Did we need a sequel?
Clannad After Story is highly regarded as an effective tear jerker among anime fans. Having played through the entire Clannad visual novel I must admit I didn’t enjoy most of the game as I felt it had too many endings that didn’t lead to any meaningful emotional payoffs. It was just a bit too big in scope for its own good. Having said that it did have a few endings which were excellent, such as the After Story. More importantly in this case the ending for the character Tomoyo was one of the strongest ones in the game. Her ending was different from the others in that it felt like both Tomoyo and the protagonist Tomoya had to make sacrifices to their plans of the future in order to be together. It was also an ending which was open ended enough that it made perfect sense to me how you could make an entire game length sequel to it in the form of Tomoyo After.
What it’s about
In Tomoyo After we join Tomoya a month after their ending in Clannad. He’s doing his best working as a junior electrician, and is just about able to pay for his one room apartment. His dream is to be able to make enough to support him and Tomoyo in whatever they decide to do in the future. He knows he’s not going to amount to much more than this professionally, and is determined to make the best of the situation. Tomoyo is focused on college studies as she was always smarter than Tomoya when it came to school work.
The story touches on themes of family, broken dreams, and love being a powerful motivating force. They’re all definitely themes conducive with making the audience tear up, and that is after all the kind of emotions Key have built their reputation on. Early in the story the two of them adopt a girl who is Tomoyo’s half sister. Her father had an affair years ago and, unbeknownst to everyone, had a child in that relationship. Her father is now trying to rebuild his relationship with Tomoyo’s mother, so in order to keep her mother from finding out about this child they take care of her. This child named Tomo and her mother is a big part of the story in Tomoyo After. Finding out just why her mother decided to abandon Tomo after all this time, and who will ultimately take care of Tomo are just a few of the issues they have to deal with.
This main story, and the numerous other sub plots brought up in Tomoyo After were all handled well, and felt like they made sense for the development of the characters and their relationships. Nothing felt as if it was there to pad out the length of the game. Stories being too long for their own good are a common problem in visual novels, as writers are paid for the size of their scripts. This often leads to bits of story which feel utterly pointless and sometimes even repetitive just for the sake of putting more words in there. The best visual novels manage to entertain the audience, even through all the hours of content they’re forced to sit through in order for the writer to get paid properly. In this case Tomoyo After is a much shorter game than other Key titles I’ve played such as Clannad or Little Busters. This helped the pace of the story enormously as their other games tend to have large sections that, in my opinion, don’t add anything to the experience as a whole, and often harm it instead. What we get here is instead the most effective story by Key I’ve played yet, despite some serious problems which I’ll get to later.
Before I started playing Tomoyo After I had heard rumblings that the translation by Doki most likely wasn’t going to be of high quality. It was based on the fact that over 30 translators were credited for it, and keeping a consistent level of quality and “voice” throughout can be very hard with that many on the team. To some extent I think they might have a point, even though it can be hard to tell since I can’t go read the Japanese version and compare. I noticed that Tomoya acted noticeably different compared to Clannad. Did his character change because of the Japanese writers making him different in this game, or is it because the translators interpreted him differently here? All the other characters apart from Tomoya have voice actors, so the actors bring the intended emotions and inflections to the written lines. For Tomoya however it’s different and we have to rely entirely on the script to tell what he’s thinking. Was something lost in translation, or are we getting the intended experience? That’s hard to tell, and we might never know for sure as I doubt there will ever be another translation done of this game than this one. As it is I think what we got is just fine. There are a few instances of poor quality control with lines left untranslated, but on the whole it’s of an acceptable quality. I feel that in the case of Tomoyo After the highest level of quality in translation isn’t necessary.
Visual novels rely on more than just the text to convey the story. If this were a book the quality of the translation would be extremely important, but for each visual and audio element you add in a visual novel, the lower the quality of the writing can be. The extreme end of this process of adding visual and audio elements would be a movie where a story can be told without any words or text at all. Visual novels exist somewhere in the middle between books, games and film, and borrow elements from them all to create something new. The quality of the translation is of course important, but it’s highly dependent on the title itself just how important it is for the end result. In this case I feel the translation is adequate. The obvious mistakes are few and can easily be fixed with an updated translation patch. As it is now the translation is good enough that all the intended emotions of the story are carried across to the player intact. If you disagree with me I’d be glad to hear your take on it, but as I see it this translation is just fine for this title, and I have no problems recommending it.
A huge part of the experience while playing Tomoyo After is the soundtrack. There are almost no sound effects in the game, so the music and voice actors alone have to carry the audio side of the experience. The music is frankly some of the best I’ve heard in any visual novel. It fits the mood of the game perfectly and never grows tiresome to listen to, no matter how many time it loops. There are many good visual novel soundtracks, but I don’t think many of them are what I’d consider great. Often they are clearly meant as generic tracks for certain types of scenes and locations. It’s like every composer was given the same list of song archetypes they had to create, like “going to school”, or “goofy friend”, and “sad scene”.
In Tomoyo After I didn’t feel the same generic feel in the way the tracks were made. It was as if they were created with the story in the game itself in mind, and not just as a run of the mill visual novel soundtrack. As an example of what I mean almost every comic book movie soundtrack has a “comic book movie” sound to it which is instantly recognizable. That’s the generic feel I’m referring to, and Tomoyo After is more like The Dark Knight soundtrack, which sounds as if it was uniquely made for that film. When it comes to music it’s widely accepted that opinions are going to vary wildly. For some the music in Tomoyo After might not be noticeably “better” than in other Key titles or visual novels. But for me it was a big contributing factor in making me care about the story and characters. It would be a far lesser experience without the music, and not have packed the emotional punch it does.
Don’t Play it in Public
An obvious concern with almost all visual novels is the sexual content. I don’t mind it if it’s well integrated into the story as a whole and makes sense for the characters and the moments they occur. It’s rare that any visual novel does it well, and Tomoyo After is unfortunately one of the worst offenders I’ve seen at making the sexual content make no sense.
For example, before the opening you play through a 20-30 minute prologue and it’s here much of the sexual content in Tomoyo After was dumped. I say dumped because it’s essentially one sex scene after another as if the writers just wanted to get it all out of the way before the real story started. It feels pointless and done purely out of obligation. You could probably skip most of the prologue as nothing much of value is found there. It’s only after the opening movie that the story starts for real and you’re reminded of why you’re playing the game in the first place.
After the prologue there’s a huge gap in time before you meet any sexual content again, and when you do it also feels highly inappropriate for the plot. Only one of the scenes in the game is done in perfect harmony with the story around it, and it stands out as an example of how it should’ve been done in the rest of the game.
Should you play it?
If you’re a fan of Clannad, Key, or just a fan of tear jerkers in general you will enjoy Tomoyo After. The prologue is terrible, but once the story gets going it sets a good pace with great music, nice tone and stories that tug at the heart strings. It’s the best visual novel I’ve seen from Key so far, and frankly way beyond what I ever expected them to do. Note that I haven’t played Rewrite so my opinion might change when it’s fully translated. The slightly more mature art style did a lot in making me believe in the characters and what they go through. In Little Busters for example the visual style worked well for comedy, but it became very hard to take some of the characters seriously when the story took a more serious turn.
In other Key games I’ve taken issue with the art style, bloated plot, and overuse of elements like magic to hit certain emotional points with no regard for logic or even the story as a whole. Tomoyo After suffers from none of these issues, and retains the strengths Key usually display in their stories. I don’t care how much of a manly man you think you are, it will make you cry.