Stay! Stay! Democratic People's Republic of Korea! Review
Sometimes, when browsing the new releases on Steam, a game will catch your eye for reasons that you wouldn’t expect. It might be an anticipated title that released while you weren't looking, or a new entry in a franchise or genre that compels you to investigate further.
Or, in Stay! Stay! Democratic People’s Republic of Korea!’s case (hereafter referred to as Stay! Stay!), it was the bizarre nature of the title and its game previews that drew me in.
Stay! Stay! is largely a budget visual novel that markets itself with memes and self-aware humor in order to cash in on the appeal of its waifus. Such titles aren’t uncommon nowadays -- nor are they necessarily bad games -- but you tend to know exactly what you’re getting into with them. But at least Stay! Stay! does it with a neat pseudo-political twist.
Stepping into True Korea
The premise for Stay! Stay! is simple: the nameable protagonist is a US soldier recently returning from deployment in Afghanistan who has decided to meet up with two Korean military pen pals he’s been contacting. Somehow, he’s blissfully unaware of the fact that Pyongyang is not, in fact, a suburb of Seoul. As such, he finds himself a tourist in North Korea, staying with his two attractive female pen pals, and trying to make the most of his time in one of the harshest dictatorships of the modern world -- all while avoiding trouble at the risk of being summarily executed.
From this concept, the game plays out as a straightforward visual novel, with the story progressing through a combination of simple backdrops, character portraits and text, and gameplay that only consists of intermittent dialogue options. If true visual novels aren't your thing, then Stay! Stay! wont' be for you. But if you enjoy them, this one is par for the course.
During the main character’s stay, he’s given a map of notable date spots tourist locations to pick from each day, and he'll embark on a guided tour of said location with the girl who best knows that area. This is the main avenue of choice given to the player, as each locale has totally different themes and character conversations attached to them.
Every stop will also build up a relationship with the chosen guide, allowing you to pick your favorite to accompany you. After three days of this, there will be a group outing with a number of different dialogue options which allow you to favor one girl or another -- and then the game will select the ending route and conclusion based on those choices. You’ll watch things flourish with your romantic partner of choice, see a fancy CG screen of them, and then the finale plays out. That’s the game in a nutshell.
Overall, completing a single path won't take you more than a couple of hours. I reached all four endings in around five hours. For $10, there's not a lot of content here, but this is pretty standard for a visual novel. The question is...does the writing make that price tag worth it?
Smarter Than It Looks
Perhaps surprisingly, the writing in Stay! Stay! is actually pretty good. I admit that I didn’t go in with very high expectations -- which is often the case when you’re relying on memes and sex appeal to sell a game -- but the writers are much better at conveying the story than you might think.
The game is incredibly self-aware and quick to poke fun at itself or the tropes it’s using, but does so with enough infrequency that it doesn't feel cheap. And the little references often caught me off guard enough to earn a chuckle here and there.
The game really took me by surprise in how it pertains to real-world North Korea. If the writers didn’t do their research, they at least did an extremely convincing job of feigning that research, as there’s a surprising amount of history here. Each date spot is based on a real place, and greatly detailed in terms of the locale's history -- as well as the perceived history of the locale as depicted by someone living within the propaganda heavy country. There were moments where I felt genuinely informed and interested beyond the immediate adventures of the characters.
More than that, the game also shows some of the struggles and hardships that the people under North Korean dictatorship face. Complete with power outages, food shortages, poor infrastructure, bitter resentment toward the Japanese for their historical annexation, huge amounts of propaganda… Stay! Stay! showcases it all in a surprisingly real and stark way -- to the point that the game even has to stop and remind itself that it’s supposed to be a comedy.
Amidst all the humor and romantic interludes, there was a genuine sense of unease that affected both the protagonist and the player. It truly felt like you’d have to watch everything you said and did to avoid falling out of line -- and even if you did everything right, you were still very much unwelcome.
That’s not what people are coming to play the game for, mind you… but the fact that these real situations were addressed in such a manner caught me completely off guard and is absolutely worth mentioning. Couple this with frequently clever dialogue and humor, and the writing quality in Stay! Stay! proved quite impressive.
The Waifu Wars
All that said, the real meat of a budget visual novel such as Stay! Stay! is the allure of the cute female characters you get to romance. There are two such options in this game: Jeong (the warmer, friendlier and, uh, more well-endowed of the pair), or Eunji (the typical tsundere who alternates between being shy or angry, despite her deep-seated sweetness).
With three date scenes each, as well as numerous group interactions, you’ll have plenty of chances to pick your favorite, learn something about them, and still get to see a bit of both before you have to make your final choice. By the end of the game, the characters may not be immensely fleshed out, but there’s still plenty of detail there.
Do note that despite it being a common thing people buy this kind of game for, there’s no 18+ content. Not even with patches.
Altogether though, both girls are somewhat lacking in depth. While more aspects are hinted at least a little bit in places, most of the time the game plays it completely straight with the characters. You’ll largely know what they’re like within the first five minutes of the game just from cliches and tropes alone. That doesn’t make them uninteresting, mind you, just somewhat predictable.
Even with that said, the humor and cute interactions are generally entertaining enough to keep the game from being dull. Couple that with the above sections regarding Korea itself, as well as some nice art, and you've really got something. While I’m not about to take to forums and start declaring who I think is Best Girl, I did enjoy my time with both options.
Eunji is my favorite though. So there.
I went into Stay! Stay! with low expectations and had them exceeded. I didn’t think it’d be much more than a cheap cash grab, but I enjoyed my time more than I thought I would.
There’s still not a lot here as far as gameplay and content is concerned, but what’s there is pretty good. It’s not the best visual novel of its type out there, but it’s definitely far from the worst. The humor and surprisingly unsettling insight into True Best North Korea made this game much more intriguing and entertaining than I would have thought at a first glance.
I can’t really say I’d recommend it at its price point to anyone but an enthusiast, but should you find yourself considering it, know that there’s a fun experience to be had.