The Snellverse Part V(?): A Bushel of Bewilderment and Boobies
Back in 2017, I reviewed a pair of visual novels by the names of Gender Bender DNA Twister Extreme and Max’s Big Bust – A Captain Nekorai Tale. I found GBDNATE to be a very… sloppy title that offered a deluge of interesting ideas and concepts, but was clearly the product of a writer and artist duo whose ambitions were well beyond their skill level. MBB, conversely, I found to be a good, if unpolished, TSF visual novel with enough heart, humor, and creativity to warrant a recommendation.
I was originally going to review the next title by the writer/creator/programmer of these titles, Lachlan Snell, a 2019 simulation RPG by the name of Alluna and Brie. I gave the game a shot back in 2020, but dropped it after the game bombarded me with several non-tutorialized systems, time management mechanics, and some of the most hostile UX design I’ve seen since the 90s. …So I skipped that installment and jump straight into Max’s Big Bust 2 – Max’s Bigger Bust.
Max’s Big Bust 2 – Max’s Bigger Bust Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Mac, Linux
Developer/Publisher: Lached Up Games
Set two years after the original, Max’s Big Bust 2 follows the continued exploits of Max Newling. A male police officer, turned female police officer, turned lightning elemental monstergirl, who is tasked with defending Axon City from an endless stream of magically powered terrorists who try to take over the city… every second week or so.
This particular adventure centers around a domestic terrorist with access to ample amounts of a magical energy source known as Scorilite. A vaguely defined substance that enhances magical powers, is responsible for Max’s bevy of transformations, and can be used to build something as grand as a theme park in a matter of weeks… somehow. All of which billows into a grand conspiracy that leads Max to fight a God-level opponent that threatens to dominate both the inner and surface worlds through the power of magic and tentacles.
If that description makes you think that you might need a bit of a briefing on this world, then congratulations, because you stumbled onto the biggest and most easily identifiable problem with this story. Max’s Big Bust 2 is very much a ‘sequel story.’ It is a story that expects the player to be familiar with the established characters, world, and overall universe introduced in prior games. And when I say prior games, I don’t just mean Max’s Big Bust. I mean every prior game in the series, including the as-of-yet-unreleased predecessor, Axon in Ashes.
The title tries to mitigate this through introducing a “Previously On…” segment where the author surrogate recaps the stories of Max’s Big Bust 1 and Alluna and Brie. Unfortunately, this segment is only about five minutes long, and is written less like a detailed plot summary and more like a comedic recap meant to jog one’s memories. Instead of, you know, introducing newcomers to this world and its expansive cast of characters.
To offer my own explanation, about a year ago, a portal between Axon City, Australia opened up, bridging the surface world with the inner Earth, known as the Frakk. A series of island nations populated by dozens, if not hundreds, of different races of monstergirls and beastmen. Most of whom have some aptitude with magic and are remarkably similar to modern humans in their mannerisms, because… that’s easier to write and imagine. As the bridge between worlds was established, the queen of monstergirls led her people into war, but she was defeated by Max and a gaggle of magically adept individuals. …Who also doubled as mermaid volleyball athletes. Now that the war has ended, the surface and the Frakk are maintaining an amicable relationship, allowing people to freely move between both places, establishing lucrative trade routes, and sharing in each other’s technology.
It is a fantastical setting, and while one might want to thicken their brain muscles to point out how nonsensical it is… that’s kind of missing the point. The writer/creator, Lachlan Snell, is clearly just trying to make a fun and ridiculous setting. And while it is definitely an awkward sell at first, I think it ultimately works.
Firstly, because… the setting is genuinely cool. This is a world where magic is something new, widely accessible, yet poorly understood by humans. A world where full-body transformations are a cheap commodity. A world where monstergirls are both new and fascinating, but also common and accepted enough that people are accustomed to the sight of an 8-foot-tall wolfman or a lady with tentacles for legs. And also a world where science is advancing so fast that an under-funded police station has a holographic AI with enough processing power to cause a robot apocalypse.
