Visual novel aficionados may be left unsatisfied by its mechanics and presentation; but there’s plenty of heart to be found in this adaptation of George Orwell’s classic novel.
I’ll admit: I’m 27 years old and I only read George Orwell’s Animal Farm for the first time in 2020.
When the first pandemic lockdown kicked off here in New Zealand back in March, I decided to try and be at least a little productive with all that time I was going to spend cooped up at home. I realised how many literary classics had passed me by as a kid, from Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, to J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.
It’s one of the best choices I’ve ever made. While I haven’t fallen in love with every single one of these novels, I’ve come to understand precisely why they’re so often given to young readers during their formative years. In some ways, I’m actually glad I didn’t read them until well into my adulthood; more life experience and understanding of the literary world has perhaps helped me appreciate them in a way I may not have if I was ten years old and having them forced upon me.
That brings me to Animal Farm, the 1945 novel by George Orwell. I won’t submit you to a long-winded explanation of the novel itself; odds are, you’ve probably done that already back in high school. For brevity’s sake, I’ll say I found it to be an enjoyable tale of anthropomorphic, allegorical totalitarianism.
But here’s a question: what if George Orwell’s Animal Farm was a visual novel? I can’t say it’s a question I ever asked myself. But when a PR release with that exact description slid my way, I was immediately intrigued. London-based studio Nerial, best known for the excellent Reigns franchise, are the brave developers attempting this literary alchemy.
All the familiar faces are there, from Snowball and Napoleon to the grumbling donkey Benjamin. They’re rendered in a charming, hand-drawn fashion that’s reminiscent of classic Golden Books illustrations, and the juxtaposition of that aesthetic with the dark direction the story takes works well.
It’s a bit disappointing that there’s not much animation to the art; dialogue and scene transitions are mostly static with a little bit of idle movement from characters’ mouths. This isn’t unusual for the visual novel genre, but it would’ve been great to see the story come to life to a bigger degree than it does here.
Where Animal Farm deviates from just being a fancy eBook is the ability to make choices throughout the story that influence the ultimate direction it takes. As time progresses through the seasons, you’ll have to decide what tasks on the farm to prioritise and who will bear the weight of the labour required.
You’ll want to maintain defences around the perimeter of the farm, but spending too much time on them will mean you’re running out of time to harvest food ahead of Winter. The farm’s buildings will also require repairs over time; failing to keep on top of maintenance could potentially lead to illness and even death for an unfortunate group of animals.
It’s a delicate balancing act, and on top of that you’ll need to consider who’s actually doing all the work. Each of the workers available to choose from has only so much stamina, so ensuring you don’t overwork any given citizen of Animal Farm is important.
The results of these choices will ultimately determine who lives and dies under the tyrannical rule of Napoleon. There are eight different endings to discover, as well as forty-eight achievements to guide you through all of the game’s possible variations of the classic plot.
It’s an incredibly interesting experiment, and it’s relatively successful depending on what you’re hoping to get out of it. I think younger audiences who aren’t familiar with Orwell’s novel would get the most out of this visual novel adaptation; it’s not bogged down with complicated game mechanics and is faithful even when player choices morph its narrative.
There are some issues which hold it back from being a success on all fronts. There’s little written explanation of the game’s UI, so while you’ll undoubtedly figure out what’s going on after a little while, it would be nice to get a brief tutorial in the beginning – if only to make sure you’re not blundering your way through narrative decisions and taking yourself down a path you didn’t intend.
Its faithfulness to the original novel is also a bit of a thorn in its side. Although there are certainly plenty of individual choices to be made, and nearly a dozen different endings, they don’t necessarily feel like a notable deviation. After my initial run, I didn’t feel all that compelled to start over to begin the journey to tick off all achievements. It’s a good story, but perhaps not one you’ll want to repeat ad nauseam.
Having said that, it’s very reasonably priced at $9.99 USD at the time of writing this review. Nerial didn’t quite plumb the depths of Animal Farm’s potential as a visual novel, but it’s also admirable to see them even try in the first place. It’s still a fun experiment made by people who clearly adore Orwell’s novel, and it’s a decent afternoon’s fun as long as you know what you’re getting into.
Orwell’s Animal Farm is available now on PC, Mac, iOS and Android.