First off, DMR is an overall awesome game and I personally enjoyed all of the characters.
Disclaimer: In my playthrough, my unique route order was: (Tazo -> Hollis -> Cartwright -> Jed -> ???) which inevitably affected my perception of how I saw the overall routes, plot timeline, & characters. Your experience/perception may be different depending on whose route you go for first.
There's no recommended playing order for DMR that I know of; but, it's more fun anyway to play it naturally without obsessively referring to a guide! :) Plus, the game is designed enough to easily infer/guess how to get at all of the other CGs/routes without too much trouble (100% completionism, woo!).
This isn't so much of a game review, but more of an...essay (whoops)! Playing DMR's writing direction made me think/feel a lot of things. For those who also love to write or analyze writing craft, I wanted to share my (over)analysis on 3 things I loved about DMR's writing. Maybe other aspiring game/non-game writers may find this useful? But anyway... ONWARDS!
[Warning: Many spoilers & Long, long text ahead.]
BALANCED TREATMENT OF SENSITIVE TOPICS
It's not easy to include or portray sensitive topics like religious belief, racism, non-consent, & homophobia (external/internalized). I felt like DMR's writer handled or portrayed them very well! To me, it never felt too gratuitous, preachy, insensitive, nor overly-sanitized.
A rookie writer could just over-rely on slurs to show that prejudice exist. Yet, real-life bigotry also exists in more subtle/internal ways eg. character's dialogue revealing their underlying assumptions about given group even if no slur is used; or, their own jaded self-image for being seen/identifying as part of that group.
DMR strikes a good middle ground on these sensitive issues: portraying these societal issues in a way that still feels very personal to the character(s) affected by them, but also not milking/dismissing the characters' emotions to these issues.
I also like how there's a mixture of religious/non-religious characters, with no judgment on either stance. While not religious myself, I like the accurate reflection of the historic time/society that DMR is based on instead of politely pretending religion, bigotry, repression etc. doesn't exist.
CHARACTER-CENTRIC > FAN-CENTRIC APPROACH TO NSFW
Another thing I liked is how DMR didn't force NSFW scenes for every single route/relationship - especially, if it didn't make sense for that given dynamic based on their current progress in the timeline (eg. Taza). If a route's given set-up isn't plausible enough for the characters' to immediately jump each others' bones, DMR doesn't cram in sex scenes at the cost of the personalities/relationship feeling disingenuous. While this surely displeases some folks, I like how the writer doesn't pander to that.
Even when DMR's sex scenes do happen, they all feel unique/fitting for the two individuals having it. Unlike most visual novels I've played, it's not just a sportscaster play-by-play description of thrusting bodies. For DMR, each NSFW scene carries an emotional tone/dialogue (+ underlying issues/doubts) that makes sense given the particular personalities, worldviews, and emotional/power-dynamics involved.
For example: Hollis's scenes - I can totally see why it progressed the way it did, given the set-up in Hollis' early behavior & dialogue. I also liked the doubt Lee had on whether said-sex meant they were official or just a one-night stand; and Hollis' own slowness on realizing his feelings (he didn't strike me as the emotionally-aware type, lmao). Compared to Hollis' sex scenes, the emotional atmosphere in Bill's is WAY different in tone, motives for wanting it, and what the scene told players about his psychology/outlook.
Even better, the DMR's NSFW scenes actually progresses the storyline or the characters' development! (SAY WHAT?!) DMR doesn't suffer from frequent scenes of "Tab A into Slot B" that just feel tedious and repetitive, because it no longer shows anything significant or new about the relationship or characters. Even when games throws kinkier stuff in, it's usually just superficially new, and not new/significant in a more character-revealing way.
For instance: each of Bill's NSFW scenes shows his worldview getting more challenged. He goes from: violent/cocky --> erratic/shaken --> broken --> to sobering epiphany, depending on what choices Lee makes.
DMR is just damn good example of NSFW scenes showing a variety of motives & emotional contexts, used in service of the characters' growth. Sure, sex can just be sex without emotions, and we know how sex mechanically works - but for character-driven storylines like DMRs, sex scenes should reveal or signify something for a given relationship/character's development. Man, I wish more novel/game writers treat character routes like DMR's writer did...the sex scenes would feel a lot less repetitive/boring, that's for sure [although I could just be in the minority, lmao].
[And heck, if one did wish for NSFW scenes with all the DMR characters - there's nothing that a lil' "Time Skip" or "Epilogue" scene can't fix if that ever became a priority somehow.]
THE CHARACTERS: LOVIN' ALL THE GOOD (AND BAD) BOIS (In Order of My Route Playthrough)
Taza was the ultimate Good Boi (TM) in all of the routes--which, GOOD FOR HIM! (It's freakin' hard to stay good in a world like DMR's, man!). Not ever being a culprit felt logically consistent given all the character background & interactions that Lee had with him in the other routes as well.
