(Note: Man, did this end up as unfortunate timing! Well, have something to read between Twitter refreshes.)
After a blissful period of unseasonably warm weather, the snow, alas, is again flying in Maine, which means it's time to take a look at another visual novel. I knew nothing about Zakuro no Aji going in except the evocative title, meaning A Taste of Pomegranate, and the front box art, shown above, which doesn't communicate much. Oh, and also that it was a sound novel not made by Chunsoft. I had no ideas about the plot premise or where it would go.
It turns out that my experience with the game was not optimal, because snes9x decided not to show most of the silhouettes that represent the characters in the environments. (Apparently, the option to show transparency effects under Display Configuration is clicked off by default, for some reason, so be sure to check that if you're messing around with snes9x yourself.) I didn't twig that anything was wrong, since the emulator did show some silhouettes, so I just thought the game was being lazy with its resources - which wasn't an unreasonable conclusion, given how it shook out. This means, though, that my screenshots aren't quite representative, as any silhouettes are probably going to be missing. I've watched a YouTube playthrough to see the game as meant, and while it would have been better to have had the silhouettes, I don't think it would have fundamentally changed my experience.
I ended up getting the best ending quite quickly. There are other scenarios, so I'm going to give the game at least one more go, but here's an overview of Zakuro no Aji's main story.
The hero is Domon, a high-school grad who's been trying unsuccessfully to pass his college entrance exams for two years. He is also, however, an aspiring author who's getting a serial novel published in a hot sci-fi magazine. (As a joke, Domon's novel is entitled Getsumen no Anubisu (Anubis of the Lunar Surface), the same as another sound novel evidently released by Imagineer on the same day as Zakuro no Aji.) Domon is currently paying a visit to the offices of the magazine just before its publication deadline, hoping that the success will be his ticket to a full-time writing career and out of his futile pursuit of higher education.
You're introduced to various people around the office - the assistant editor, the chief designer, the tech guy - but they don't get much more than a page or two of character illustration. This is our supporting cast on this adventure, the equivalent of the other inn guests in Kamaitachi, but they never get beyond sketches. The only individual of immediate note is Domon's crush Yuko, a designer on the magazine, with whom he went to high school and who got him his big break with the publication.
The action of the story proper begins when an earthquake hits. It's strong but not overly serious - the hero mentally notes it as a magnitude 5 or 6 - and afterward, save for one injured member, the staff starts going around, picking up the premises. It's then that the building experiences a more severe shock of an apparently different nature: there's a sensation of falling, the lights go out, and the cityscape vanishes from their fourth-floor windows. The hero blacks out after getting hit by concrete and awakens to find the group isolated and unsure about the nature of their situation, with no rescue personnel having arrived.
The group starts theorizing that the darkened windows may be blocked from debris from a landslide and that the building may have fallen down into the earth due to a weak foundation. There are misgivings, though, as their office is on uppermost floor of a four-story building; could a structure really plummet that far? The editor suggests going up on the roof to survey their surroundings when Tashiro, a member of the magazine's design team who's been missing since the second shock struck, dramatically returns and says that the door to the roof is inundated by sand and dirt, inaccessible. Some preliminary scouting on his part, he says, has revealed that while the second and third floors appear to be intact, the first floor is half-destroyed. (His searching was done with just a lighter for illumination, though, and is thus uncertain.) Tashiro's head is heavily-bandaged with a white cloth stained thickly red with blood; the group asks after it, but he claims it was just a minor injury incurred in the course of negotiating some rubble.
Also, sorry about the quality; I thought this was a creepy image but neglected to get it during the game, so I had to take it from YouTube.
Worried about the couple that takes care of building maintenance that lives on the first floor, a group of the survivors - armed with better illumination than just a lighter - heads down, deciding to check on floors 2 & 3 along the way. At this point, I was wondering: OK, is this a disaster story, then? I'm not particularly drawn to disaster stories, but it's a genre that I hadn't seen represented in the visual or sound novel oeuvre yet. Subsequent developments during the second- and third-floor search, though, indicate that something more might be going on. At the office of an architectural firm, the group discovers three female office workers still alive. The workers are reluctant to leave, though, as they're afraid of an apparent intruder; they've heard someone pawing around a nearby office (seemingly in their bare feet, they say, judging by the sound; they never thought, "hey, maybe another survivor, one who's possibly injured or disoriented?"). Tashiro volunteers to escort the women back to the relative safety of the publishing office. In a nearby design studio, the group discovers an assortment of corpses, seemingly crushed by the collapse of the ceiling and nearby office fixtures. Domon, however, is disturbed by a number of strange gouges in the bodies, which do not seem to have been possibly caused by their manner of death.
