There are two kinds of otome games. The first are titles where the romance comes first, and the story exists to further the relationships. The second are ones where the tale a title tells takes priority, and the romance is an incidental that happens along the way. Amnesia: Memories is a good example of the former, while Hakuoki showcases the latter. Collar x Malice is another game where the narrative needs and gets the most attention. This doesn’t make the relationships between characters any less satisfying, but does mean the adventure might not be as appealing to some members of its audience.
The world of Collar x Malice is an uncomfortable one. It is set in an alternate Japan where terrorists are on the verge of winning. A criminal organization calling itself Adonis has spent the last 11 months carrying out horrendous acts against people they consider guilty in the name of seeing their justice served, leading up to an X-Day that will occur in January. As a result, the Japanese government has closed off Shinjuku, given away guns to any citizen that wants one and has left everyone in the city to basically fend for themselves.
Police still exist in this nightmare scenario, and Collar x Malice’s heroine is a rookie in the Shinjuku Special Regions Crime Prevention Office.
Police still exist in this nightmare scenario, and Collar x Malice’s heroine is a rookie in the Shinjuku Special Regions Crime Prevention Office. She tends to focus on day-to-day crimes, rather than the investigation of grander exploits like the devastating X-Day incidents. That is, until she becomes a target. When heading to an assignment, Adonis agents capture her. They put a collar filled with a poison and equipped with a microphone and speaker around her neck. She becomes a test subject, one Adonis will kill if she reveals the collar or says something they don’t like.
Only four people are allowed to know about Collar x Malice’s heroine’s collar. Three of them are former police officers who have relinquished their positions in their respective departments to form a detective agency that investigates the past X-Day cases and Adonis. The fourth is the current Director of the Shinjuku police office’s Field Ops Research department who works with these detectives and provides them aid. Suddenly, our avatar is pulling double duty. She’s doing her regular SRCPO job during the day and investigating Adonis and past X-Day incidents in her spare time.
Collar x Malice is very much a thriller. This is a game where you are not just picking answers in the hopes it will make one of the five eligible bachelors love you more. It is very much about survival. During the opening chapter, before you pick a specific portion of the case to investigate and pursue, Kageyuki asks your opinion on Adonis and X-Day. There are two options, but your choice is meaningless on this occasion. Before your avatar can speak, Kageyuki stops her and reminds her there is always someone else in the room, listening to her every word. There are bad ends around every corner. Losing the trust or affection of the guy you like best is nothing compared to possibly losing your life.
This means Collar x Malice doesn’t always act like the typical otome. During breaks in the heroine’s day, she may need to visit different departments within the police station to meet with people who may provide the group with information on Adonis and the X-Day incidents. There is a firing range and shooting segments, where you’ll need to time your button presses to successfully pull the trigger. You may visit one of the previous X-Day crime scenes or see pictures of them and need to investigate to learn more about the murders. Learning as much as you can about the group, its members and their abhorrent acts is as important as getting to know the guys.
Instead of immediately falling in love, Collar x Malice’s relationships progress more naturally.
In a way, this helps the romantic portion of the game. Instead of immediately falling in love, Collar x Malice’s relationships progress more naturally. It begins with building trust. When Adonis slapped the collar on the heroine, they sent a letter to Kageyuki, Aiji Yanagi, Mineo Enomoto and Takeru Sasazuka that referred to her as a “sympathizer” and said she had “the potential to inherit our will.” None of them trust her as a result. And Kei Okazaki, the Security Police Division officer assigned to “watch” the three former officers, doesn’t trust her due to not knowing who she is or what she’s up to. This means you begin by getting the character to accept you as a partner, before getting a chance to actually fall in love.
All of this contributes to a situation that could leave people who typically devour every localized otome wondering if this is a game they would want to play. There are far more bad ends than good here; they pop up at every turn. Multiple interludes exist, showing you viewpoints from both known and unknown characters. This helps build ambiance, but can keep you from really immersing yourself in the adventure.
Since solving the crime feels like the main focus, someone can feel unfulfilled even when they are doing everything right and get a route’s best end. The whole truth behind the case requires you to complete every route. This does make it more accessible to people who wouldn’t normally play otomes, since the focus is on catching bad guys and saving the day, but could make it feel a little less fulfilling for people who really want a lovey dovey storyline.
Collar x Malice has a complex story to tell. Searching for the truth and staying alive are your priorities, which means it can feel like falling in love is something that happened along the way. This does make the connections between characters feel more authentic, since you start as complete strangers, build up a level of trust after becoming partners and eventually end up falling in love if you manage to make all the right choices. But to get there, you have to brave a lot of bad ends and perhaps explore every possible storyline to understand everything that has happened in the game. People who enjoy thrilling escapades will find this visual novel quite a page turner, but this is not a feel good adventure for those seeking romantic fluff.