Hollis was the culprit in one route, but it still felt believable/immersive since I felt the earlier exposition set up his motives well-enough + didn't conflict with Hollis' route-centric interactions with Lee. If Lee hadn't chosen to help/pursue Hollis, the current timeline (ie. my understanding of it, colored by Taza's route) would've inevitably caused Hollis to be the (tragic) culprit.
Cartwright. Hoo boy. I enjoyed his route & personality, but I also played it before Jed's route which messed up my perception of time & his character-consistency just a little. Not going to lie, but it somewhat broke my heart when the epiphany/character growth Cartwright undergoes in his main route (<3) vanished when I played Jed's route next.
For Jed's Route, I naively assumed that it'd follow the linear logic of Cartwright's timeline where Jed was the true culprit in that case. Even in that situation, Jed's accidental circumstances for being the culprit still felt reasonable/consistent with his kind personality in all his other routes.
While playing Jed's route, I was waiting for Jed to apologize to Lee & fess up about being the true culprit. Now, I was shocked to see Cartwright being the culprit instead, and to proclaim motives that contradicted what I knew of him from his main route. (Me: "CARTWRIGHT, HOW COULD YOU BETRAY ME AND YOURSELF LIKE THIS?! WHERE'S THAT INTEGRITY THAT YOU ONCE SPOKE OF?!" T__T ).
It's also my bad though. I forgot that Visual Novels tend to operate from an omnipresent perspective (aka. able to perceive multiple dimensions/timelines) VS. how Real Life humans experiencing time in a linear fashion. Even though I wanted to believe in Cartwright's goodness so bad, I could've treated his discrepancy as an "alternate timeline?"
Amongst the 5 potential bachelors after Lee's heart (haha), Cartwright was the only one with a consistency issue in 1 route (Jed's). That said, CW's character felt consistent in all the other routes.
[One possible fix may be just to add a few dialogue lines from Cartwright in the general/non-specific route, that preestablishes his ambivalence on whether to stay loyal to whom he's supposed to protect. Most of the suspicion of Cartwright is brought up by other characters, not Cartwright himself. By having Cartwright himself hint at his own potential for corruption, it'll plant the seed for plausibility no matter what route order the player plays. Heck, having that element of "moral temptation" in the general route AND in CW's route could've further heightened the emotions of the scene where he he redefines what morality and integrity means to him.
Another possible fix could be to keep Jed as the culprit in Jed's main route. Thus, on top of what he reveals to Lee about his past, it's also an extra sign of trust/intimacy if Jed is also able to trust Lee to help him get through this mess too?
A third possible fix is also to just set up the murder to happen sometime after Lee arrives to town--instead of before his arrival--to give more logical plausibility to why certain characters aren't the culprit in their given/other routes (Cartwright, Hollis). Jed's accidental involvement could remain, since its still stays in his character.
There's pros/cons to the aforementioned approaches, so who knows; another better possibility can also exist that I don't know of?]
As for Bill's route? I LOVE HIM (even if he's a headshaking-inducing S.O.B!). The varying level of his involvement behind the crime in all of the other characters' routes felt logically consistent, given the unique factors going on for each route. I felt the pacing & development of his character growth/revelation through his interactions with Lee were believable and still consistent with the other routes' portrayal.
As for Lee? Total badass in all his routes (especially Bill's). For me at least, I felt like he had good chemistry with all of the cast; and, can see how he could plausibly fall for every single one of them (given the unique events/conversations that happen for each route). Most visual novels I've played has a bland protagonist that's just meant to be a stand-in for the player. But not Lee: he's got plenty of backstory/personality and is a sympathetic narrator with an enjoyable, unique voice. The other guys are freaking lucky to have a guy like Lee!
I give MAJOR PROPS to the writer (Theo Southgate) for even attempting to write a romance-based visual novel story in the first place.
After all, unlike other storytelling mediums & visual-novel genres, romantic visual novels face the challenge of keeping track of all the various "romantic route/choice branches" no matter what route order a reader plays through first [unless there's already a game mechanic that forces the layer to play romantic routes in a fixed order].
There's the second writing challenge of keeping each route varied enough to keep players' interest; but, to also keep the right details/events consistent to not break the player's immersion & the story's own world-building/character logic.
There's also the third challenge of trying to make every route feel worthwhile/fun to play through (even as most players inevitably find a route/love interest they like above all the others).
Overall, I'd say DMR's writing managed to satisfy me on all three challenges above. It's definitely a game that gave me memorable, emotional experiences (esp. the last route...bruh, saving the most "narrator-backstory-related" & emotionally-heavy route for last: definitely, a praiseworthy design-choice!).
Definitely can see myself replaying DMR - just to revisit being inside the characters' heads and emotions again. Thanks for the ride, Gallium & Argent Games! <3