Suddenly, a scream is heard from Yuko, who was part of the search party but fled to a nearby bathroom at the sight of the corpses. Domon dashes out of the room to find her collapsed at the bottom of the stairwell. She claims she fell down upon the surprise of seeing in the bathroom what she swears was a man in a suit - without a head. After comforting Yuko and escorting her back to the publishing office to recover - at which time they find that, inexplicably, Tashiro and the office workers haven't made it there yet - the remaining search party members return to the first floor to find the maintenance couple dead in the rubble but their young child alive. (The child's account of what happened is difficult to understand due to his age and fear, but he claims to have seen a "really hurt monster.")
The party checks out the floor to find that the landslide/weak foundation/building plummet hypothesis is indeed true and that their escape paths are seemingly blocked with rubble and the natural features of the geologic basement. They do, however, find two almost cave-like passages through the rock wall outside the building. Domon notices a strange discoloration near one of them - and investigates to find that it's a massive pool of blood. Within the pool, Domon finds a pen, whose engraving proclaims it as a prize for a national design competition; Domon recognizes it as belonging to Tashiro. He dashes back inside the building, a terrible idea forming in his head.
Domon investigates the place on the first floor where Tashiro claimed to have fallen, only to find no blood - Tashiro's story about how he got his injury doesn't hold up. He shows the pen to the other remaining search party member (a competent female executive named Asafuji, who's been looking after the kid) and asserts it's proof that Tashiro's wanderings took him farther than he claimed. He also asserts that there's no way anyone could lose the amount of blood in which he found the pen and "get away scot-free." Domon and Asafuji, with the child, hurry back to the office...but stop on the third floor when they notice a figure in the corridor coming toward them. Domon shines his penlight its way to discover that it's one of the corpses they found in the design studio - bloody and distended, but now ambulatory. (In a neat touch, its silhouette is a toxic green, as opposed to the classic blue usually used for the characters.)
The party races up to the fourth floor and back to safety. There's still neither hide nor hair of Tashiro or the three workers. Domon relates everything that's happened, ending with noting that, having seen the walking corpse, he thinks he knows what happened to Tashiro. (Yuko suggests that maybe the designer from the lower-level office wasn't fully dead, but Domon and Asafuji both refute this, as they checked thoroughly.)
Meanwhile, the tech guy, Tada, announces that he's made a big discovery. He was doing some 133t hacking on the building networks, trying to find a map of the building for a hint to a possible exit, when he ran across a copy of a very intriguing document purportedly dating from 1945. It details the army's development of a secret weapon known only as "Zakuro," or "Pomegranate." Though the Japanese military had hoped Zakuro would turn the tide of the war, its development was suspended just before completion. The editor recognizes
the scientist in sunglasses as his commander the name of the Zakuro project's director as that of the former president of the architectural firm in the building. The document goes on to specify that Zakuro is a biological agent that can revive human cells if administered within several hours of their death, restoring their hosts' locomotive capability. Their restored cognitive functions, however, are apparently minimal - remember that - and Zakuro does have a corrosive effect on the human body.
So, yes, Zakuro no Aji does eventually wind up as a zombie story. The game briefly plays with the implausbility of this against what has so far been largely a then-modern-day disaster tale - could we really be dealing with the living dead, or are our sci-fi-fueled imaginations working overtime? - but, yes, the zombies are real.
Domon then wonders aloud why the weapon is called "Zakuro," to which Asafuji replies that human flesh, in certain legends, is held to have the taste of pomegranate. She goes on about a folk tale of how infants were supposedly occasionally sacrificed to appease demons until one mother successfully offered up a pomegranate instead to save her kid, then ties it to what she alleges is the real-world practice of poor farmers centuries ago offering up pomegranates in memory of the infants they had to thin out due to lack of resources. Now, searching indeed brings up a connection between pomegranates and flesh-eating through the Buddhist goddess Kishimojin/Hariti, who feasted on the flesh of children until a revelation by Buddha caused her to substitute pomegranates instead, and it cites a more plausible connection with long pig steak in how ruby-red pomegranate juice resembles blood. However: I once knew someone who worked as a pharmacy tech in a hospital who related how the treatment of severe burn victims would frequently result in awkward moments where someone would come in and remark, innocently, that it smelled like someone was cooking bacon. I have a real hard time believing that the flavor profiles of human flesh and pomegranate are similar.
