All’s Fair in Dating and War in Love Esquire
Yangyang Mobile’s visual novel Love Esquire celebrated its first anniversary since its launch in October 2019, after a successful Kickstarter campaign. This popular entry in the Filipino studio’s portfolio has since been nominated for this year’s SEA Game Awards. On the Steam platform itself, you can see many players who’ve rated the game “Very Positive” and gave their own glowing reviews, praising its character and charm.
You take the role of a squirrely farm boy working your way up to becoming a realm-renown knight. It’s not going to be easy, but you do have other motivations in mind…
Like many visual novels and bishōjo games before it, the main focus aside from your squire’s career aspiration is to find love in his life. You see, you play a virgin who has kind of accepted that a life of knighthood could spell demise sooner or later, and your character wants to experience the touch of a woman before dying for their country becomes an option. And so, the player embarks on a quest for brains, gains, and a lady love.
STORY & CHARACTERS
Love Esquire’s story is a hilarious romp through the kingdom of Caerulia. Early in the game, you’re introduced to Hugh, your knight-mentor, and five ladies that you can build a relationship within your playthrough. The game features multiple endings depending on the girl that you choose to woo, and even a special harem ending should you collect them all, so to speak.
The world-building, despite being simple and straightforward, is satisfying – familiar in its medieval setting and character training mechanics, but still maintains its originality. The funny introductory animation sets this all up for you, and its lore does not disappoint. I didn’t expect the world to be fleshed out or to pick up on some serious themes of political and personal tragedies, but it worked well with the satirical comedy and punchy one-liners of the game.
Another thing I would commend this game for is the direction they took with the development of the love interests. While each of the five is indeed serving a trope, they all have their own goals, values, and motivations that affect their growth in-game. They have their own scripted interactions and relationships with the other characters, aside from the encounters with your avatar. Despite the fact that you’re probably here for the girls (as the game’s introduction acknowledges), these “dateable waifus” are in the story for a role other than being targets for your courtship blunders. They’re endearing characters in their own right, and I feel each one is balanced with their arcs. That in itself is a lot to say for many other female cast members in the history of romance VNs.
An early example of this is the relationship between Princess Beatrice of Caerulia and Princess Kamala of the Alkos. Both are your love interests, but the plot has them come together to build an alliance that will save both of their countries from a Gegner Nation, a group of barbarians on a conquest. The two princesses with opposing personalities discuss their takes on leadership, how they’ve been undermined in their own courts on the basis of sex, and how they plan to serve their country in their respective methods. Your player character serves as a support to these characters rather than the dashing knight who saves the day.
The faceless squire that you play, unexpectedly, is a great character as well. He is genuinely motivated to become a great knight and cares about the people in his life. Sure, the boob and panty shots frame him as a pervert like most straight, male VN protagonists, but outside of those scenes, he can be industrious and kind (when he wants to be).
There is a detail that can lead to some discomfort for some players: Admittedly, I did not romance Amy, the biological daughter of your adoptive father and one of the five romanceable characters, at all – being able to date your stepsister might not be the worst thing in a fantasy game world, but dating someone you called “Sis” in canon is a bit too much for me. She’s a great character, but I was cautious to advance our relationship further. Again, this VN aligns itself with an audience looking for a lewd experience, but I’m glad they didn’t force any unskippable plotlines other players might find uncomfortable.
MECHANICS & GAMEPLAY
The gameplay is divided into a slice-of-life knight-training simulator – where you spend coin in order to train and level up your strength, intelligence, or charisma – with special events, and a turn-based RPG campaign where you can earn gold and progress the game (and relationships) even further.
The “combat” system is more of you delivering support to Hugh as he hacks and slashes through enemies. It was actually refreshing to take on the “taunt” and “loot” roles after playing on the offensive in a glut of turn-based RPGs. While some people may be skeptical of a turn-based battle system where you’re not the actual person in combat, you will see how your role as a squire is of utmost importance to their knights. The slow-paced and slow-witted knight you serve, Sir Hugh, might be strong, but you actually have to use your brain and check which actions would be most economical for the team. You don’t have to be the one swinging the sword around to be the hero.
The pacing through each month was well done. Something new would come up in your training, the relationships that you are building, and the political climate of Caerulia that you are encouraged to push forward and find out what happens next. Everyday simulators have the tendency to get tiresome when there are limited and repetitive activities available, but in Love Esquire, there are enough character arcs and plot events that hold your interest in holding out for another in-game week of the game’s intended four-month cycle.
AUDIO & VISUALS
The love and care that was put into the game are most obvious through the audio-visual design. The illustrations, from the character sprites to the backgrounds, are bright and detailed, distinct from the various locations in the central town of the Kingdom, the singular setting that you explore in the entire game for four in-game months. The character sprites express a lot of personality and emotion – even for the characters of “Pops,” Amelie’s father who adopted your character, and Sir Grand, a legendary knight known for her strength and hulking armor, both of whom hilariously take up almost half the screen whenever they’re in the scene.
Fully voiced visual novels are not that common, but the Yangyang Mobile team managed to give important events and dialogue great, natural-sounding, and well-acted lines. I recognized Alejandro Saab, who has done work on several great games and anime, who delivered personality to the faceless avatar with his energetic, high-pitched quips and lively banter with all the characters. Because of the level of personality and immersion that the music and voice actors provided, the audio was essential to the experience that the game packaged.
While I appreciate that the user interface design that is clean and simple, I had some trouble with the buttons. For certain hotspots, some clicks only worked properly if I hover over a specific spot on the bottom of the button. Love Esquire has a great UI, but this trouble took some away from the experience and forced me to get used to the quirk.
Right off the bat, I could tell that I am not the target audience for Love Esquire. The key market is a straight, male audience that appreciates a lighthearted yet titillating anime girl experience. As someone who enjoys tight narratives and appreciates simple escapist fantasy games, I found it to be a solid game for any kind of person interested in visual novels. Its cheeky sense of humor is what sold me on this title.
Love Esquire is a fantastic, high-quality visual novel that can stand beside the greats from Japan and the West. The game has patterned itself after the bishōjo formula and didn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel. However, it does everything incredibly well, from story to characters, and from mechanics to audio-visual design. With only a bit more polish on the user interface, it could definitely take on international giants in the world of VN.
Love Esquire is available for PC and Mac on Steam and on itch.io. This review is based on a personal copy for Mac, purchased by the reviewer.