Buried Stars

Buried Stars

Buried Stars is a Korean mystery VN with an engrossing story that will keep you on your toes for a whooping 40 hours of reading and roughly 3-4 playthroughs with several unique, mind-blowing endings.

The game starts with the five finalists of a fictional audition / talent show named “Buried Stars” being revealed live on TV. Little do they know that seconds later, the building will collapse over them, morphing the name of the show into reality. The five contestants and the floor director thus become trapped under the ruins, with no apparent way out, with reduced means of communication with the outside world and with the dead body of their producer pinned down under the heavy iron bars that supported what once was a shoddy construction. This sets the plot to what ultimately will be a web of thrilling twists and turns, of unexpected events and surprising reveals, topped up with a threat that every hour the contestant ranked last will be killed.

You play as Do-yoon – one of the end contestants, who ranked 4th in the finalists. Together with the others trapped on the somewhat intact stage, you’ll try to find a way to survive until the rescue team arrives and digs up a path through the demolished building, while at the same time attempting to figure out a murder mystery.

The gameplay mainly consists in talking with each of the other characters, collecting clues from these dialogues, which will then be used further as conversation topics or key elements for a deduction session. Some of these dialogues are just opinion exchanges, while others have a binary choice: depending on the answer you choose, you can increase the trust level with that specific character, which in turn will trigger a so called “rapport event” at a specific moment in your conversation; these are special scenes in which the characters confide in you and open up to you, sharing a snippet of their background story. While there is no romance at all in the game, these scenes are still emotionally packed and very touching. Aside from a multitude of dialogue (and boy, there’s a huge lot to read) there are some fun detective sequences in which you either need to investigate the scene or select the correct clues.

You’ll have to manage not only the trust level with each of the contestants (these values will play a definitive role in the endings that you can reach), but also Do-yoon’s unique “sanity” stat. The choices you make during Do-yoon’s conversations with the other characters can increase / decrease not only the relationship with them but also have an effect on Do-yoon’s sanity. Selecting the wrong clues during a deduction session will decrease this stat as well, and when when this gets too low, it’s game over.

A core part of the gameplay is using the sponsored smartwatch worn by each of the contestants. This not only acts like a smartwatch (you can set a background, and ringtone which is actually mandatory for story progression early in the game, make calls or receive messages), but also holds information about the other contestants’ profiles and most importantly gives you access to Phater – a social media which behaves awfully a lot like Twitter. Do-yoon will be able to read the multitude of comments posted on Phater and extract clues from them, or reply to some specific messages that are addressed to him. Since the building destruction heavily limits the ability to place calls to the rescue team, the characters will often rely on Phater for news about what’s happening in the outside world or for grasping the general opinion on the ongoing events, but also for disclosing some of the things happening inside the ruins.

Each chapter deepens the plot and adds new twists, building the characters one step at a time and peeling the mystery like an onion, layer by layer. The story is thrilling indeed but the character buildup is even more top notch. On the 5th place we have Hyesung – a somewhat arrogant dude with a rumored violent background of bullying his classmates. The outspoken dancer with a veiled past Inha ranks the 3rd, while Juyoung – a rather fragile but ambitious girl struggling with panic attacks – takes the second spot. On the 1st position we have Gyu-Hyuk – the son of a famous artist who enrolled in the talent show to prove his own worth independently of his father’s popularity. Trapped together with the finalist is the floor director Seil – a mouse-y individual who always lived in the late producer’s shadow. Each of them has their own struggles and ultimately the more details are revealed about their personalities, the stronger is the contrast between the images the show has intentionally fabricated about them and their real selves.

Do-yoon is a great character to play especially because he’s an exceptionally competent protagonist. He’s not only polite, considerate and kind to the others, but also protective of them, stepping up as their leader in a very subtle way. He will be the one making the final decisions on behalf of the whole group, and this without exerting any authority. Do-yoon always asks the others about their own opinions and debates the issues at hand with them before reaching a certain judgment. Deemed as the “Betrayer” because he advanced in the show as a solo artist, without his fellow rock band members, he attracts a lot of hate from the Phater users. Despite this, he remains unaffected by the anger thrown at him, being aware that he is not at fault that he was cast in a bad light by the dead producer for publicity purposes. Despite being rather old fashioned and not a tech-y person at all, he’s a very bright individual who picks up modern concepts fairly easily once explained. Overall Do-yoon has a very strong mindset, almost infallible I’d say, but he also shows weakness in front of circumstances that would horrify anyone else in his place and is himself at times momentarily lost and scared. Yet not being a perfect character makes him even more likable in my book, more relatable and ultimately an ideal that one can aspire to.

The voice acting was amazing both in Korean and in Japanese and all the bits that happen between the individual communication scenes are fully voiced. The latter rely heavily on stock phrases, with exclamations or representative single-word sentences often replacing a whole dialogue line. It’s a middle ground between having these personal discussions not voiced at all, or investing what probably is a significant budget into voicing every single line in two languages. Nevertheless, the voice actors did a tremendous job at conveying the characters’ feelings. When they speak, you can really feel their excitement, fear, concern, warmth and many other emotions.

In regards to the aesthetics, Buried Stars is also very impressive. The backgrounds are a mix of static images with few animated elements, and the characters are made seem alive by the fact that they blink, breathe or move their mouths while speaking, while also changing their posture rather often. The scenes become dynamic, fluid and more realistic this way.

The only thing I disliked about Buried Stars was the inability to specifically skip already read lines, especially considering that the game is designed for multiple playthroughs. There is a fast-forward feature, but using it is risky since you might skip something important. For example, new game plus adds an extra character who shows up from then on, yet using this feature might make you miss many of their lines.

In addition, there’s an auto-read option with speed settings which for me makes the game more immersive, especially because it doesn’t make you lose out on hearing all the audio, but it is implemented poorly for special panels shown when discovering new clues or unlocking new information, which is very annoying. Also mildly bothersome is that you can’t save whenever you want. There are some fairly long sequences in which you don’t have access to the save menu and you are forced to rely only on autosaves that triggers roughly every 10 minutes or so.

Other reviewers made me fear the worst for the English translation, but my worries were unfounded. I was able to understand every conversation perfectly well, and there were not nearly as many typos and grammar mistakes as I expected. If anything, the game only needed one more proofreading run before release.

All-in-all, Buried Stars is a brilliant game, with an in-depth story and catchy characters – not to mention how complex and likable they all are. The presentation is excellent, but partially hindered by the inability to skip only the already seen content. Uncovering the captivating plot will prove to be a true delight for fans of mystery visual novels and the multitude of endings, together with how different they all are will blow you away. I wholeheartedly recommend you to give it a try if you like the genre.

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