Fatal Hearts calls itself a “visual novel adventure”: a kind of relative of IF which involves huge amounts of character dialogue (largely uninteractive), interspersed with set choices (go to the mall, or do your homework?) and puzzles (such as Theseus-and-the-Minotaur-style maze escapes to see whether you get away from your pursuers). It belongs (as far as I can tell) to a tradition of Japanese adventure games and the sort of thing done in Ren’Py (though Fatal Hearts is not itself a Ren’Py game). Play This Thing! reviewed it a short time ago, and I’ve been curious since.
(Disclaimer: I played only the hour allowed by a demonstration period, so it’s possible that things change past the point I saw.)
There’s a fair amount going for this thing: nifty sound effects, decent anime-style graphics, and a certain kind of moodiness. The story didn’t hook me quite as quickly as I might have liked, since a lot of the opening scenes involving the teenaged PC chatting harmlessly with her best friend and occasionally answering questions that seem like rather unsubtle player-preference-testing (e.g., questions about what you want to do when you grow up, what trait you most value in a romantic partner, etc.). But there is a sense of brooding trouble ahead, and it grows stronger as the game proceeds; by the end of the hour of play allowed by the demo, I had (I think) grasped what were the major problems ahead.
The cast of other characters is decent, too, though I had somewhat the sense that I was dealing with a standard set of character types from a genre I don’t know very well. The dialogue is not flashy, but over time you get the sense of personalities, especially from your best friend.
What doesn’t work so well is the interaction design. There are from time to time mini-game puzzles to resolve various things — whether your team or the opposing team will win at soccer, say, or whether you’ll get away from the policeman following you — and they’re really of fairly variable quality. Sometimes the feedback is reasonably good and they’re solvable; sometimes they’re a bit odd, and only reliance on the built-in hints is enough to help with them. But for the most part I felt they were irrelevant: additions meant to give this piece the name of “game” when what it really wanted to be was a lightly-branching graphical choose your own adventure novel. Ultimately it was my annoyance with those passages (some of which felt quite clunky to me) that made me put the game aside in favor of something else.
I do have the sense, though, that I should try some more entries in the Ren’Py/Japanese adventure genre, because I’m interested in how (and how extensively) they make use of the interactive aspects. Judging by what I’ve seen so far, they seem to get away with long stretches of effective noninteractivity (where the player is just clicking to see more of the dialogue). While I generally think that doesn’t work in IF, I can think of a few semi-exceptions (such as the relatively long click-to-continue cut scenes in Little Falls and Ekphrasis). Both of the latter games had graphics: I wonder whether that has something to do with it?