NEKO-NIN exHeart 2 was recently released, giving me the excuse I needed to go back and play all four titles (so far) in the series. If you’re interested in adorable ninja catgirls, read on!
Genre: Casual, Indie
Publisher: Sekai Project
Release Date: 28 Apr, 2018
NEKO-NIN exHeart is the debut Steam anime visual novel series from developers, Whirlpool, published by visual novel specialists, Sekai Project.
As of the time of writing this review, the series comprises five titles: NEKO-NIN exHeart, NEKO-NIN exHeart +PLUS Nachi, NEKO-NIN exHeart +PLUS Saiha, and the recently released NEKO-NIN exHeart 2. I’ve had the first three titles in my Steam library for quite some time, but hadn’t actually got around to playing them. When I was offered a chance to review NEKO-NIN exHeart 2 I thought it would be a good opportunity to dig out the others and review them all at once. So, as with my earlier NEKOPARAthon, here’s my NEKO-NINtrospective.
The NEKO-NIN exHeart series tells the story of Houjou Haruki, heir and master of the next generation of the Houjou clan, a historically powerful family with an agreement with the ancient shinobi clan, the Fuuma. Born of the early Age of Man, demi-humans are part human, part beast, with super-human strength and beastly traits. Often training as ninja, they formed villages and signed sacred pacts with noble families, exchanging their protection and service for food, shelter, and monetary support.
Houjou Haruki lives with his father, who occasionally travels for work, and nominally with his mother as well, though her work often sees her away from home for months or years at a time. When the series begins, Haruki is a virgin high-school student with little experience with girls and no idea of his family’s history.
The first game begins with two catgirl Fuuma shinobi, Yura and Tama, seeking out Haruki to pledge themselves to his service. These two young, enthusiastic, voluptuous, and — let’s face it — rather cute catgirls have known all their lives that they would serve ‘Lord’ Haruki and now that they’ve finally come of age they have set out from their village to find him. Through various trials and tribulations, Haruki comes to accept the devotion of the girls and, since he’s such an all-round nice guy, allows them to move in with him. Without giving too much away, the first game ends with Haruki and the girls living together and working part time for a group devoted to tracking down runaway shinobi: the Four Heavenly Kings.
The two intermediate titles — NEKO-NIN exHeart +PLUS Nachi and NEKO-NIN exHeart +PLUS Saiha — are short interludes in the main plotline, allowing the developers to focus on catgirl ninja Nachi, the eldest Fuuma sister, and Saiha, the leader of the Four Heavenly Kings, respectively. These titles mainly provide more character development, but do make some progress in the story, too, so by the end of them Haruki and his catgirls, as well as Nachi and Saiha, are all on the lookout for a rogue ninja catgirl who appears to be stalking Haruki.
The latest game introduces this rogue ninja, who we learn is called Ritsu, and her rabbitgirl accomplice, Maya. Again, without giving too much away, as this title progresses, Haruki and his catgirls learn more about Ritsu and Maya and are forced to come to terms with their presence.
Will nice-guy (and no-longer-virgin) Haruki manage to increase the size of his demi-human ninja harem, or will he lose everything? (Hint: it’s not the second one.)
For the most part, NEKO-NIN exHeart is presented similarly to most other modern anime visual novels, with a semi-transparent text box over a static background image, which changes depending on the scene, and paper-doll characters drawn and occasionally animated fairly coarsely about the screen.
The background art is fairly bland — not awful, but nothing out of the ordinary — and often repeated, even throughout each title. The paper-doll characters, however, are bright and colourful and rather attractive, together with the CG images, all drawn by Takano Yuki. Yura and Tama have undeniable cuteness throughout and are each seen in a few different outfits. It would take a cold heart to claim no appeal from Ritsu and Maya, too. Nachi has considerably less cuteness, with her gruff exterior in contrast to her younger sisters’ enthusiasm; and as the only human main character (apart from Haruki, of course), Saiha is perhaps the strangest of the lot. Any fan of catgirls should be more than happy with the line up, in any case.
There are also a few short chibi-style scenes. I’m not normally a fan of this art style, but it’s used to good effect here and its use is kept quite short, so I don’t have a problem with it. The occasional CG images offered by the Steam version are seamlessly integrated into the game, as are those from the free R18+ patches available for the two +PLUS titles. NEKO-NIN exHeart and NEKO-NIN exHeart 2 both have R18+ patches available, too, but they must be purchased separately. The non-adult CG images are on occasion slightly risqué, but are fairly tasteful and really very good. The R18+ images (at least those that I’ve seen) are explicit and not censored.
The NEKO-NIN games include a lot more animations than any other visual novels I’ve played. There are the usual whole-character animations and overlaid screen effects for fading and what-not that I’ve come to expect, but there are also a number of animations internal to characters, such as twitching ears, moving eyes, and some changing expressions, particularly in the most recent title, and characters drawn in more different poses than is usual for the genre. This isn’t new ground, by any means — many VNs include expression changes, for example — but it’s extremely well done here, lending more dynamism to what is often a fairly lifeless experience.
Sound and music are good, with full Japanese voice work provided for all dialogue except for the protagonist’s. Some of the menus also include voice-overs, which is a bit weird, but a welcome addition. Sound effects are limited, as is common for the genre, but they’re well done where they are used, and music is typical anime visual novel fare. The theme songs are forgettable, but not terrible.