It is all buck wild, but when I stop and think things through, and try to break them down… everything makes sense— or at the very least, it makes enough sense. Enough things are explained to prevent the player from feeling completely lost. Characters still act like people, albeit people who have just sort of accepted that there are magical girls who can create an infinite supply of delicious cheese sandwiches. And there are enough allusions to real-life issues that the story never feels too fantastical. Yes, people have the ability to throw fireballs from their hands, and humanity has achieved immortality (sort of). However, the city-wide payment system is still a buggy mess that was commissioned to the lowest bidder, and cops are still busting people for growing weed in disused warehouses.
It all works well enough… but it did take me a good few hours to accept this, and I do think that the “Previously On” segment should have been longer and more informative. This segment is one of the few instances where I feel it is appropriate to call a game developer lazy, because I know Snell could have done better. I get that writing introductions kind of sucks, but it’s the most important part of your game and the main factor that determines if someone refunds your game.
Also, Max has memory problems throughout the entirety of MBB2, and while this could have been used to ease players into this world through the application of an inquisitive protagonist, that’s not really the case here. Max does ask questions throughout the story and steadily learns about what she’s gotten up to this past year. The problem is that she mostly comments with some variation of ‘I don’t remember that’ instead of asking for a detailed explanation. Making these feel more like references than summaries.
Anyway, continuity and world building gripes aside, the most notable difference with the story of MBB2 over its predecessor is that it lacks the narrative through-line of a character dealing with the ramifications of a culturally normalized TSF transformation. At this point, Max has been living as a woman for years now, and it’s pretty clear that the writer, universe, and character have all accepted that she’s going to be stuck this way forever. And considering she is technically an immortal god (I’m not 100% on how that works though), she does not have much to complain about.
Instead, the story takes more of an episodic approach, with most chapters relegating the Scorilite bomber mystery to a B-plot and focusing on… pretty much whatever idea caught Snell’s fancy. From more police-oriented tasks like interrogating everyone who was at a horror-themed theme park and investigating a cult of sea witches on the outskirts of town. To more transformation-oriented escapades, like pursuing a body-stealing succubus and possessing a robot.
It’s an approach that works well with the unabashedly silly tone of the story, and I think it all amounts to a consistently engaging and humorous narrative, filled with a gaggle of likable main and supporting characters. Though, a ‘gaggle’ might be underselling the volume of the cast, which is definitely a bit too much for a game of this scope and genre. I never did a proper count, but I would imagine that the cast of this game consists of over 70 characters, which I think was something of a mistake. While most of the screen time is given to eccentric and lovable weirdos, there are a lot of redundant and fluff characters who feel like they could have been diversified, consolidated, or cut out of the game.
Such as the half dozen or so characters who exist as criminals who routinely get mixed up in get-rich-quick schemes. Or the three kinky super-genius scientist cat girls. …One of whom is a returning character from GBDNATE, but with a different name… that’s one letter away from a minor character’s name… and one letter away from another GBDNATE character’s name.
It is clear that Snell has a lot of affection for his characters, and that he is trying to make a story that feels grand in its scale. In practice, however, I found myself only caring for about twenty or so characters and dismissing everybody else as a glorified cameo. Because that’s not too far off from the truth.
Plainly speaking, I would say that I ultimately liked the story quite a bit, as it was filled with a bevy of good moments, memorable scenes, and nifty set pieces. After writing three (or maybe four) games before this, it is clear that Snell has become comfortable with the act of writing stories for, as he describes it, “ridiculous anime video games.” His banter is solid, his character writing is on point, he knows how to introduce concepts that appeal to his niche audience, and he knows how to tell and structure a lengthy and complete story. After seeing the growth from GBDNATE to MBB to MBB2, I have no doubt in my mind that Snell is very good at what he does.
However, Snell is also effectively the sole creative force behind his projects. As far as I can tell, he does not have an editor to review his script or offer feedback prior to release. This gives his work a very pure and personal feel— like you are stepping into his brain when you play one of his games— Though, it also reads like a story where somebody probably should have said ‘how about we do things this way’ at some point in production. And I worry things will only get more confusing and convoluted as Snell continues to iterate on his creations, forging spin-offs and sequels and spin-offs to the sequels. All as he falls deeper into his own creative well, fueled by an insular community of people who like his games enough to message him and encourage him to keep it up.
