Before even booting it up, Buried Stars immediately left a positive impression for simply existing at all. Buried Stars is a Korean mystery visual novel with a stunning visual identity, but what truly stood out to me (because I’m weird) was the worldwide release. It’s almost unheard of for visual novels to receive multi-language releases in several countries at the same time, and even more unheard of for said visual novel to have two voice tracks. What adds to this level of rarity is that the two voice tracks are not Japanese and English, but Korean and Japanese. This piqued my interest beyond belief (again, I’m a weirdo), and sold me more than anything else.
Buried Stars is about stars who get buried while filming an episode of Buried Stars. Sorry, I couldn’t help myself. Buried Stars is an in-universe television show where wannabe idols compete in a singing contest, to become stars. Our protagonist, Do-yoon Han has made it to the last five before a horrible accident occurs. The stadium begins to collapse because of what you later learn to be shoddy craftsmanship, causing mass panic. The audience was able to make it out safely but Do-yoon, his fellow contestants, and one of the stage directors find themselves trapped in the ruins of the stadium with no escape. The popular social media app Phater (it’s practically Twitter), is still accessible on their smartwatches and informs them that there will be a few hours until a rescue attempt can begin to happen. As bickering begins among themselves, they discover one of their producers dead. Tension begins to build, and they have to figure out how to survive until help arrives.
I’ll be upfront. For years of my life, I have considered myself a self-proclaimed “Visual Novel Connoisseur” (a self-proclaimed job that frankly hasn’t done much for financial security). I accept, even if I disagree with, all the stigmas associated with the medium. The most commonly heard one is easily: “How is this a game? There’s no gameplay, you just read text boxes and make choices. It’s like a picture book.”
I come to you as both a “normal” video game enthusiast and a “picture book” video game enthusiast to tell you that Buried Stars’ gameplay mechanics were overwhelming to me. However, I’ll always prefer being overwhelmed instead of underwhelmed. Do-yoon’s smartwatch has the ability to check Phater, access a messaging app, see the popularity of every one of the contestants, check character bios, make calls to the people inside, auto-write social media posts, check recordings for extra world-building, and even customize the smartwatch. I always love it when visual novels take the extra effort to emulate real-life technology and social media, and I was excited about this. I think it does a good job overall, but I wish it had streamlined some of the features more.
The game is separated into story events and Communication segments. In the story segments, all you can really do is occasionally make a dialogue choice, but Communication is really where the game opens up. During these, you mainly ask the five people also in your predicament about the events that have recently taken place. You have a set amount of topics to ask them, and can gauge beforehand how each of the topics will interest a specific person by looking at their face. Depending on what you ask people you can obtain new topics, increase or decrease Do-yoon’s mental health, and/or change people’s opinions of you. Each segment has a set amount of required topics to acquire before moving on, but you can make an effort to keep gathering information before progressing. If there was a critique to be made on this, I think they lasted me a bit too long and happened a bit too often.
When it comes to mystery games, I get a bit too invested during the questioning and investigation phases. I want to ask everyone about every single topic, and unfortunately, that is not something that you are supposed to do in this game. There was very little indication of what topics could secretly improve your relationship with the characters, and some things you need to know could have negative effects on Do-yoon’s mental state. Thankfully there’s a quick save function that allows you to save and reload if you say something that paints Do-yoon in an unlikable light, but given how the topics feel often like a shot in the dark this made it feel kind of tedious. Figuring out what you need to do to get the true ending is a daunting task, but at the very least there is plenty of content and options to go through on your way to reach this.
If you raise the affinity with a character to a certain level then you can get special bonding events with them to learn more about what their life was like before this began. Every character in the cast is flawed, and all of them need to work through their sins to make it out of the other side. I didn’t find any of the characters groundbreaking, and I think one of the reasons for this was the English translation. I do not know Korean or Japanese, so I can’t see how faithful the script was but I can tell that the dialogue and internal monologue initially read as very stilted. There were numerous times I had to do a double-take because some lines were either too literally translated or just didn’t make sense. I think there might have been a patch that was released after launch, and this could be in my head but it felt like the translation was slightly better. There were no patch notes I could find, so I can’t confirm this though. It’s not the worst translation, but it could have used an editing pass before launch.
Lastly, Phater is worth addressing. I was honestly quite blown away with how often the feed was updated with a staggering amount of posts. Some of these tweets are interesting, but some feel a bit unimportant. Going through all of them will take you a lot of time, but it’s worth doing since there are occasional posts you can reply to that will change how the public views Do-yoon.
Because I don’t know Korean or Japanese, I can’t really comment on the actual quality of the voice acting besides that it “sounds great”. If you want the “intended” experience then you might wish to go with the Korean audio since that seems like voices that were first picked for the cast. I’m honestly just impressed that there was a Japanese cast made at all, and it goes to show just how much time and effort was put into this game’s presentation to make it appeal worldwide. The aesthetic of the game is stunning, with brilliant use of UI to convey a snappy and distinct style. The production value was way higher than I ever expected, and the music is all fantastic. The composer clearly knew exactly what they were doing to convey the tension and excitement, there wasn’t a single song I didn’t love. The text boxes, character art, and 3D backgrounds stick out immediately. Every gameplay segment is accented with this style, taking the simple act of investigating bodies and giving them some flare. I haven’t seen a mystery visual novel put this much of an effort into style since the Danganronpa games, but it’s sure to catch your attention and not let it go.
I really enjoyed Buried Stars, but being overwhelmed by how in-depth and involved all of the mechanics were was a frequent occurrence. The presentation was easily my favorite aspect, but it thankfully didn’t do too much heavy lifting on the whole experience. I’ve never seen any other games from this developer before, but Buried Stars left a very good impression and I’m going to keep my eye out for their future releases. I hope they continue to push for worldwide releases for their games, and even with an imperfect localization, I think Buried Stars benefited from getting this kind of push. If you crave mystery visual novels, are okay overlooking the issues I mentioned, this game should be on your radar.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by LINE Games