Review: Goodbye Volcano High

Somehow, I would up reviewing five different visual novels and/or games with more direct focuses on narratives over this past month or so. My twisted take on a Summer reading list, I suppose. We’ve seen Venba, Stray Gods, The Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood, and Videoverse, and now things end with Goodbye Volcano High, the latest title from KO_OP. Appropriately enough, it seems to combine several elements from all of those previous titles, be it interactive musical numbers, people worrying about an uncertain future, teenage drama and more (including tarot cards at certain points, even). But does this mean that this finale will go out with a bang thanks to this unique story about…well, going out with a bang?

Goodbye Volcano High centers around Fang, a teenage student in a version of our modern world populated entirely by dinosaurs, ready to start their senior year of high school. Well, not all that ready, as they’re more preoccupied with the news that they’ve landed an audition for a prestigious Battle of the Bands competition that could propel them and their friends’ band, Worm Drama, into greatness. Nothing could stop them now…except for the fact that their friends have changed a bit over the summer, and may have new priorities in life, which Fang has to confront in one way or another. Oh, and the giant asteroid that’s apparently set to hit the earth and destroy anything. That could possibly get in the way as well.

As mentioned back during our preview of the game at PAX East earlier this year, the game was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and not just when it came to development. School life has drastically changed during this era, and the coming-of-age tale in Goodbye Volcano High expertly reflects that mood, what it feels like to have all of your plans the year suddenly derailed, everything suddenly being brought to a standstill. How exactly does one cope with such a world, the possibility that things might never be the same again? Fang’s story delves into such issues, and in a nice parallel, does so before the asteroid even becomes a more well-known threat.

Yes, the asteroid’s presence is made to the characters of Goodbye Volcano High early on, but in the early stages where things are more uncertain, we get to see a nice range of reactions to the news. Some characters turn nihilistic, wondering what the point is if the world is seemingly doomed. Some are trying to theorize what could happen and are trying to be more logical, debating whether or not the asteroid would even hit if it would be a threat. Then there are the ones who acknowledge this issue, discuss it, and maybe even joke about it, all while trying to go about their everyday lives. It’s great to see such a wide range of emotions from everyone, including those through the in-game social media app, how Fang reacts…well, that’s up to the player.

Goodbye Volcano High’s gameplay mainly boils down to standard multiple-choice dialogue gameplay, where you pick Fang’s responses and thus decide how they react to each bit, with certain choices leading to certain paths, with a little alignment chart showing just how close they are to each of their friends (including their seemingly more professional brother, Naser). It works particularly well here, though, especially since the options you choose from take the forms of Fang’s inner thoughts and feelings. In a particularly nice touch, certain dialogues boxes have touches like fire for anger, heartbeats for romance, shrunken text for fear and more.

You even have to commit to major choices by holding down the triggers on a controller, as if to emphasize things, and there are even moments when the interface gets screwed with a little, with choices switching to static and changing if there’s ever a situation where things are clearly getting too chaotic for Fang. It’s just a bunch of terrific little details that feel like they capture the mind of a teenager at such a point in their lives. And even from the start, Fang has to try and deal with the feeling that their two best friends and bandmates, Trish and Reed, don’t even care about Worm Drama anymore. Notably, both are on the opposite ends of things, with Reed seemingly caring less in general, and Trish focusing more on studying, babysitting and developing a deeper interest in entomology as they take care of their new worm, Mango (meaning they’ve moved on to actual worm drama).

The cast is particularly superb, delivering up a nice and colorful cast of teenagers with a good assortment of different personalities and quirks, from the more peppy and pastel-colored Sage and Stella, to the sweet and nerdy Naomi, plus the more rebellious Fang, of course, though whatever direction you can take them in tends to feel perfectly natural. The voice acting is top notch as well, and the cast also tends to have a great amount of chemistry with each other, especially during events like one of Reed’s session of Dungeons and Dragons –– sorry, Legends and Lore — where every character gets to show off a part of themselves in one way or another. These sessions also demonstrate the nice sense of humor the game has, especially with Reed’s snark as the game master and narrator.

These sessions provide a sweet little art shift and take a detour into mini-game territory, compete with a few other cute bits like having Fang design Worm Drama’s new logo and poster, or helping them pose for Picture Day. Of course, the biggest gameplay shift, first and foremost, are the rhythm game segments, where you have Fang performing the new songs they craft for the Battle of the Bands over the game (in a particularly nice touch, there are moments where the player gets to help decide the lyrics to a particular song along the way, complete with help from a potential crush at one point). They’re great, easy to learn, perfectly challenging, and most important of all, feature terrific music, with the indie rock/pop soundtrack having a ton of gems on it.

Visually, Goodbye Volcano High has terrific character designs as well, using a nice mix of different dinosaur species and some great color palettes. The animation is limited, though, but that doesn’t harm things, especially as the writing and dialogue is superb enough to not require any massive amounts of visual flair. Fang’s journey as they try to achieve their lifelong dream while also trying to focus on their friends and the big changes in their lives is a grand one, especially as it takes several twists and turns, maybe even leading to new relationships along the way. It’s just a terrific tale about teenage life in the face of potential armageddon.

There are a couple of things keeping Goodbye Volcano High from achieving true greatness, though. For one, there’s the fact that the finale drags on for about forty minutes or so, even after it feels like every major character arc has been concluded, and you know exactly where things are pretty much going. The other thing is that the game could have used more polish on the technical side when it came to a few things. Some characters had a bad habit of popping into frame, some bits of spoken dialogue would get cut off at the very end, sometimes characters wouldn’t move their lips when sinking, and quite a few more similar issues. A couple of these moments wouldn’t be bad, and it’s not like they impacted gameplay, but these issues happened too frequently to the point where they got distracting.

Still, Goodbye Volcano High succeeds thanks to the strength of its story, which also encourages multiple playthroughs in order to explore different connections and paths, or unlock different collectible photos (though it seems easy to get a satisfying ending on your first try). It turns out the end time allows for a lot of depth when it comes to exploring teenage drama, who knew?

Closing Comments:

Goodbye Volcano High is a terrifically-crafted slice of high school drama that succeeds thanks to the strength of its lovable cast of characters, amazing music and a sweet story about perseverance in the face of uncertainty, be it the possibility of your best friends moving on or the possible end of the world. It’s one to recommend, and while it may not be this year’s greatest visual novel (if only because the genre has a lot of heavy hitters this year), it is one that does indeed cap off the summer gaming season with a bang.

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