Otome games work on perfecting archetypes and presenting them as charming. A common group of men in an otome game can be summarized as: the hot head, the edgy grimdark, the little brother, the wild card, and the guy on the box (more on this later). Some of these are pretty self-explanatory, and sometimes these personalities will be fused. I tend to avoid otome games with obvious little brother types. Technically, Il is a little brother character, but in all other instances, I know that archetype is 100 percent why certain players are here. Obvious little brothers usually mean the cast is younger than what I would usually enjoy in most fiction, so I tend to play otome games where the characters are at least out of high school. It’s fine, but can be funny, if the fully grown adult characters have the romantic tact or experience of a middle schooler, but on paper they have to at least be adults. Personally, I tend to gravitate towards the older guys or the edgelords. Café Enchante has this “old-guy” secret agent character named Kaoru Rindo, who I identify a lot as I also see myself as a handsome older man with facial hair.
I’ve played a few male-focused visual novels, like Cho Dengeki Stryker, but as I will elaborate, Cho Dengeki Stryker and otome games both seem to value their plots over just their romantic interests. Granted, the men in otome games are more interesting vs the girls in male-focused visual novels, which might be inherent to this action focus the otome games I like have. The girls in male-focused visual novels are not often described in fighting game titles like “dark knight” or “strongest beast in the realm”. The men just feel like they get to lead more active and interesting lives.
When Otome games are at their best, they are B+ anime story writing but the main characters are all hot guys. Some of the best otome games do a trick where each guy gets their own villain. A super popular otome game, Code Realize, does exactly that. Visual novels are really good at making the player spend time with characters and their inner monologues. Without spoilers, Code Realize has a really fun villain who is a romantic interest’s academy teacher, and they get all cool mileage out of him when they later reveal he’s also the long-time main villain for a side character. Also, because it’s a visual novel, you get to spend all this time in his head. Otome games can get really bloody and occasionally dark. Every Otomate game I’ve ever played has this really gross bone snapping/cracking sound effect that’s like their version of the Wilhelm Scream. Café Enchante pulls that trick a lot where on the surface it’s this sweet game about monster men at a café, but one route literally tackles human experimentation, and another involves cannibalism. Many of the games I like tend to put the romance aspect multiple levels down the priority list.
An unfortunate problem that affects a lot of shojo manga is made worse in otome games, such as the presence of the main female lead. I am multiple paragraphs in and I have not once mentioned a female protagonist. A hard sell with otome games is, and this is also a problem with male visual novel protagonists, the main characters are intended to be self-inserts for the players. This means that they often don’t have strong, if any, personalities. That’s harsh, but to reference an old Anime News Network story about what a translator named Gene said “a company she used to work for had been looking to break into the American market with otome games. However, the project brought to light the differences between Japanese and American culture, making localizing difficult. Gene said that “it’s necessary to completely change the heroines” of otome games because American players do not like the usually weak and dependent characters.”. Granted, I’ve seen people online mention how they felt certain otome protagonists from games I’ve played were better written than some of the absolute door mats (main girl from Diabolik Lovers, looking at you) than they were used to.
After playing a single visual novel, you learn that these aren’t one-time choose-your-own adventure books but branching narratives with button prompts. This means the protagonist have to fit some unfortunately passive standards to be romantically interesting to five different men. From what I have played, the sole exception to this rule that all otome protagonists have zero presence is Eiar in Psychedelica of the Ashen Hawk. Eiar is the only otome protagonist that I can name that has a voice actress, so to be thematically literal, Eiar is the only protagonist with a voice. I tend to enjoy shojo manga where the girl protagonist has to adopt male roles and mannerisms, as unfortunately, that’s often the only way they are taken seriously in their world or are allowed to have a certain range. Psychedelica of the Ashen Hawk is set in a medieval village during a perpetual winter, where, for plot, Eiar has to pretend to be a young man. It’s pretty sad that it’s almost novel to see a protagonist like Eiar running between parts of her village doing maintenance and chatting with neighbors, while getting to live a life not directly about her male romantic interests.
This acceptance of playing an audio book with some choices is made more apparent with “guy on the box” characters. Some otome games structure their narratives around four normal endings, one for the first four guys, and then an unlockable true route, where the fifth guy gets to help resolve the overarching narrative. For instance, Lupin from Code Realize fits this role, as his route has to be played last. This creates a better narrative outline for the stories these games genuinely care about, because it gives them a definitive end, but it feels that getting through these games means playing four routes that effectively don’t happen. The best is when a side character becomes the villain of a route, and you go into the final route with them being normal, but you know they killed a lot of people somewhere else in the game. Because their presence is so backloaded, the “guy on the box” tends to be the most harmless and least interesting. Sakura from New Sakura Wars is a perfect female example of this type of character, where she’s basic and does not stand out.
Otome games are pretty long, even with my fast reading speed, and combined with my disinterest in listening to the voice work, usually results in me 100%-ing one once a year. The otome game communities I find online seem to play just these and often many at a time. They will have what I call “the Tales of Problem” where people in a hobby seem to equally love everything in the niche, like how people who like the Tales of role-playing games seem to uncritically like even the bad ones. I feel like I have a semi-unique perspective with the sub-genre. Every game I referenced, unless to dunk on it, deserves playing. Even though I’m an overly critical snob about them, like Il, I genuinely enjoy otome games and feel that people should play them.