Rydawg’s Bangin’ Summer or: With the Power of Koikatsu and Science, We Shall Become as Gods!
As a TSF/TG/gender bender visual novel enthusiast, I am always on the lookout for new TSF games to cover, and Cellular Shift is one that has been on my list for… almost a full year now. Dang, I knew my review schedule was getting bad, but this is just getting ridiculous. Anyway, I think it is high time to see what this fairly obscure VN has to offer, so let’s begin!
Part 1: Premise and Purpose
From the outset, Cellular Shift sets itself up as a fairly vanilla TSF story. Riley Watson is a college student who is given a mysterious serum from his experiment loving childhood friend, and wakes up the next day to discover that they have transformed into a girl. Doing so turns Riley’s humdrum life as a college student into one where every acquaintance and friend is suddenly eager to have sex with them. Or in other words, it’s basically the nth permutation of the plot of X-Change… At least that was my first impression.
By day 5 of the story, and about 3 hours into the game, Riley learns that their transformation is irreversible. At this point, Riley already decided that she is perfectly happy spending the rest of her life as a woman, and even gets the gender marker on her ID changed the very next day. With this, the whole TSF element kind of… stops being relevant, and the game keeps on going for another 10 to 12 hours.
Okay, so if the story is not about Riley coming to terms with her transformation or undoing it, then what is Cellular Shift about? Um… that is a very good question, and I have a hard time answering that, as the game is trying to do several things at once.
The most obvious answer is that it is a story about self-discovery and Riley coming to terms with her new life as she breaks out of her shell and goes on a (bangin’) summer adventure. But despite being a psychology and philosophy student at university, Riley is not a very analytical person. The deep psychology of sex, sexuality, gender, identity, and more never come up once. And there is no philosophizing about the morality or nature of the decisions she makes. She’s pleasant enough, and her personality does gain layers depending on what actions she takes, but she never feels as textured or deep as I would like.
Instead, the self-discovery angle mostly takes the form of Riley having lots of increasingly kinky sex. Now, she does not really discover or learn much about herself through this. She just… does it.
As time goes on however, the story begins placing an increasing amount of focus on a far more developed side plot. One that follows Mother, a disgraced scientist who was rejected from her community for conducting human experiments, and has since amassed immense resources. Resources that allow her to transform people, grant them superhuman capabilities, and potentially usher in a new era of humanity.
Riley, being someone with a unique cellular makeup, is of great interest to Mother, and she begins routinely kidnapping Riley. A move that, one, justifies a bunch of kinkier sex scenes, and two, allows Mother to mold Riley into a potential ally while feeding her bits of information. It is such a more interesting and developed storyline that I think it is supposed to be the main one.
…However, in addition to the self-discovery and Mother angles, the Cellular Shift also wants to build an expansive world with over two dozen named characters. Characters who are, occasionally, the focal point of the story, and not for any clear reason. This results in a lot of superfluous and filler scenes, such as one where the mother of three characters are sitting around, talking about their jobs, and drinking wine. They barely discuss Riley, they do not know anything about the greater conspiracy, and they are so tertiary that I cannot imagine why a writer would want to include them.
I think the most generous interpretation of the story is that it is about Riley’s utterly insane summer break. One where she discovers who she is, has loads of sex with a growing polycule of bang buddies, gets involved in an evil plot that could change the world forever, destroys a gang, and gets super-powers because of her borked up genetics. …But at that point, I am looking so far beyond the text that I am thinking about what it could be— what I want it to be— and not what it actually is.
The story of Cellular Shift is one of immense creative ambition. A story that wants to do so much, but struck me as the creation of someone with little in the way of experience or developed skills. In many ways, it reminds me of the novellas I wrote back when I was a teen. A work fueled by desire to make something vast, flushed with a plethora of characters, and filled with everything the creator considers ‘cool,’ yet executed with the grace of an amateur.
…Which isn’t meant to be an insult. Everybody is an amateur at some point.
Part 2: Presentation and Programming
Something that I have noticed in my regular perusing of TSF works is that, over the past few years, there has been a dramatic rise in creators using Koikatsu and Chara Studios to create TSF comics. Creators like Moonlly, MassManic, SigmaGal, Kawaii Tsun’aho, A Rubber Ducky, Shiyin, Tira, and others I’ve discussed on Natalie.TF in the past. Personally, I think this is a fantastic tool, as it allows a larger pool of voices to contribute to the TSF genre by creating comics. Or, in this case, video game assets.
With Cellular Shift, its decision to use Koikatsu to render its assets is actually what drew me to the game in the first place, as I was curious how the game would use this boon to enhance the experience. In practice though… it’s complicated.