That covers the story but MBB2 doubles as an adventure game and life-sim, which manifests in three different flavors of gameplay. The first is a reprisal of the adventure game problem solving of the first title. Segments that task Max to explore a small area, discover and use items to unlock new interactions, chat with characters, and use transformation abilities to her (dis)advantage. But most importantly, you can have Max act like a complete nutso by shoving keychains and schnitzel in people’s faces just to see how they’ll react.
Honestly, these sections were a highlight of the game to me. Every problem is intuitive, there is a lot of extra dialogue the protagonist can have with supporting characters, and there is an effort made to make each investigation section feel unique. Whether that be through a change in setting or circumstance, or by doing something ambitious, like having the player switch between dual protagonists in a single environment.
My only real gripe with these sections is that some maps require the protagonist to go from room A to room B in order to access room C, while others let the protagonist go to any room they please. It is a strange limitation that was so bad in chapter 5 that I wound up using the fast travel spell that repeatedly ‘murders’ Max and causes her to respawn elsewhere. In my defense, it was faster.
The second gameplay styling comes in the form of choosing which character Max should spend their leisure time with. In execution, this is the primary way players amass relationship points with the six romance options. But in execution, these sections are really just sets of 6-ish scenes where Max greets another character, hangs out with them, and then the story progresses. I assume the player is intended to save before these sections, play through all options, then decide which character they want to get relationship points with. Because otherwise, I have no idea why players would choose to hang out with Axon City’s number one endorser of indentured servitude.
On that note, I don’t like the relationship system… because it sucks. I could go on about the merits of creating a linear visual novel with adventure game sections and choosing to encourage people to play through it multiple times for maybe 40 minutes of unique content. I could point out how one of the relationships requires Max to acquire 12 keychains from various chapters in-game. Keychains that Snell, via his in-game avatar, described as “deliberately obtuse and irritating to locate.” But I kind of don’t care, because you can choose who your romance target is at the end of chapter 10, and from there the only variance is seen in chapters 12 and 13.
In chapter 10, you have the ability to farm relationship points, and I was able to max out my relationship points with every character. Here’s my save file for Chapter 10, right before the romance commitment scene. If you want to ignore the relationship mechanics, then go through Chapter 10, ignore the keychains and all point-based malarky, go on the rides, and then load up my save file. Simply extract it into the “Max’s Big Bust 2 – Max’s Bigger Bust\game\saves” directory and overwrite your FIRST save file on PAGE 1. So, yes, this is a problem with the game, but it is a problem that you can solve.
The last gameplay tidbit in MBB2 centers around the in-universe Pokémon Go clone, Insectivirus. A title that takes the form of an intensely simple turn-based RPG where you travel to locations to catch insects using money, battle other trainers to get money, and use money to heal your insects after tough battles. It is incredibly barebones. You can scroll back in combat if you make a mistake. And while I like the insect designs, it all strikes me as such a waste of effort.
It is a shallow echo of a turn-based battle system, which is surprising coming from someone who released a turn-based RPG 2 years before this (though, Snell did get help from FRAG Games). Honestly, I wish that the effort exerted on Insectivirus was invested in… anything else, such as the presentation… which I should probably break down before criticizing.
MBB2 features new character sprites from the artist group PeruDev, but half, if not more, of its cast still uses the sprites drawn by Doku Denpa for MBB and Alluna & Brie. The differences are immediately noticeable, and the game weirdly encourages players to take note of them, thanks to a recap section in chapter 2, where characters bad-mouth the art from MBB. Because if you acknowledge how the older art looks a bit iffy, then that makes it okay to use it, I guess?