Back to the story: Domon seizes on a passage about developments at "the current stage" to assert that while the project may have been stopped, experiments regarding Zakuro are still ongoing. (This is puzzling, since the original document is clearly dated 1945, but there's a pause in the group's perusal of the report that might have been a poor attempt to communicate that Tada switched documents. It's still tenuous.) Yuko buys into this idea, further claiming that there's no way the huge sinkhole into which the building fell could have been present when it was built; otherwise, construction would have halted immediately. The hollow had to have been man-made after the fact. In that case, one of the part-timers ventures, that man-made basement should feature its own exit as well.
Tada brings up one more piece of evidence: a list of the current directors of the architectural firm once headed by Zakuro's mastermind. Tashiro's name appears on it. Yuko asserts that Tashiro must have been overseeing current development of Zakuro, and Domon chimes in that after the building's fall, Tashiro must have gone not to the roof like he said but to the basement to check on Zakuro. Everyone is getting really hepped up and making a lot of leaps in this scene, and while the game does, as mentioned, play with this to an extent, I wish more had been more of the possibility that this might be, perhaps, conclusion-jumping in a stressful situation. (It's neat that it brought this possibility up in the first place, though.)
Just then, there's a knock at the door. Now, I haven't yet mentioned how this sound novel handles player choice: it's not good. Sets of choices basically come it two varieties: a) do you want to stay put or go where the next plot thread is, or b) do you want to do the obvious, sensible action or the stupid action (in either the "joke" or the "obviously wrong" sense)? Save for one choice coming up I'll discuss, you can get the best ending very easily by just acting sensibly and doing the obvious. Unlike Kamaitachi or Otogirisou, there's very rarely a situation where the best course of action is in genuine doubt. Weirdly, though, at this juncture, despite the very apparent courses of action - suspect it's Tashiro, barricade the door and say, "hey, Tashiro, we have some questions about your professional loyalties, and where are those three office workers, anyway?" - you'll be given four choices, each with two subsidiary choices, that all amount to the same thing: claiming that everyone was just getting carried away, throwing the door open, and going to greet the rescue personnel/office workers/other survivors you believe are on the other side. (You can wonder if it's Tashiro, but, again, both of your subsequent choices will lead to Domon not believing his own story and opening the door anyway.) Again, though I wished the possibility of everything being panic-induced imagination came more into genuine play, it's frustrating to have your character railroaded into stupidity at what appears to be a crucial juncture.
And, yes, it's Tashiro, whose silhouette will change from blue to undead green before your eyes and who will promptly attack Domon. Once Domon is rescued by a karate-adept part-timer and the door is barricaded, Domon will let loose the rest of his theory: when Tashiro went down into the basement, something happened (Domon suspects falling rubble) that actually outright killed him. Tashiro then resurrected as a result of the Zakuro - Domon theorizes that the substance is ambiently present in the stagnant, enclosed space of the cave. It's interesting to note here that, despite the 1945(?) report's claims, zombie Tashiro clearly retained his human intelligence in the early to middle parts of the story. Even at this juncture, though he does not speak, he has enough presence of mind to knock and, in certain branches, open the locked door with a key. While I wish it were used more, the game's idea of intelligent undead is intriguing and presents unique dangers.
The group decides that it can't wait around and has to move. Katsumata, the karate-kicking part-timer who rescued Domon, volunteers to go to the basement to locate the theorized exit. Domon can go with Katsumata, stay behind, or volunteer to go alone in Katsumata's stead; obviously, two are better than one at this point. The duo sets off and arrives at the basement, encountering the now-undead maintenance man, one of the office workers, and the businessman without a head Yuko saw in the bathroom earlier.
Domon and Katsumata now have the choice of exploring the left tunnel or the right. Now, I chose left, because you always choose left, right?, but also, I think, because I remembered faintly a mention that Tashiro's body was found in the left tunnel. This is the closest the game has to an actual tension-filled choice, I think - 'cause if Tashiro got killed in the left tunnel, then there's obviously something bad down there, right? On the other hand, we've barely ripped into this zombie plot and seem to be at the verge of finding an exit. We can't just be allowed to leave right after discovering the existence of the main plot, right? We've gotta solve the mih-starr-ee first, right?
