I have been on the fence about whether or not to do Impressions pieces of Otome games for awhile now. They are a not so secret “secret love” of mine. However, it can be rather formulaic sub-genre, and like many visual novels really test the limits of what defines something as “a game”. I finally got the chance to play Backstage Pass after having it on my wishlist for years and decided that at the very least I needed to do a post about it. Whether or not this will lead to other otome games making their presence on this blog remains to be seen.
In Backstage Pass you play as Sian the daughter of a makeup artist who is considering breaking into the world as well. She is attending her first year of college with Adam, her childhood friend who is breaking out his music career. Mostly through Adam and those that work with him, Sian meets various people in the industry, and that is ultimately how you decide which path to take with Sian.
Gameplay unfolds like many games of its type. You will be faced with various dialogue options throughout the game, as well as choices of what to do on certain days. You will also use a planner to set up Sian’s day in order to help build various skills. For instance, you can send her to work, often helping her to develop her makeup skills. Which skills you focus on greatly impact which path you can take and the outcome of that path. I personally prefer this slightly more proactive gameplay type, instead of games that just have you pick dialogue choices.
So everything about this seems pretty standard, so what made me just have to do a post about it? Well, Sian suffers from anxiety. She does not have the romanticized movie trope version of anxiety, she has panic-inducing kind. It’s prevented her from getting jobs, prevents her from building relationships, full-blown anxiety. Now you can argue it’s romanticized to an extent, and I won’t fight that point. However, in the grand scheme of things, it’s one of the best ways of handling it that I’ve seen from any media.
Early in the game, Sian is confronted with a situation that starts to set off her anxiety, and from that point on it remains something that hangs over her (and thus the player). It randomly comes up and is always handled with a certain level of grace. Not only that but Sian is surrounded by people that seem to struggle with issues that might touch on tropes we’ve seen before but then take them to a new level. Matthew, for instance, has a case of crippling shyness. Now having the “shy guy” is a trope for these games. But the level to which he suffers from it is a bit deeper than I’ve seen it before and starts to examine how it actually could potentially ruin his career.
I found myself suitably impressed with the different ways in which this game dealt with various issues. Some of them mental health, some of them sexual identity, some of them just the struggles that we all as people go through from time to time. Every time I played a new path and got to know more about the characters I found them well written, diverse, and more complex than at first glance. Nicole was a great example for me, I put off her path for awhile because she didn’t overly impress me in the others. By the time I got further into her storyline she became one of my favorite characters in the game. Her struggles were relatable, the way the game handled your character starting a lesbian relationship with her was well done, and how everything played out was compelling. This didn’t happen once or twice it happened almost every single time.
Sure some characters were slightly more throw away than the others, but I never found myself bored with any of them. There is typically a path that I take in otome games that I either am not interested in or flat-out dislike, but that didn’t happen with this game… almost. I have one point I have to make, in my time playing otome games almost every single one has presented a path that I find problematic, I am sad to say that this happens with Backstage Pass as well. The age of one of the characters you can have a romance with is troubling. Aside from that, it’s one of the least problematic and most compelling games I have played. It also has the great benefit of having a friendship path for most of the characters that plays out slightly different than the romance, as well as a number of “Sian on her own” paths. The other nice thing is the game does encourage friendship. As an example when trying to go for Matthew you are almost required to develop your friendship with Nicole and vice versa.
Honestly, I could go on and on about everything I liked about this game. It’s not perfect. Getting your skills up can be a little more challenging than is reasonable at times, and you have to play through the game a large number of times to see everything which gets repetitive. This can be the one downside to a game that offers so many endings, you’ll see the same scenes far too many times getting to all those endings. I think people also might be turned off by how developed Sian is. As a general rule I prefer my MCs in otome games to be more of a blank canvas, but Sian’s story and a lot of the good that comes with it require that she be more developed.
My biggest complaint with the game surprised me though, and that’s that it’s a bit short on romance. That’s not to say there aren’t many romantic options, there are. You have your main characters and then lesser characters (including an asexual guy). While going along these paths the development is not largely focused on the romantic feelings between the characters. There are moments, but they are pretty rare. This might actually be a good thing for a lot of people. For the romantic in me, I was a little letdown, I felt that all the things that this game got right wouldn’t have been damaged by upping the mushy stuff.
In the end, my overall assessment of this game is positive, hell very positive in fact. It is a bit pricey, and that might turn people off. But I would highly recommend it, and consider it pretty well worth the price. It stands out to me in a number of ways, mostly for how it dealt with many issues that I did not expect to find in the game. I was very impressed and still have a few endings to unlock, and am excited to do so. It is at the end of the day an otome game so by its nature it’s slightly less “game”, but fans of the sub-genre should already know what to expect. If I had to give a short bottom line it would be it’s one of my favorite otome games I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing.