There’s a line in a Taylor Swift song that goes, “Boys only want love if it’s torture.” Well, given the nature of some otome games, it seems a concept that could be true of anyone. Certainly, it would apply to people who would pick up The Crimson Flower that Divides: Lunar Coupling. This Switch otome game is the first port of a mature title that appeared on platforms like the PC, PSP, and Vita in Japan. Granted, this release cuts out the “adult” imagery, but keeps the mature connotations and sexual overtones.
As you’d expect from a dystopian romance filled with constant mental and physical trauma, The Crimson Flower that Divides: Lunar Coupling gets dark! People who’ve experienced sexual or physical assault would very likely be triggered by many of the situations in its routes! However, while it is constantly assailing the player with the prospect of terrifying situations, there’s are some redeemable elements. Localization issues aside, I found myself caught up in the stories it told, loving its strong, incredible heroine, and genuinely feeling for a few of the men and women I’d meet over the course of the game.
While The Crimson Flower that Divides: Lunar Coupling is a romantic visual novel, it often gets quite political as well. Set in a besieged by a plague known as The Rot, most women catch, then die, from the disease. Few survive. Those who manage to avoid it are fought over by nations, in the hopes of actually managing to continue to survive. After the heroine Naala’s father died, her mother was taken by men from the country of Nasla. Naala, the only known woman to survive the affliction, was hidden away and saved. The Rus royal family took her in, and she was raised knowing she’d be the wife of its king, Auri.
Naala grew up molded by this experience. She’s fought alongside the men of Rus, becoming as strong an archer and swordswoman as them. So when Nasla attacks the Rus royal city and she realizes her two dear friends Shalanna and Shalu are in the district under assault, she leaves the security of the palace to fight for them. And, to be fair, she does beat back the Naslan soldiers! She seems to buys them time to escape! However, she’s caught in the process. So her and the captured women, as well as her friends, find themselves in the Nasla capital. There, they find it is a country with so few women they need to raid other villages, but have adopted a mentality that “Women Choose Their Husbands.” Naala now must adjust to life there, see if she can find freedom and happy endings for the Rus women, and perhaps find a love of her own.
In terms of gameplay, The Crimson Flower that Divides: Lunar Coupling is a very straightforward visual novel and Switch otome. As you go through the story, you’ll occasionally get the chance to choose responses that shape the course of the story. There’s no menu option to see how high a relationship is with one of the bachelors. However, you can turn on an indicator to get a visual signal showing when a response favors a certain character. The story primarily focuses on Naala and is seen from her perspective. However, there are some chapters in which love interests take the lead to show their point of view. Given the antagonistic nature of some, like Suren and Nohl, this is to their benefit and show that they may not be exactly who you expect. (Conversely, it also shows that what another love interest is saying and presenting might not be as accurate.)
You also have an array of love interests. Unfortunately, there’s some gatekeeping. Certain routes are locked behind others. So say you want to romance Nalan. Well, you’ll also always first have to get onto Suren’s route, which gets dark. It’s unfortunate, as it forces a player to go through circumstances they might want to avoid or interact with characters they don’t care about.
It’s generally sound and effective. However, translation issues abound. I happened across incorrect spellings. There’s some awkward phrasing at times. However, the biggest problem is when the came can’t decide whether one character’s name is “Nalan” or “Naran.” I also happened upon a bug a few times which resulting in the background image being “off” by almost an inch, leaving a black gap on the right side of the screen. (Reloading an old save fixed that.)
So, about those triggering topics! The next paragraph will go over the dark underbelly of The Crimson Flower that Divides: Lunar Coupling, so avoid it if you are sensitive to these issues and skip to the image after it. This will also involve some spoilers regarding the kinds of content you’ll read about or see.
Naala, her friends, and even some of her love interests go through hell. There’s kidnapping, nonconsensual marital sex, near sexual assault, references to self harm, suicide, murder, and abuse. There are heartbreaking endings. There are good people here. Not every love interest is out to do Naala harm. You’ll likely get attached to people. You’ll see them broken. Suren’s route can be particularly triggering. Also, while there were moments I did admittedly enjoy in it, The Crimson Flower that Divides: Lunar Coupling can tend to quickly excuse or brush over behaviors by quickly offering a “sweet” moment or no support showing how an actual relationship can suddenly develop after such trauma or attempting to excuse behavior. This is absolutely a case in which some routes are better than others, and getting one can mean being forced to see and deal with these traumatic and terrible incidents because that character’s tale branches off of Nohl’s, Suren’s, or Touya’s. It feels very dated, given the original game appeared in 2012, and that’s to its detriment.
However, I will say that Naala is a fantastic heroine. She’s a strong woman who cares deeply about her friends. She’s taken to heart the fact that she’s become a leader. She won’t abandon the Rus women in Nasla. Regardless of which route you follow, she maintains this considerate attitude that sees her trying to put others first when she can. When one of the Rus women is sick, she stays with her even if it puts her in danger, and forceably asserts it isn’t The Rot to keep her safe. When her friends repeatedly end up in danger, she gives up her own safety to protect them. She realizes how to deal with people. She sees when someone is lying to her. In a game where many of the love interests could be bland or downright problematic monsters, she’s a standout star who deserves better.
The Crimson Flower that Divides: Lunar Coupling is the equivalent of the tawdry romance novel you pick on sale or at a second-hand store. You probably won’t proudly admit you enjoy it or read it in public. Instead, it becomes your problematic secret you’ll sneak off to play. You’ll find a favorite character or characters and savor certain segments. Just know going in that this is absolutely a “mature” story with triggering themes.
The Crimson Flower that Divides: Lunar Coupling is available for the Nintendo Switch.