Many backgrounds are lifted from MBB and Alluna & Brie, where the backgrounds had a filtered and almost watercolor look to them. However, the new backgrounds introduced in MBB2 are mostly unfiltered photographs and 3D renders purchased from royalty free image sites. Or at least I assume so based on a few samples I plugged into a reverse image search.
Based on these factors, it would be easy to describe MBB2 as being a cluttered mesh of inconsistent art assets. And while some might choose to criticize the game for this more slapdash and inconsistent approach… I personally loved it. I have trekked around the VN gulags a fair bit over the years, and one of my favorite things about the genre is the frugality of independent developers. How they will reuse and recycle assets in order to bring their vision to life, take cheap workarounds, or use public domain assets to fill in the holes.
I find it to be an instance of transparency that makes the game more endearing, and it definitely made me exert more intense emotions than if the game were to use more generic or low-quality custom art assets. That being said, I’m the sort of person who lost her marbles when the background in one room was just a photograph of some towels, so I might be crazy. The only thing better than that was the scene in the bread store where a succubus has sex with a shark god while Groove Grove (which is heavily featured in Student Transfer) plays.
And the only things better than that were the fantasy backgrounds featured in chapter 5, which gave me big Lost in the Limbo vibes. I don’t know how to properly explain it, but I utterly love the fact that there is a background in this game that looks like a Skyrim bullshot. It makes me wish I was making a visual novel so I could also license these images and make my own uncanny popsicle stick dioramas. (But I’m at least 6 years away from doing that, if ever.)
Then there’s the soundtrack, which consists of licensed music from Platinum Sellers Beats and Pond5, along with good old-fashioned royalty free music. Once again, I admire the hustle, and many of the tracks that Snell both jive with the jovial tone of this game and are generally nice to listen to. However, I would have liked to see certain tracks used more liberally, as I’m pretty sure that certain tracks are only used in chapter 14. Which is bad frugality! If you buy the carcass, you gotta use the bones!
I like the game’s more cobbled together approach to presentation… So what was I alluding to 500 words ago? Well, it’s not the assets themselves, but how Snell uses them. While Ren’py as an engine gives developers ample ability to tilt, shake, zoom, move, and adjust sprites to make for more lively scenes, MBB2 instead keeps its presentation mostly static. Characters only stand in one of four-ish spots on the screen, and beyond pixilation, fading, and shaking effects, I do not believe there is any proper animation in this game. Combine this with the thick width of many newer sprites and a lack of secondary poses, and the game feels rigid compared to other small-scale visual novels I could name.
So, if animation is so easy, then why didn’t Snell implement it? Not sure, but if I were to guess, I would say that this omission was probably due to time issues more than anything. Even though MBB2 was an independently produced game, Snell still had personal deadlines to meet, and animation is a time-intensive process, even when it is just moving PNGs up and down. It’s pretty upsetting to see, but I suppose that’s the reality of making your livelihood off of niche visual novels in an increasingly insular universe. …That’s also probably the reason this game only has about 7 unique CGs in total. Which is quite slim for a 25 hour visual novel.
If I had to highlight one thing that holds back Max’s Big Bust 2, it’s that it could have benefited heavily from being given more time and insight. Time to allow Snell to better tune the presentation, better explain the world to players, and make the game’s mechanics less restrictive or less ‘save-scum-encouraging.’ And insight to make the world a bit more digestible to. It’s a title where I feel compelled to trot out the phrase “it’s pretty great once you get rid of the crap.” Because it really is.
The game has oodles of things to love, ranging from its cast of quirk-riddled oddballs to a genuinely fascinating world that probably should be explored in a more serious/direct/honest lens at some point. Hell, its creativity and enthusiastic approach to its subject matter is deeply inspiring to me. It actually got to the point where the game was the sole thing that convinced me to spin-off the epilogue of novel #7 into its own full-blown novel, so thanks for that, Snell!
At the very least, it is quality enough to warrant a recommendation (with an asterisk for having a complicated and under-explained backstory), and enough for me to be decently interested in Lached Up Games’ upcoming titles. …Except for the mermaid visual novel, because I do not like mermaids. Fish girls are cool, but mermaids are the worst furry.