[Commercial success and related materials] The game was released in 2003 by developer Nitro+ (Nitro Plus) and met with enough success and interest to warrant an (unofficial) English translation patch. There is an English comic book adaptation currently running called Song of Saya which released its first issue in February 2010. There is also a 15 track OST featuring all the music from the game.
[What is a "visual novel"?] For those unfamiliar with the visual novel format, the easiest way to explain is that they are like digital interactive comic books complete with voice acting, music, and on-screen characters and backdrops to drive the immersion. They are most often played on PC but in Japan they are just as common on home consoles and handhelds. There's not much in the way of actual "gameplay" aside from clicking your mouse to advance the text, but typically the player is presented with various choices in the story that affect the course of events and which ending arc is viewed.
Review Story telling is a difficult craft. Tack it on to interactive media and the challenge spikes astronomically. In the realm of visual novel games story is king, which can hardly be said for most other genres. Even if a VN's story is rock solid, the player experience can be marred by all the other ingredients such as art style, interface, and music. If just one piece of the puzzle is stained with poo smears the entire game loses a great deal of impact. Whatís brilliant about Saya no Uta by Nitro+ is not that its story is beautifully executed and delightfully unsettling, but that the entire package is orchestrated so flawlessly with a relentless attention to artistic success.
[Story/Gameplay] The story of Saya no Uta, or "Song of Saya" in English, revolves around Sakisaka Fuminori who recently survived a horrific traffic accident which claimed the lives of his family--fairly standard fare as far as tragic main character backstories go. Fortunately for him, he happened to be taken to the one hospital in the world developing an experimental procedure capable of saving his life. The moment he regains his vision, though, it is painfully clear that death would have been a merciful fate. Everywhere he looks the world has been transformed into pulsating organs and piles of vile rotten entrails. People, including his once beloved friends and romantic interest, now appear to him as hideous abominations spewing pus and sewage. Forced to endure this hellish reality inside his head, he quickly turns to suicide. Only then, in this putrid world, does he meet a beautiful young girl who appears untouched by the decay. Her name is Saya, and she is his salvation.
(I LOVE what you've done with the place!)Thats how things kick off at least. What unfolds is a lovingly crafted tale told from multiple perspectives, with developments that will make the hairs on your neck stand up with disgust or outright dread.So rare is it to see such grotesque horror attached to such human and compelling narrative in video games that I dare say I haven't been this impressed since Silent Hill 2 (a holy grail among many horror game fanatics and a personal favorite). The story touches quite a bit on Lovecraftian themes as well as the existence of the human soul and what defines it. The game has three possible endings depending on which choices you make throughout. You will only encounter up to three decision points in the story so don't worry about having to keep tabs on your story path to make sure you don't get a repeat ending.
[Graphics] The artwork doesn't disappoint. Backdrops of strange yet familiar places fill your view. What should be a hallway with a set of stairs is rendered as an unsightly structure of flesh (similar to how you visit two versions of the same place in Silent Hill). The effect really builds the atmosphere and helps you empathize with Fuminori's pain. The character designs are wonderfully interesting with their hard sketch style outlines and muted color palette. Really the only complaint I could possibly have is that Yoh's (the former love interest) boobs are rendered to look oddly saggy (when clothed)--chick seriously needs someone to inform her about breast support. The user interface is equally as polished and impressive as far as visual novels go. The text box is reminiscent of games like Fate/Stay Night in that it transparently lays over the entire picture, flashing away for CG changes or brief character animations. This format seems to reflect Saya no Utah's commitment to narrative over the pure reliance on character dialogue seen in other games of the genre. Menus are well crafted and transitions are fun to witness as you navigate the text backlog or perform other necessary functions. The plentiful gore content in the game can be adjusted in the options. The player can choose to dim, blur, or do both to the offending imagery--or just leave them untouched in all their disgusting splendor as is the game's default.
[Audio] For all of the game's brilliance in supporting its narrative through unyeilding standards, the music stands out as the star wingman. The BGM is tastefully put together--every song expertly crafted to invoke a complex mix of emotions. Compositions transition seamlessly with the developments on screen as wailing fuzzed out guitars bleeding disorder into your ears are effortlessly changed into a beautiful yet sorrowful violin accompanied by chorus-laden synths. The former instills dread and disgust as you become immersed in Fuminori's world of horrors--the latter fills you with relief, sadness, and even fear of whatís to come. These are but two examples, and what they mean to each individual player will be different, but itís undeniable that they are marvelously executed and applied. Once again I am compelled to draw unfair comparisons to the Silent Hill series when it was in its glory days. The soundtrack was handled by ZIZZ Studio and Kanako Ito lends her vocals to the tracks "Song of Saya" and "Shoes of Glass". I was so impressed with the game's music that I got my hands on the OST which includes 13 instrumental tracks and the two sung by Ito. The entire OST can be found on youtube should you want a preview. I particularly love the vocal "La" instrument on Saya's theme songs (she has two aside from the one sung by Kanako Ito) and the rocking bass guitar solo towards the end of the song "Savage" which appropriately plays during the final action scene. Oh, and the voice acting is all rock solid.
"Shoes of Glass" from the Song of Saya OST
[Don't tell mom!] The game does include adult sexual content, so be forewarned that it is an 18+ game for more reasons than just guts galore. There is also some loli content, so that is another thing to take into consideration. The main character is a medical school student and Saya does seem to be considerably younger--probbaly a middle school aged girl AT BEST (she looks REALLY young). The age does play into her image as the purity figure Fuminori sees her as. This is one game where I found the adult scenes completely unwelcome, as they were all morally appalling at one level or another (that is saying a LOT coming from myself, seriously). Thankfully such scenes are few and far between, but I can also confidently state that to remove them would severely reduce the disturbing factor of the story. Watching as one female lead is completely dehumanized (in more sense than one) by the man she loved is seriously heartbreaking. I'm convinced that none of the game's hentai scenes were intended to be erotic, but rather to serve the story completely. I dare say that this makes me respect Nitro+ all the more.
[Final call] Saya no Utah accomplishes feats rarely seen in the business, and does so with such confidence that it would be mistaken for brazenness were the end result not so delicate at the same time and complexly enjoyable. This is not one to pass up if you like to have your head screwed with or just appreciate a great VN game.