I didn’t go to school in the US during the first decade of the 21st century, nor am I female, so Class of ’09 isn’t a nostalgia trip or in anyway relatable for me. I’m pretty sure it’s not a factual recreation of high school life for 16 year olds either… though it feels mightily familiar after seeing dozens of American Pie-style movies over the years. It’s also not exactly what I expected from a visual novel, and it’s a hell of a lot darker than its cartoon exterior belies. Don’t be so quick to write off what looks like an anime angst fantasy from the outside; it’s a surprisingly funny, unexpectedly deep and mildly traumatising view of the perils for teenage girls as they navigate the end of their time in formal education.
Nicole isn’t a novice when it comes to moving around the country to a new school. For one reason or another she’s been the new kid a number of times, and after a family tragedy forces the latest relocation, she’s decided that the fresh start is going to be done her way. Clever, insightful, pretty and with a very bitchy tongue, her potential new friends and teachers need to watch out when she hits the hallways. Nicole knows that hot girls have it easy and she’s going to use that to her full advantage… or she isn’t. That’s up to you. Class of ’09 is a visual novel that plays out simply enough, requiring only the odd decision from you to guide the story and find a way to get Nicole through her last 3 years of high school in one piece with her dignity intact.
The dialogue in Class of ’09 is fully voiced and the writing ties it directly into the time period it’s trying to portray – think Clueless! with a tonne more swearing and you’ll have the gist. Nicole is feisty, engaging and mean all at the same time, and uses her wit and sass in whichever direction you point her. The decision points that pop up are clear and link into the ongoing conversation, so it feels relatively seamless. Outcomes can be quite small and inconsequential and look like they’re just moving you forward, but come back round later on to have an impact on the story. Some are literally the difference between life and death, and you’ll only see them if you play through again making alternate choices.
The downside of some of the decisions is that they might not gel for a single playthrough, and I found scenarios coming up that felt like I needed more backstory. With a thread involving the gym teacher that clearly Nicole had been responsible for getting fired cropping up, it was like coming into a movie halfway through, and with no ability to rewind and get some more info. I’d obviously taken a different path during the first act and that meant I’d not caused the right event to happen, so I’m not sure if it was a branching glitch. Mostly though, Class of ’09 works well to make you think about action and consequence as you’re deciding on the course of Nicole’s life, and playing it by second guessing the desired outcome is probably going to take things in a direction you won’t expect.
Class of ’09 doesn’t pull any punches when tackling the tough issues: suicide, bullying, rape, racism and sexualisation are all covered in one form or another. Whether they get a clear enough message about how abhorrent they are is up for debate though. With the decisions in your hands there is the option, in a way, to gloss over the appalling behaviour witnessed, though doing so is when Nicole is likely to end up with the worst outcomes in the game. Clearly the characters don’t agree with these socially repugnant topics, and in not shying away from them the developers are highlighting their near daily impact during our formative years. Yet I can’t help but think there should have been something a little stronger as a rebuke to seeing other characters acting in particular ways.
It’s a short distraction is Class of ’09, and a fairly entertaining one at that. Working your way through this social acceptance sim sounds easy, but it manages to get dark fast, and even shock when it’s not expected. It is funny, laugh out loud so at times, largely due to Nicole’s absolute disregard for people’s feelings. If you’re looking for a visual novel with a bit of a difference, and one that’s built for short bursts instead of reading reams of text, it’s worth giving this a shot. Be careful if you were on the receiving end of the mean girls in high school though, even manipulating them into getting a deserved comeuppance might raise some repressed emotional trauma.
A Steam review code for Class of ’09 was provided by SBN3’s PR team, and the game is available now on Android, iOS and PC for around £11 depending on platform.
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