The game engine includes a large number of settings for tweaking the experience, but ultimately includes all the standard features: text speed, text box transparency, skip, and history, with the ability to resume from any point in the history as well. It has a better range of options than most visual novel engines, allowing for good control over auto text in particular. I couldn’t get Steam’s F12-based screenshot feature to work in any of the titles, regardless of the screen mode.
The NEKO-NIN exHeart titles play like most other modern anime visual novels, in that they’re mostly just reading and looking at the pretty pictures. The script is rather silly throughout, and varies wildly in quality between the four titles, though all four have a tendency to jump about the place a fair bit, making some of the details hard to follow. The first game is very well written and translated, with only a few minor errors. This is in complete contrast to the two intermediate +PLUS titles, which look as though they could have been translated by machine, except that the grammar is worse than any machine translation could produce. The writing for the H-scenes in these two titles is so bad it’s good, in a hilarious sort of way. The most recent title is somewhere in between: the translation quality is okay, but not great.
The characters interesting, but Haruki is so nice it’s almost unbelievable at times. Yura and Tama are adorably cat-like, with Yura being the older, more mature (but still naive) sister, and Tama being quieter and almost completely focused on food. The catgirls have much more cat-like behaviour than those from NEKOPARA; having had pet cats myself I think the developers have done a great job with this. This beast-like behaviour continues through all the titles and each of the four different catgirls has a distinctly different, but still very cat-like, personality. The girl I find the least believable is actually the human, Saiha, particularly in NEKO-NIN +PLUS Saiha; her relationship with Haruki is not convincing at all. Only having played with the R18+ patch for the middle two titles I’m only guessing, but from hooks in the script it looks to me like there would be adult scenes with each of the girls in at least one title.
I’m happy to see that the core titles both offer a couple of choices affecting the flow of the story, but while each of these does cause a branch in the story, they are only short lived, returning back to the main path with only minor changes. The two shorter titles don’t offer any branching at all. In any case, there’s only one ending, which isn’t really that surprising since the series is linear, with each chapter proceeding from the previous.
The first three titles are all very short, clocking in somewhere between three and four hours for all three. With NEKO-NIN exHeart 2 the developers seem to have attempted to provide much more play time — something which I would normally be grateful for, given that the short length was one of my complaints with the other titles — as this title alone is as long as the other three put together. But unfortunately the story in exHeart 2 is mostly uneventful and repetitive, even boring in some cases: something I never thought I’d say about a visual novel focused on catgirls! I don’t want to ruin the story for anyone, so I’ll just say that I think the script could have been savagely edited to about half its current size — i.e. about the length of the first game — and nobody would miss anything. Overall, the English writing quality is definitely decreasing as the series goes on.
Each title after the first offers a great short review / outline of what’s transpired so far, presented by Yura and Tama. This is one of the highlights, I think; the humour is relatively low-key, but funny, and reading the girls’ impressions of the story gives a different viewpoint, coloured by their individual perceptions.
The two main games both include some nice Trading Cards, though you’ll have to idle the first chapter after you’ve finished it in order for them all to drop. There are no Steam Achievements at all, which is a bit unusual for the genre, and especially for a VN with choices; usually each choice will lead to a new achievement, whereas here only the CG gallery completion can be used to gauge whether you’ve seen all of the branches or not. (ProTip: there are only two decision points with two choices each in the two main titles.)
I’m not sure what game engine NEKO-NIN uses, but the version used in the first chapter appears to have a couple of bugs. On occasion it just seems to slow down, with transitions moving in slow motion and mouse clicks not registering normally. Quitting and restarting solves this. The other bug I encountered was with the skip functionality after I’d played through once; it would sometimes reach sections that I’d already seen and stop skipping as if they were new. I couldn’t get it to skip at all after Nachi was first encountered. Given that there are only two short-ranging choices this isn’t a big problem, but it was odd. I didn’t see either of these bugs in the other three titles, so I think they must have been fixed after the first.
As with a number of adult-oriented visual novels available on Steam, the NEKO-NIN exHeart series is PG or M rated at most on Steam, but has R18+ patches available for it from an external source. Sadly in the case of exHeart and exHeart 2, that patch has to be purchased separately, though it’s free for +PLUS Nachi and +PLUS Saiha. Without the patches, there are no ‘H-scenes’: no sexual content and no nudity. In other words, the two core titles are mistagged on Steam. This happens quite a lot and with free patches it’s not an issue, but I really don’t like this practice when the patch price is a considerable portion of the game price.
NEKO-NIN exHeart is a light-hearted anime visual novel series focused on cute and likeable catgirl characters, which makes it pretty hard to not recommend in my book. The four titles offer extremely variable writing and translation quality, which seems to be decreasing as the series goes on; I really hope they put more effort into editing and translation for the next chapter. The titles also vary significantly in length, but overall the series is still quite short: somewhere between six and eight hours to see everything.
Even though they’re tagged on Steam with Nudity and Sexual Content, the two main titles offer no nudity or adult content without patches that have to be purchased elsewhere, while the two short +PLUS titles at least offer their patches for free. None of the titles include Steam Achievements, which are pretty standard these days, so that’s also a bit disappointing.
So, is all that enough to make me not recommend it? No, of course not! Yura, Tama, and Ritsu are too cute, and the other characters aren’t exactly unattractive, either. The cat-like behaviour of the catgirls is also very well portrayed; far better than in any other visual novels I’ve read. But it might be best to wait for a sale, especially if you’re planning on purchasing the R18+ patches as well.