Nicole is one of those games that I have a hard time understanding why I like it as much as I do. With tedious gameplay that is neither engaging or interesting and a predictable storyline riddled with clichés and unbelievable situations, you'd think I'd have played an hour or two and tossed it in the "File and Forget" bin of my library. On the contrary, I found myself plugging 15+ hours into the game, playing through all four character routes, and falling in love with each of the guys along the way (well, 3/4 of them anyway). Perhaps this review is my way of figuring out just what makes the Nicole so appealing to me despite so many flaws.
Our story begins with the title character arriving for her freshman year at college. She's a plucky, perky 18 year old girl who has spent most of those 18 years loving fashion, getting straight A's and finding herself amongst the popular group of girls in high school. Oh, and she's never had a boyfriend or been kissed before. Not
exactly the most realistic protagonist in the world, but she's likeable enough despite being a tad annoying at times. After getting settled in, she stumbles across an article detailing the mysterious disappearance and reappearance of 3 female students who inexplicably have no memory of their time gone, but are so rattled by the experience they either drop out or transfer to another school. One would think campus kidnappings would have Nicole practicing a little caution, but it's not long before she's contacted by the kidnapper and warned that she'll be next. Logically, going straight to the authorities is out of the question; Nicole has no choice but to investigate the kidnapper herself. Yes...the story has some issues, but the mystery isn't what kept me playing.
As mentioned previously, the plot is predictable and character routes cliché-fests. BUT...I couldn't stop reading. For an OELVN (Original English Language Visual Novel) the writing is exceptionally good. Aside from a bit of annoying slang here and there, the characters are all well developed with their own distinct voices (something so many of these games lack), and the dialogue is fluid and for the most part believable. On top of that, I may have caught maybe 2 typos throughout the 4 routes, and that's pretty dang impressive considering how so many games in the genre are littered with typos, misspellings and awkward phrasing. So, despite my boredom with the overarching storyline, reading through the game was a pleasant experience.
And then there are the boys. Yes, they're your stereotypical romance tropes, but they're written believably well. If I had to boil it down to the one thing that kept me playing, it was the romance between Nicole and the guys. Watching the relationships go from acquaintance to friend and ultimately on to something more was enjoyable and interesting. The gradualness of the friendships and Nicole's slow realization of her own feelings was refreshing. Much of the romantic dialogue and situations were hilarious, other parts touching and some scenes downright steamy. For an otoge, they hit a bullseye with the character romances. Granted, the premise for getting Nicole and each guy in the same room for the relationship to flourish was kind of boring and predictable, but easily forgiven considering how much I enjoyed the result of those encounters.
On the visual side of things, the artwork is quite impressive for the genre and a highlight of the game. This artist has worked on previous Winter Wolves titles, and I'm a big fan of hers. The style has a soft feel to it which is accentuated by the pastel palette used to color the work; this complements the romantic tone of the story quite well. The character designs are not particularly detailed or inspired, but they're nicely conceived and pleasant on the eyes. My only disappointment is that we don't get any CG's outside of the character endings. But this is a small price to pay to have polished and professional looking artwork for the entire game.
Now, to detail the most boring, drudging, soul crushing aspect of Nicole, which is the simulation gameplay. I generally do not find life sims to be very engaging, but Nicole's gameplay felt so much worse. You spend a good 80% of the 4 game months picking the same activities over and over to level up your clues in order to further the mystery storyline while also leveling the requisite stat for the guy you're pursuing. And that's it. You can literally go weeks without a single event scene triggering, and when all I want is to get to the next steamy romance bit, facing days upon days of nothing but the same monotonous activities again and again is torture. We're not even given flavor text after each activity to spice things up either. Unfortunately, by the time I realized how mind-numbing the gameplay was, I was already hooked on the feels that I forced myself through for that next romantic "hit". Thankfully there's a skip button (hidden away in the options menu, by the way, but at least it's there) that helped me fly through things a bit faster on subsequent playthroughs, because I don't know if I'd have survived it otherwise.
The rest of the gameplay consists of visual novel reading with a few dialogue choices tossed in to level up affection with the guys. Honestly, the game would have been much better as a straight visual novel using dialogue trees to further the storyline, although it would have probably cut the play time down by at least half. I wouldn't have minded this myself as I feel it would have made the experience MUCH more enjoyable, but I think it'd be hard to justify the $20 price tag for maybe 6 hours of game play.
In the end, I can only recommend Nicole to other female players who enjoy otome and a good romance now and again. Unfortunately, there's just not enough meat to the story to pull the guys in, and I'm not sure most would be interested in the romance aspects which is the game's biggest strength. Still, for a game that was painful to play at times, there are much MUCH worse examples of the genre out there. I'd suggest either getting one of the 50% off coupons that are floating around or wait for a good sale to pick it up. At the right price it's worth it for the steamy bits alone.
Bottom Line: 6/10