The piece carries a content warning for abuse.
A recent (and viral) video game meme asks you to post four games you felt were masterpieces from the moment you finished them. After picking NieR: Automata, 999: 9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors, Undertale, and The House in Fata Morgana, I realized each one is either a visual novel or has elements of one. I’ve played more visual novels than I can count over the last dozen years, and it’s my firm belief that they’re home to many of the best stories in the medium.
It’s part of why Milky Way Prince – The Vampire Star is such a thrill to play. Like many visual novels, it utilizes the medium to enhance its dark, riveting story. It feels like it offers something entirely new through its uniquely and strikingly stylish visuals. I’d even go as far as to say it’s the most stylish visual novel I’ve ever played.
I’ll break that down later on, but first, let’s focus on Milky Way Prince is about. It centers on Nuki, a lonely young man with a passion for astronomy, as he falls in love with Sune, a captivating and mysterious young man. A surreal first encounter between the two gives way to a rapidly developing — and unfortunately deeply abusive relationship.
It’s an incredibly dark take on the classic concept of star-crossed lovers. At one point, Nuki is so dedicated to and enthralled by Sune that he absolves him of any guilt, saying, “It’s not your fault. You’re a star — it’s in your nature to be unstable.”
Thankfully, the story frames this as exactly what it is: a toxic relationship founded on a power imbalance that Sune utilizes to abuse and hurt Nuki. The game’s description on Steam states that Milky Way Prince is partially autobiographical and that it has depictions of “abuse and borderline personality disorder that some may find distressing or disturbing, including those who themselves may have had similar experiences.” I appreciate the frankness here, and the creators’ decision not to play coy with such strong stuff. The game chooses to explore trauma and abuse, rather than simply use them for shock value or a plot device for a character’s growth, as some stories of this nature tend to do. I’m happy to see that we’ve come far enough with queer representation in video games, particularly in indie games, that we can have more stories like Milky Way Prince.
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What I love even more than the story of this game is its execution. With a primarily red, black, and white palette, Milky Way Prince oozes style. While its art style is minimalist, every screenshot I’ve taken of this game is gorgeous and expressive. Like its visuals, Milky Way Prince‘s soundtrack is exquisite in its simplicity and power. At times, as I clicked to advance the text, a low key on the piano would play, penetrating the eerie silence. Its visual beauty is poetic — designed to parallel Sune’s own captivating look — and contrast the ugliness that lurks under his surface.
Milky Way Prince is devilishly clever in how it uses the medium to emphasize the powerlessness one feels in a relationship like Nuki and Sune’s. Like most visual novels, it allows you to make choices that determine which ending you’ll get. These choices range from tiny details — things like like wearing perfume to responding to Sune in different ways. It eventually turns this aspect on its head and ties it into the constant self-doubt Nuki deals with.
For example, Sune hates perfume. If Nuki doesn’t wear it, it’s yet another aspect of himself that Nuki is diluting to please Sune. But if Nuki wears it, is it his own independent choice, or a tiny form of rebellion against Sune’s influence? As you delve deeper into the narrative, some “choices” will only have one option. Some will have various options of the same exact variable to pick from, conveying Nuki’s lack of agency. I often wanted to go back on a choice but the game rarely, if ever, makes this possible without starting over.
Like the relationship it is centered on, Milky Way Prince is an unsettling game. It felt impossible to predict where the story would go; how Sune would react to what I’d say. I often thought that maybe if I picked another option, it would’ve made Sune happy. Or it would’ve hurt him less. Or it would’ve ended in less pain for Nuki. I said the wrong thing, and it was on me — if I only said the right thing, if I cared more, if I cared less, if I cared the right amount, maybe their relationship would’ve been healthier.
This is further emphasized through Milky Way Prince‘s senses mechanic, which occasionally makes you choose with which of your five senses to react to Sune. Senses are deeply tied to your intuition and survival. In a relationship such as this, they can be hard to prioritize in the face of how much you care for the other person and want to make things work. But the core of a relationship like Nuki and Sune’s is the fact that there is nothing you can do to make it better. The game is brilliant at putting you in Nuki’s mindset and showing how, —despite Milky Way Prince‘s surreal and horror elements — much of this can happen to anyone in the real world.
Milky Way Prince – The Vampire Star is available on Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One on Aug. 13.