Visual novels haven't historically made much of a splash outside of Japan. It's only been in relatively recent times that titles like Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward have shown Western gamers that reading can be fun - especially when mixed together with simple game elements like puzzles and branching paths. Brave Rock Games' The Stonecutter claims to carve out the first spot in this niche genre on Wii U, at a budget price, but calling it a "visual novel" feels like an unwarranted kindness; it's as empty and depressing an experience as you'll ever find on the eShop. Note that this studio has had a previous similar game...

"The Stonecutter" is actually a famous Chinese folk-tale, one that shares many similarities with - but also key differences from - "The Fisherman and His Wife," a comparable Western fairy tale recorded by the Brothers Grimm. Like the Grimm tale, the message of "The Stonecutter" reflects the old adage "the grass is always greener on the other side," although it lacks the moralization of the former story, preferring to take a more distant and philosophical approach.

You may find yourself wondering exactly how such a simple tale that's already been told countless times translates to the medium of video gaming. The short answer? It doesn't. Brave Rock's Wii U version retells the story exactly as it was translated by Laure Claire Foucher in the 1917 compilation Stories to Read or Tell from Fairy Tales and Folklore, complete with a public domain reading of the narrative that - while nice to hear aloud - lacks the energy and enthusiasm of compelling oral storytelling.

The only differences brought to the table are in the artwork, which consists of cheap-looking drawings pasted haphazardly against photographs, and the decision-making element - described with the phrase "Multiple endings, choose your own path" on Nintendo's official page for the game. This is, to put it nicely, a rather charitable assessment of the content on offer: these "choices" are little more than opportunities for the player to make an incorrect choice, abruptly ending the adventure and forcing them to start over on the story's normal path. It's a cheap gimmick that adds precious little to an already bare-bones package, and the average player will have seen all there is to see of The Stonecutter in 15 minutes or less.

Conclusion

The Stonecutter is a depressing experience. It's one of the most scant and lifeless products on the Wii U eShop to date, a flimsy reinterpretation of an age-old tale that shoehorns in laughably negligible "gameplay" elements to adhere to the standards of the visual novel genre. While the story itself isn't bad, it's available for free viewing and listening all over the Internet - and unlike this version, there aren't any forced Game Over screens on your way to the ending.