So, I was embarrassed by my prior review of E:SA. I think my initial feelings about it were highly colored by my irritation about the age thing, which is definitely not fair on the author especially since he put up the splash screen stating explicitly that people who were offended by E:SA's themes shouldn't play. I still kind of feel that the explicit ages could have been removed without really detracting from the project, but that is the last time I will mention that in this new write up. E:SA is a game with a lot of strengths, while my old review highlighted things that bothered me and breezed past the things I liked. Sure, there are rough edges, but yeah, the game is pretty damn good and definitely pushes AIF in a new, positive direction in terms of storytelling.
E:SA is a love story about two teenagers who happen to be siblings. While the story is pretty linear and, as far as I know, pretty much ends the same way each time (unless you fuck up royally), the player can, by solving puzzles and through interaction with Emily (the titular sister) can effect how the relationship evolves in both a sexual and romantic way. The game keeps track of two scores: Intimacy and Daringness. Intimacy is usually increased by talking with Emily, and daringness is increased by taking bold actions, including, evidently, culling poor insects. Increasing your score, again, won't change the ending as far as I know but is critical for unlocking the MAX SEX CONTENT.
The puzzles range between pretty easy, relatively difficult and irritating. My favorite puzzle involved hunting a bee through your house, and waiting for it to land on something durable so you can smack it. It shows a good bit of technical finesse on the part of the author, though perhaps only AIF veterans would be able to find the newspaper to crush it with. Sneaking around your sister's room and reading her diary is fun, and it's a nice touch that you can't read the entire thing in one playthrough.
The intimacy puzzles more involve a close reading of Emily's dialogue, of which there is a lot. The key here is being able to read Emily's needs and wants, or getting her to open up about her feelings. Some things are pretty obvious, others are really less so.
There must be some real headscratchers in E:SA because in my several playthroughs I couldn't get all the points. Thankfully, for morons like me there is a cheat to give you bonus score, which allows me to pretty much experience the entire game. Overall, the score provides a pretty compelling incentive to explore and try a lot of things. The scenes you are awarded with are well worth it.
Sex scenes in E:SA sometimes miss, sometimes hit home runs. Palmer's writing is pretty good, but as a scene progresses past foreplay the writing tends to collapse a bit. In the harder actions the prose is kind of impenetrable, and it just seems like "rub tits" and "fuck pussy" have really the same amount of effort put into them. The originality and imagination Palmer shows during the foreplay scenes just isn't present in the full-on sex scenes. The arousal system feels like kind of an afterthought, with the messages just sort of tacked onto the ends of the prose. It's not that I hate arousal systems, done well it can make sex scenes extremely immersive, but if the arousal system isn't properly implemented it's just better to have longer chunks of quality text. Emily's sexual dialogue doesn't feel as inspired as her non-sexual dialogue, and it can get irritating when she hints or asks for something in one line and refuses to do it in another.
The general quality of the first few scenes really made this stand out. The bedroom scene with Emily was excellent, as was the mutual masturbation scene. There is even a scene where Emily starts issuing orders to you, the player, which was pretty imaginative and something I hope we see more of in AIF. That made the later sequences far more disappointing. The dream sequence with that black-haired girl whose name I can't recall was entirely forgettable, and Emily's final sex scene just feels very anticlimactic.
E:SA includes plenty of pictures. They didn't do much for me, but this definitely a personal taste thing. This is partly because (please don't lynch me!) I don't find Emily's model particularly sexy, and partly because I'm slowly finding text and audio more erotic than pictures. I'm beginning to understand how people can feel how images are a distraction, ultimately, I feel like I would have enjoyed E:SA more without them.
Story and Characters
Emily and her brother's relationship is set in the context of what is basically a broken home. Their parents are distant and the siblings have essentially come to rely on each other for emotional support. This is a pretty serious backdrop for what is, basically, a feelgood, lighthearted game. The game's plot is propelled forward by a photo contest, which the PC uses as a pretext to get closer to his sister.
In my prior review, I was pretty fixated on the photoshoot, and I thought it implied a lack of love on the part of the PC. I'm going to backtrack from that quite a bit. I think the photoshoot sub-plot implies stupidity on the part of the PC, but I don't think he doesn't care about his sister because he wants to take pictures of her.
That said, the choice of a photoshoot is not quite a seamless fit with the plot. It feels weird to me that my PC is basically submitting naked pictures of his sister for the world to see. It would fit well in a game where the characters were not so well-realized, perhaps in a sex rompy game like a Pleasantville, but it is an odd juxtaposition with the carefully tended emotional backstory Palmer is trying to develop. A little change would have gone a long way. Instead of a photo contest, why doesn't the PC have a simple passion for photography?
Other than the photoshoot thing, Emily and the PC's relationship is tended to with great care. The dialogue is generally outstanding, and the joking and banter that goes on between them feels very realistic. I could really see people saying what they say. They do get touchy-feely, but teenagers I think tend to be that way so that wasn't a problem for me. Dialogue was only occasionally awkward. The game is narrated in the PC's voice, who is supposed to be telling the story as he remembers it to an interviewer. This is something I haven't seen before in AIF, but I'm not sure how successful it is. I felt like I was being ripped from the action too much and that I was being reminded that the PC is not in the "here and now" as it were. It felt too much like I was reading something rather than being put into the PC's shoes.
Overall, Emily and th PC's relationship develops sensibly. You know they like each other, but breaking down the barriers to consummation is really where the meat of character development lies. Considering the "broken family" backstory of Emily and the PC their burgeoning romantic relationship makes a lot of sense. There is a natural escalation, both sexually and emotionally, which is E:SA's greatest strength and so far something pretty much unique to this game. The execution is good in spite of the rather silly photoshoot subplot.
So, I think this review really more accurately reflects my opinion of E:SA. There is a line between providing constructive criticism and being a dick, and I feel like I was using the guise of giving constructive criticism to essentially be a dick. E:SA is a good game, and you should definitely play it if you're not offended by the game's themes. If you're going to throw a fit like I did, than you should perhaps skip it.