Before I talk about the presentation itself though, I want to talk about how the assets are used. Rather than use character sprites with various expressions and outfits from Koikatsu, the game’s visual presentation is made up entirely of CGs. Scenes rendered in Koikatsu that have been exported as almost 5,000 1920 by 1080 JPEG files, which the game flips through about every one to four lines.
Aside from the not so wise decision to use lossy JPEG files and the time saving decision to not break up its CGs a la games like Student Transfer, this is an interesting choice. One that allows the game to be far more visually diverse than a typical visual novel, while ditching animation for something created outside of the game itself. It actually kind of reminds me of how Class of ’09 handled its audio, and is a neat programming shortcut.
In practice though, part of me thinks the game might have been better if it had a more traditional VN format. At least for the ‘dialogue scenes.’ Why do I say that? Well, because I think it would make for better framing a lot of the time, and encourage a more diverse range of expressions.
Cellular Shift makes regular use of shot/reverse shot scenes where it switches between the same two ‘base’ images during a conversation, which is just jarring to look at after a while. The game sometimes adopts a framing reminiscent of a traditional VN, and these are by far the most digestible dialogue scenes.
Expressions, meanwhile, are a far cry from a lot of other VNs I could name. Despite having access to a toolset with a robust range of expressions, a lot of character expressions tend to be neutral or reserved in a way that I found… surprising. I would ask why more diverse expressions weren’t used, but I think the answer is just that it would require exporting more scenes.
As for the assets themselves? Well, it’s Koikatsu without many bells or whistles. You have these anime character models that look like they could be from a game that was simultaneously released for PS3 and Vita. Basic, geometrically simple 3D environments. While the textures… are pretty much all over the place. A few are high resolution photographs that overwhelm players with their hyper-realism. Some are low resolution photographs that are stretched and filtered over objects far too large for them. Others are more typical or ‘traditional’ textures that loosely match the general anime aesthetic. And then there is stuff that looks like it came with the cheapest asset pack from the Unity store.
Honestly… I kind of love the aesthetic of Koikatsu environments. The character models look absolutely ‘good enough’ even in their rawest or worst form. While the world… it’s like if Sonic Adventure and Natsuiro High School had a baby… A sexy baby! While I can identify the visual shortcomings, they are more like fun quirks than anything, and make these environments compelling to see as they are repurposed by creators over, and over, and over again. It’s better to be bad than it is to be bland!
However, I should also mention that, while the majority of the game uses what I believe to be ‘stock’ assets, the developer actually invested in a new set of models for the game. Created by fellow Koikatsu TF creator Smexy Smonk, these models don’t appear until the final hour of version 0.6.6, and my thoughts on them are more mixed. These models are of a higher quality and less visually limited than what was seen beforehand, but one thing about them bugs me.
Most of the cast went from looking like they are in their early twenties— because they are— to looking like they are in their thirties. Riley went from looking young to having a face and body I would typically expect of a MILF character. Supporting character Clara went from looking like an 18-year-old goth-ish pothead to a 28-year-old mom who spent 3 years as a coke whore. Superpowered assassin Mr. Shadow went from looking like a femboy to a hot 30-year-old dude. While Detective Draimon, a character I assume to be in her thirties… looks like she lost a decade, somehow.
I probably would not mind if the entire game were using these models, but re-rendering and re-exporting over four thousand images would be a days-long process in the best-case scenario. So I wouldn’t imagine the developer is in a rush to do that level of busywork.
Next, I would talk about the music… but there is none.
The game has a few sound effects, and they’re perfectly fine, but if you want any music, you need to supply it yourself. This always strikes me as an understandable yet odd omission from creators, as music plays such a big role in establishing theme and tone, and it is not that hard to find royalty-free music. But whatever. Personally, I wound up listening to The Infamous by Mobb Deep, a modified version of the Digimon: The Movie soundtrack, and this one bimbo playlist. It sounds like a weird combo, but it made for an appropriate score. Whatever that means.
Part 3: Structure and Game-ness
Unlike the sprawling web of decisions seen in games like P.D.A. – Personal Data Altercator, or a series of discrete branches like Chromo XY, the structure of Cellular Shift is more like a later Telltale Games title. An extensively linear chapter-based experience with dozens of smaller choices and a few major choices, but few that meaningfully change the narrative. Chapters begin and end the same way regardless of the variables triggered, and the only difference between two wildly different playthroughs are certain optional scenes and bits of flavor text.
In fact, a lot of choices in this game are not really choices, as much as they are options to skip certain content. As in, a character offers Riley to have sex, and the player is given the option to engage in the act and enjoy a sex scene, or decline and get shuffled off to the next scene.
