KICHIKUOU RANCE (BRUTAL KING RANCE) / AliceSoft / PC
In the mid-90s just after the release of Rance 4 and its two side games, Alicesoft was apparently about to go out of business. The company decided to go out in a blaze of glory, stuffing all of their remaining plot and character ideas being stored up for future Rance adventures into one grand and novel strategy title that fused the basic gameplay of Koei's big strategy games (Bandit Kings of Ancient China, Romance of the Three Kingdoms) with the combination of visual novel and RPG elements the series had always been about. As it happened, it became Japan's best-selling "eroge" game of all time and kept Alicesoft alive to this day.
The story follows the events of the first four Rance games, branching off into a "what if" scenario that sees Rance become the king of Leazas by marrying Queen Lia. He initially goes to war with neighboring Helman to rescue his longtime companion Sill, but an ongoing civil war in the demon world gradually causes his focus to expand to "uniting" (subduing) all of humanity to prepare for a final showdown with the world's monsters.
So if anyone knows anything about Rance, they know it's the game where the endlessly horny protagonist tries to have sex with every attractive woman in his path and is willing to resort to sexual assault at times. No change here. But this has always overshadowed the fact that these games are also often well-written and genuinely funny hyper-absurd parodies of harem anime, RPGs and other elements of Japanese nerd culture of the time. The rape aside, the main problem to this point had just been tedious design and not being fun to play.
Kichikuou Rance was the first in the series to really change this, making the game worth playing on its own merits. The design is exceptionally complex, with absolute heaps of twisting paths for getting from one end of it to the other. There are multiple endings, there is a hidden end phase and "true ending" to uncover, and all sorts of side quests and characters making it worthy of multiple replays.
It's also almost shockingly well-written. The prior tone of the Rance games was almost completely comical and hyper-absurd. There are still plenty of bits of that here, but overall there is a much darker tone. In fact, it's the closest thing I've seen yet to a Game of Thrones strategy game and I'm not sure if I'll ever seen anything closer. All of your characters can die permanently, not just in battle but as a result of decisions you make. Some characters who were beloved fan favorites or light comic relief previously can meet some very bad ends. Deaths and setbacks come suddenly and unexpectedly, adding to the complexity of wending through the game.
In the midst of all this you're presented with some legitimately tough moral choices. There are all sorts of situations where sacrificing someone makes your road significantly easier. Given the complexity and need for resource management at all times, you can manage to put yourself in corners where sacrificing someone is the only way out. And there are numerous well-written optional side arcs where saving someone or seriously improving their lot in life conflicts with your military goals. I was definitely not expecting all this from my oof yikes sweaty hentai series.
It's done so well that it's a shame the series penchant for rape is still present, just because it puts off so much of the potential player base for it. That situation is no different here than it was in any of the previous games. The actual sex pictures are the stock still-frame censored hentai gifs of the time period, no worse than in any other porn game and actually tamer than quite a few of them. The rape content is all in the descriptions of the situations. King Rance collects women for his harem as the game goes on, and while you have a good deal of leeway in simply not partaking or only choosing willing partners (there are quite a few), the game still throws at least a few rape scenes in your path as part of the overall progression.
The aesthetics (hentai aside) ain't bad either. Though they aren't animated, I love the sprite work in this game. About as good-looking as a game with like zero animation can get. And the soundtrack is just something else. The previous Rance games had surprisingly good music, but this one is on another level. Apparently it's by a mysterious gent named Shade, who stepped in as the Alicesoft house composer with this title. And holy shit, what a start. It uses digital audio and sounds a lot like the Advance Wars games for GBA and DS crossed up with a little touch of NES Ninja Gaiden.
So for all these reasons, and for the feeling of having to manage a bunch of crazy personalities and random events in the midst of a war, Kichikuou Rance has a pretty great core. Certainly head-and-shoulders above the usual hentai game standard. So why only the 3/5? Unfortunately, it's also player-hostile and maddening.
The Rance series has always had an issue with making use of some of the worst elements of visual novels, but up to this point it was primarily the tedious backtracking and obsessive clicking on every available menu option to it with no real logic to it. Kichikuou Rance doesn't have that, but it does have absolutely maddening random events and "gotchas" galore compounded by an awful save system.
The save system is just totally indefensible given how easy it is to blunder into character deaths and major setbacks with no real warning. The game clearly is expecting you to save-scum your way through it, even making meta jokes about it at a couple of points, but you're only allowed to save at the beginning of each turn. That can mean not only playing through an entire turn again, but also lengthy cutscenes at both the end of that turn AND the beginning of the next turn.
And there are some "gotchas" that transcend being unfair and move into just being flat-out mean. Oddly enough, though, this is kinda like the strong hot sauce to the game's eggs. It's sorta like the Dark Souls of visual novels. If the gameplay wasn't so solid and the content wasn't so interesting, this would absolutely not work at all. But it does because it is ... at least if you have a fair amount of patience and tolerance for save-scumming.
You'll almost certainly need a guide to get through it, and be prepared to have to restart after sinking a couple hours into it because things got too screwed up, but god help me if the adventures of ol' Brutal King Rance actually aren't worth playing. There's really nothing else quite like this game out there.
* Download link - Officially released as freeware in 2006 by AliceSoft, fan-translated to English
* Gameplay Video
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