Taking the left tunnel leads to the requisite basement T-virus lab with green goop everywhere (with a busted tank from which it apparently erupted) and three rotting corpses suspended from the ceiling on hooks. The guys find a notebook dating from World War II detailing the Zakuro experiments, which basically goes over the same territory as the 1945 document but adds that the experiment was stopped when, predictably, the researchers couldn't stop the zombies from indiscriminately attacking humans. It also mentions that the presence of other living beings compels the zombies to attempt to "siphon" their energy - somehow, though this is supposedly where the feeding impulse comes in - and that the researchers used sulfuric acid to dispose of their uncooperative subjects. Eventually, the head researcher suspended the project for reasons the notebook describes only in very vague terms, but he mentions that "retribution had come for opening the gates to hell."
The initial means it's an abbreviation for the university's real name, but it's an appropriate one given the context.
Domon and Katsumata also find a map inside the notebook, which reveals that the exit is down the right tunnel. Just then, the three corpses on hooks start to come to life (reanimated by the proximity of living beings, apparently) and start shambling toward the heroes. The door is stuck, and they can't get out - but they note an array of glass jars of sulfuric acid near the zombies. You then have two sets of choices. The first is to either throw a rock at the jars yourself, urge the ahtletic Katsumata to make the throw, or let Katsumata throw but give him advice. Things will go poorly no matter what you choose, prompting a second set of options: insisting that Domon make the throw, insisting that Katsumata throw, or abandoning the sulfuric acid idea and insisting on melee combat. Now, in this run I watched, the correct path was to leave things to Katsumata each time - which is a smart subversion, actually, of the usual status quo in gaming, where the hero has to intervene for a gambit to succeed, and rewards the player for recognizing that Katsumata is more likely to succeed in a physical feat than Domon. In my game, though, no combination of choices would work, and I just kept getting shunted to either a "Game Over" ending where Katsumata and Domon were ripped apart, or a more "proper" but still bad ending where Domon loses consciousness during the fight and wakes up surrounded by his now-undead coworkers, who chattily (again: the zombies clearly have human consciousness for a bit) celebrate his impending zombification. So I ended up being aggravated about having the scene go on for a relatively long time only to dead-end. I initially picked having Domon throw the rock, having fallen into the "protagonist must be the one to act" trap, and I don't remember what I picked for the second set of choices. It could have been Katsumata, but quite possibly not.
So I started from an earlier save state and worked my way back to choose the right tunnel, whereupon Domon and Katsumata simply discover the exit. They'll go back and get the others, whereupon everyone will make a break for the basement, battling the undead - including some resurrected WWII soldiers from the original Zakuro experiment - all the while. You're given some combat prompts here, but they're mostly very obvious in the vein of "strike smartly and aim for the legs, like Katsumata told you" or "flail wildly like a doofus." (In the meantime, in that left-tunnel escape path I couldn't access for whatever reason, the recently-resurrected return to death for no apparent reason and pose no obstacle to escape, while the soldiers still resurrect but don't notice the group.) They follow the tunnel to safety, Yuko expresses newfound admiration and romantic feelings toward Domon, The End.
Given its release date late in the Super Famicom's life span and the fact that it had a counterpart game release on the same day, I have to wonder if it was a budget title from a second-string studio. (Imagineer's other output seems dominated by ports.) Regardless, this is a considerable step down from Kamaitachi no Yoru. While it's intriguing how you're kept in the dark about the nature of the story for an extended period, the pacing is poor - you discover the main plot right before the ending and grapple with the ramifications for the scenario for basically one or two scenes. (While I've mentioned that I had no idea what Zakuro no Aji was about given the information I had, the rear box art is more explicit about the zombie stuff and the nature of Zakuro, which I imagine would make the short shrift given this plot thread even more frustrating for those who bought a boxed copy.) The choices are mostly no-brainers that generate very little tension and demand almost no thought; save for the left tunnel/right tunnel choice, you can get to the best ending with no meaningful resistance. The backgrounds can get monotonous, as there are an awful lot of dark shots of desks and computers, and the soundtrack is serviceable - fine - but not a patch on Kamaitachi's. Much of the supporting cast has only a minimal impact on the plot, and they have almost no memorable moments on par with Toshio's rage or Mari's surprise martial-arts mastery or Toru's dumb banana-trick antics. I didn't have a bad time playing through Zakuro, but it was notably lacking in several respects. Actually, "lacking" is probably the definitive word on the game.
I like the little page-turning anigif they have as an end-of-page marker, though.