Every once in a while we love bringing you something completely out of the ordinary, and for that we don’t have to delve too far into the wild and zany genre that are visual novels. Pajamahouse Studios’ Desi Leaves Town ($2.99 iPhone Edition; $3.99 iPad Edition) seems to have flown completely under the radar, but I decided to take it for a spin after a friend tipped me off to its existence. Not that I’m familiar with the book on which it’s based (that would be Huysmans’ Against Nature); I just happen to have a soft spot for frogs in human clothes that I blame on Arnold Lobel. What I found in Desi was no children’s book, though — it’s a fully animated 19th-century style novella with a tough casual puzzle game smushed inside, and for that reason it’s one of the most interesting pieces of iOS artistry I’ve seen yet.
Why Desi exists as a humanoid frog isn’t explained, but it does emphasize how absurdly different he is from your average Joe. Desi just can’t find a comfortable spot in society despite his immense wealth, so he abandons the city for a countryside villa where he can live in decadent solitude. The script is just dripping with dark irony, but dialogue and narration are both heavy in the way you’d expect of a 19th century novel — so you’d better bring a love of Brontë, Dickens, or a favored Gothic author to this one! That said, Pajamahouse carries the weight beautifully in my opinion, making Desi one of the best-written apps of its type.
As a game, Desi has its ups and downs. With the decadent anti-hero’s tastes continually jumping the shark, it falls on the reader/player to solve casual puzzles and get Desi out of whatever jam he’s found himself in. These range from well-worn genre tropes – picture puzzles and a variant of the dreaded block slider – to more bizarre things like constructing a chaise lounge or coloring diamonds to meet Desi’s fastidious desires. The scenarios leading into them may be worthy of a good head-scratching, but the puzzles take a satisfying amount of brain power to resolve.
What I’d love to see in updates is more work on instructions and touch sensitivity. Every puzzle or minigame is completely different so it would be great to have an on-the-fly reference instead of the vague one-screen tutorial that usually precedes them. The puzzles themselves are generally well controlled, but finding the right areas to touch on their introduction screens and “submit” buttons can be a hassle, and the recurring diamond color puzzles can feel too picky for their own good. Pausing Desi’s auto-running narrative and puzzles requires a two-finger tap, and the game occasionally gets testy in this area as well. These complaints are directed at the iPhone/iPod Touch version in any case.
What props up the whole package is its ambitious production value. Pajamahouse found a stellar character actor in Sirius radio personality and apparent alien abductee Riley Martin, whose voice absolutely steals the show and makes Desi a believable character. Seriously — this is exactly how a comically over-cultured, talking frog with decadent tastes should sound. The long-running animation wrapped around Desi’s narrative may not carry the smoothness of a premier anime, but Desi and the rest of the cast tend to be quite expressive nonetheless, and fun little details ensure there’s seldom a dull moment. One thing to note: puzzle clues are highly dependent on sound and voice clips and captions aren’t available for them, so this is definitely not a visual novel for the hearing impaired.
iFanzine Verdict: A unique visual novel/casual puzzle mashup that benefits from strong writing, standout voice acting, and clever minigame design. Touch sensitivity issues occasionally butt in on the smaller iDevices at least, and it does take a strong appreciation for 19th century literature to truly enjoy.