The year 1908. The 20th century had only started – the age of steam-powered Engines holds a lot of promise for Europe. Exported from the faraway world of Kadath, the Engines started a technological revolution – all the world’s great cities have embraced this new technology. As a result, the once-blue skies are now shrouded in grey, and the once-clean oceans are dyed with a putrid black.
In the Kingdom of France lies the Marseille Offshore Academia – a city of learning which stands on an artificial island. It is a bustling city with its own culture, founded solely by the students who live and study within its walls.
A young lady – a poor student of the Academia – once again goes to her job at the Dropout District. Every night, she works as a helper at a restaurant until right before dawn. Overworked, fatigued, and helplessly lonely, she looks up to the tower Chateau d’If. It is whispered that at its summit, there is a bell that grants the wish of any student. As she looks at the summit with her golden eyes, what will she wish for?
In the middle of April 1908, for the first time in the school’s history, a transfer student arrives. Proud and haughty, on his first day he declares to everyone in his classroom:
“Nikola Tesla. 72 years old. Transfer student.
Students of the Marseille Offshore Academia. My hundred thousand friends who have been cursed by Fate.
I will, with these hands, save all of you.”
At the top of Chateau d’If, the Bell of Gahkthun rings in celebration. Thus begins Ourai no Gahkthun, the sixth entry to Hikaru Sakurai’s Steampunk Series.
Let’s start first with the setting. Although I said that this is the sixth entry to the Steampunk Series, there’s nothing wrong with starting from Ourai no Gahkthun. As a story, it stands enough on its own, though there are a lot of references to the previous Steampunk games. Thankfully, there’s a glossary so that the details of the setting don’t just fly over the new players’ heads.
The Steampunk Series is set in two worlds – Kadath, the distant world whose gate can be found in the far seas to the north of England, and a different version of our world which came into contact with Kadath. Gahkthun, being set on alternate history Earth, has a cast largely based on real-world and fictional personalities from the 18th to 20th centuries. Nikola Tesla notwithstanding, people such as Emilie du Chatelet, Wilhelm Reich, and Louis XVII all make an appearance alongside characters like Jo and Amy March, Keziah Mason, and some more obscure references like Bertha Maurie Wiegert. Though I’ve barely even read any of the works referenced in Gahkthun (other than Lovecraft), having familiarity with the referenced characters will likely add a different dimension of enjoyment to the story.
Many elements of the previous Steampunk games – the golden eyes, the Society, the Cracking Effect, Kadath, and Engine Technology – reappear in Gahkthun. There are nods here and there to previous games, such as Izumi possibly being from Inganock, a vague connection between Tesla and the events of Manhattan, and Keziah worshipping the Black King. Fans of the series will likely appreciate the small threads that connect Sakurai’s works.
If you paid attention to this game because of Nikola Tesla, you might be disappointed to find out that he isn’t the protagonist of this game, though you do get to see him be cool and dreamy with his copypasta and his mech. For most of the game, the protagonist is Neon, Tesla’s assistant whom he bought for 30 silver coins at the start of the game. I use the word “protagonist” lightly, because a peculiarity of Sakurai’s writing style is that she switches between first person and third person very often, and there’s no single viewpoint character – after all, everyone is the protagonist of their own story.
I bring this up because of one of the biggest influences in Hikaru Sakurai’s writing style: Revolutionary Girl Utena. From the imagery she uses (roses, the spiral staircase), the episodic structure of her stories – even the whole plot of Gahkthun is one long reference to Utena‘s Black Rose arc – the show’s influence on her work is so heavy that having watched Utena will help a lot in appreciating how she writes. A big theme of Utena‘s Black Rose arc was having minor characters take the spotlight from the main characters – even the rich girl’s lackeys have their own desires. Here in Gahkthun, Sakurai shows the hardships and desires of the regular students while having their stories affect Neon’s and Tesla’s relationship. Unfortunately, some of the chapters will come across as filler to most people, and some people will likely get turned off by the episodic writing.
Compared to her earlier works like Inganock and Sharnoth, I do think that Sakurai made her writing style more accessible for Gahkthun. There’s a lot less direct repetition of scenes, but her signature way of repeating sentence structure is still there. Take for example this line:
A dazzling light surges forth. A brilliance with a pale color. A brilliance I’ve witnessed before.
A radiance visible even from distant skies. A radiance that brightens even the grey-colored skies.
Every other line, Sakurai repeats the same sentence structure but frames the description in a different way. In effect, though her individual sentences are fairly short, her descriptions are very vivid thanks her way of framing them. A cool side effect of this is that her lines have a rhythm to them when read out loud.
Another strength of Hikaru Sakurai’s writing is the way she gets into her characters’ minds and makes their thoughts accessible to the reader. A good example is at the very start of the game as it narrates Neon’s hardships as a second-class student of the Academia. The start of the first chapter describes Neon’s thoughts and actions in very rich detail – the fatigue that she feels every night after a tiring day of work, her sole solace beneath the warm water of her shower, her loneliness when she can’t find her usual friends on the park bench during lunchtime, and her busy workplace at the Dropout District; from the very start, Sakurai’s narration makes it feel as if Neon is a close friend who’s going through a really tough time.
If you’re expecting awesome, world-shattering battles in Gahkthun, you might want to look somewhere else. Even though there’s a lot of chuuni (apparently, a big influence on Sakurai is Jin Haganeya (Demonbane, Dra+KoI) according to some sources), and Tesla is pretty badass with his chanting every time he gets into a fight, the battles themselves are fairly one-sided; you know that Tesla will win, except maybe during the last two battles. Again, this is pretty much another influence from Utena, where the battles are pretty much ceremonies for the characters’ philosophies to clash against each other. From my experience, people have called Sakurai’s battles repetitive; though this is less true for Gahkthun, Tesla still is pretty much invincible for most of the story, so you won’t really find any pumping tension in his fights.
Most people would read Gahkthun for its alternate history steampunk setting, but despite its expansive setting, the biggest attraction of Gahkthun is its characters. Come for the H.P. Lovecraft-inspired steampunk Victorian-era setting, stay for the great chemistry between Neon and Tesla. garejei already pointed it out before me, but there’s a great deal of maturity in the way their relationship is written; there’s nothing sudden, nothing abrupt – their relationship is slowly built up until the very end where they finally realize how they actually feel for each other. For the reader, it doesn’t really feel like they’ve only started dating when they confessed to each other – they only confirmed how they feel for each other.
Ourai no Gahkthun is not a story that everyone will appreciate. Its references to alternate history characters and its Lovecraft/Utena-inspired setting will likely only draw people who are already attracted to it, and those who already like its kind of story will probably end up liking it. Still, with its translation on the horizon, the selection of stories available to English-only players will only expand further. I do hope that people like Gahkthun; there really is nothing quite like the Steampunk Series.