think you understand at first might not actually be the truth.
However, while this larger plot about RB and the true nature of the tank does develop over time, it really is a character-focused story at its core. There are a lot of fun slice-of-life sections, and the primary emphasis is on the axolotls, their daily lives, and their own personal struggles. Sometimes this leads to dark scenes, but there are many lighthearted moments as well, and I really got to care about this cast of characters by the end.
The pacing does have issues from time to time. One unexpected section we get a brief glimpse into feels like it could have been expanded on instead of having the critical moments occur off-screen, and a lengthy exposition section near the end might have benefited from showing more and telling less. The overarching plot suffers a bit as well; while the most immediate parts are wrapped up, it leaves enough loose ends to feel more like a small piece of a larger story, and an afterword unlocked at the end suggests there could be sequels, but it’s no guarantee. I finished feeling like that aspect of the story just needed a little more explanation, a little more detail, to make it feel as strong as the rest rather than a vehicle for the visual novel’s personal story and message.
But while the plot could have used a bit more focus to make the whole experience tighter, RB: Axolotl is still an intriguing story with many good moments, and I hope one day we do get to see more set in this universe.