There’s a refreshing lack of subtlety about Nowhere Girl. Often you’re playing a visual novel, wondering where it’s heading, until it lurches into dating sim mode. But Nowhere Girl isn’t coy. It literally chains you to a partner and fabricates a situation where you HAVE to fall in love with them.
Now, that might (and rightly) make you worry that this is a sleazefest, something that plays loose with topics like consent. But we can mostly reassure you: the reasons for the ball-and-chaining make sense in Nowhere Girl’s world, and consent is something that both sides of the chain worry about and talk around at length. Nowhere Girl still stops short of being completely comfortable, but we’ll get to that.
You are probably wondering how Nowhere Girl winds up with this plot. It starts with you creating a character in terms of name and gender (two options), then wearily trudging to work. You’re some kind of Support and QA hybrid at a software studio, and you hate it. The one shining light is your workmate Holly, for whom you clearly harbour some unrequited feelings. But the unlikely prospect of you getting together only makes you more depressed, so you wind up at a seedy bar to drown your misfortunes.
This is where it gets hokey or fun, depending on your viewpoint. You’re approached by a biker called Baraqiel (theologists will have a headstart on some of the plot twists), who offers you an opportunity to make a large-scale change in your life. You accept, hop in a taxi, fall asleep, and wake up to find yourself chained to a ghost named Pseudo.
It’s confusing for everyone involved. Pseudo has no idea who she is and what she’s doing here, but was given a single command: if the chain is to be broken, then the player needs to fall in love with her. Once that love happens, she will disappear back to where she came from, and the player can get on with things.
This is where Nowhere Girl is at pains to make a few things clear, so it doesn’t get too unsavoury. Pseudo is just as distressed about the situation as you are. You’re peeved – this isn’t what you signed up for – and the idea of manufacturing love is distasteful to you both. Conversations around consent, forced emotions and the rest are present and correct, and it’s dealt with reasonably well.
Buuuut it’s not perfect. We still found it icky. As Nowhere Girl progresses, there’s never any question that Pseudo will fall in love with the player. It’s not even a worry, of course she will. Pseudo’s feelings about the forced marriage are also sidelined: she doesn’t get many opportunities to voice her disquiet that maybe the player isn’t for her. It’ll depend on how much it bothers you, but there was a greasy wish-fulfilment here, as a very attractive ghost is tied to a nerdy, ‘nice person’ software developer, and it was down to the ghost to attract them.
In less competent hands, it could have been a nightmare. But Nowhere Girl is a well-written, very readable mix of a ‘fish out of water’ tale (as Pseudo tries to learn to be a ghost in a modern world), and that tale-as-old-as-time: the spiky couple slowly falling in love. There’s a reason that Pseudo’s favourite movie – and the only one she can recall – is Pretty Woman. The template is very similar, just with ghosts and a wild u-turn at the end.
There are a fair few dialogue choices available, but very little divergence. You can tell Pseudo you like pineapple pizza, or ask her whether she prefers Sega or Nintendo (all for a few achievements), but ultimately the stream leads down only a few different forks. In visual novel terms, it’s about on a par: you won’t get flow diagrams detailing which path you took, but you can still imprint some personality on your little introvert. You will reach the end after a few hours, before reversing to mop up the very few achievements that you will have remaining. A solid Skip and Rewind function makes this palatable.
Special mention goes to the artwork, which is splendid. The character art is manga-worthy, and there’s a fair few poses for each character, which means that things don’t get too static. Pseudo occasionally looks like different girls between poses, but generally the quality is very high. It’s also got its tongue in its cheek, as some of the best gags are visual: a moment where Pseudo takes a rest while you’re having a conversation, and accidentally phases her chest through your head is a riot.
Things get metaphysical towards the end, and we won’t say more than that, as its last-act tonal shift is worth experiencing blind. But while it takes you to fantastic places, there is a nagging sense that it’s all a bit unearned. Nowhere Girl’s overwhelming problem is that the relationship doesn’t convince. Pseudo is so pretty, and the player character so needy, that the prospect of the player falling in love with her seems obvious to the player, even if it doesn’t seem obvious to the two characters.
And so it proves to be. They may bicker all the time, but none of the conflict amounts to much, and the player falls in love in no time at all. Any dramatic moments get filed off by the short wooing period, and you wonder what all the fuss was about. With a bit more conflict, and some time for the couple to naturally fall in love, the ending would have felt justified. Without it, you instead get two people who clearly don’t get on particularly well, falling in love within a week and undermining the entire premise. It’s a bit of a shot to the heart of the drama.
There’s a lot to recommend Nowhere Girl. In its looks and writing, there’s a craftsmanship that takes it beyond your average visual novel. The setup, too, is bonkers: an unlikely romance between ghost and software developer. But it’s the middle act, before things get equally bonkers at the end, that doesn’t quite coalesce. Nowhere Girl can’t convince you that a natural, believable relationship is growing between its characters, and it makes the setup a little sleazy as a result. A curio, then: one for visual novel fans who like to go off the beaten path.
You can buy Nowhere Girl from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S