This format is also why I chose not to make my usual flowchart for this game. Because the variation is so light and choices are so minor (in the game’s current form) that I don’t think this game really needs a flowchart. However, I did use Graphify by nexoq, a utility for creating Student Transfer scenario flowcharts, to create flowcharts for Cellular Shift. Which you can find here in PDF and PNG format. Fair warning, the resolution of these files is massive. Fun fact, Graphify actually works for a lot of Ren’py games. you just need to use UnRen.bat to decompile them and possibly modify the script files.
Tangent aside, I think the structure of Cellular Shift is a far better way to develop a ‘completable’ project. Yet this fixation on a linear story and the simplistic presentation makes me wonder why this is a game. Because this could very well be a comic instead. …And it would probably be better if that were the case.
While Cellular Shift offers some freedom and level of choice, its decision to tell a largely linear story and use of what are, effectively, comic panels, does not endear it to the medium of a video game. Playing through the game feels more like reading a comic than any other VN I have ever played due to its framing and lack of animation. And upon looking at the underlying script of the code, it is easily the least ‘programmed’ game I have ever reviewed.
With the same or a comparable level of effort, I believe that the game could be just as good, if not better, if it were a comic. …And that would probably make it more approachable to a wider audience. Because more people are willing to read a comic they find on Pixiv or E-Hentai than play a game they need to download and play through.
Part 4: Writing and Creativity
I already talked about the structure of the game, but let me dial back and talk about the writing. The writing, as a whole, is fine. Scenes play out fairly quickly, dialogue is serviceable, and the script is largely free from glaring typographical or grammar errors. However… What is the most generous way I can put this? The script of Cellular Shift strikes me as a sort of rough draft, rather than something finalized.
Many characters don’t feel as if they have a fully developed voice and persona to call their own. There are a lot of boring filler scenes that do not add much. Sex scenes are hindered by a lack of prose, flavorful descriptions of sexual acts, and detailed dialogue, with the script often opting for what I call ‘porn panting.’ And while there is a creative energy at the core of the project, I often felt as if the creator didn’t quite know what to do with this energy.
That is not to say that the game is bereft of anything good, interesting, or inspiring. While it starts off as a subpar and boring affair, the quality and energy of the writing does improve as time goes on. With my favorite section being day 12 (of 15). I almost don’t want to spoil it, but it epitomizes the best this game has to offer, so… screw it!
Day 12 opens up with Riley chillin’ with her homies, coppin’ some purple threads, when she checks on her new friend, only to see this girl sucking her own fat cock! It’s full-on futanari autofellatio, in a gosh darn dressing room, and it’s as cool as it is hilarious! After getting moist from that fly ish, Riley gets abducted by a superpowered serial killer and wakes up in Mother’s bunker, with her high school bully tied up before her. In my version, Riley beats this dilweed’s ass raw with a bullwhip, and smacks him till he pukes. For her brutal performance, mother congratulates her, and Riley then wakes up on the streets, where she heads over to her friend Raven’s place. Following some light chatting, the two indulge in a BDSM sex scene that ends with Riley slurping up her friend’s plentiful lady cum. Like a good pet.
Already plenty satisfied, Riley and Raven head out to the park, meet up with some other characters, smoke some weed, and then hit up a Burger King for mad munchies. Then there’s a scene where a character’s mother, so wine drunk she can’t even walk straight, flops onto her couch, yanks out her coochie, and just starts squirting, because that’s also hilarious. This would be a fine enough time to end it but, then Riley goes to bed, high as a kite, before waking up… IN SPACE!
There, she is confronted by the forces of light and darkness who judge her on her decision to comply with the morally dubious organization who wishes to turn human beings into gods. And then we get a flashback showing the serial killer from earlier killing a pharmaceutical executive who impeded Mother in her quest to turn human beings into gods. The serial killer kills him without lifting a finger, ‘cos he’s a straight G like that.
As someone who has written a lot of outlines for stories, and written a lot of stories— at least half of which are shit— this, this right here? This is a good outline. Anybody who came up with this has a firm, girthy noggin on their shoulders, and the power to create something truly great.
If the developer could channel the creative energy and variety from this day into the rest of the game, then I would probably love Cellular Shift. …Yet even this high point is still propped up with a lot of boring filler, flat dialogue, and underwritten sex scenes.
I sometimes say that a game could stand to go through another round of editing, but Cellular Shift needs a full-on editor. Someone to help the sole developer work out some of their worst tendencies and push them in the right direction. Part of me wants to be that person, but the last time I tried to help out a TSF creator with their writing skills, I wound up $15,000 poorer…
I really want to love Cellular Shift. The project has a clear passion behind it, I adore many of the ideas it plays with, and I find the ambition behind the project to be both commendable and admirable. Unfortunately, the writing, presentation, and general structure all have rough edges, and I’m still not sure what exactly the game is trying to accomplish. I hope that with time and some restructuring the game can be shaped into something special, as I know it has the framework and foundation to be something great. But in its current form, I simply cannot recommend it.