Ladykiller in a Bind, the full title of which is My Twin Brother Made Me Crossdress as Him and Now I Have to Deal with a Geeky Stalker and a Domme Beauty Who Want Me in a Bind!!, is an adult visual novel developed and published by Love Conquers All Games and released on Steam late last year. It is heralded as one of the only uncensored (until now) adult VNs on the Steam platform. The novel follows the tale of a girl who goes on a cruise in her brother's place, dressing as him as a disguise, and tasked with pretending to be him and not arousing suspicion. During the cruise the students play a game involving winning votes, generally through sexual or political manipulation, the winner of which will be awarded five million dollars. The novel also has a safe for work version, covering the nude scenes with sweaters.
Recent criticism about the final scenes in the novel have led to rewrites of the last parts of the story, but this review is of the original version without those edits.
Probably the best thing about Ladykiller is the art in the set pieces. Each scene is a static image, with marginally animated characters in front of it. The sets, dining area, a bar, lounge, and state rooms are all very well drawn. Vibrant colors and the interesting architectural details set a stark contrast against the unremarkable character designs in front of them. Several times the background became more interesting for me, over the action in the foreground, when the story became less interesting. There seems to be an architectural influence to the work, like something you'd see in interior design work, or concept designs for a cruise ship.
The contrast, like I mentioned, is the character art. The main characters, and those she interacts with, are unrecognizable from any other generic anime. There's little animation; mostly just slight changes in facial expression or stance. There's little difference between the characters, other than hair styles and clothing. They aren't bad by any means, but there's no distinct style that sets the character designs apart from any others. A positive of note are the variety of body types, at least when it comes to breast size. While all the characters are thin and attractive, even the 'geeky stalker', the novel isn't a wall of huge-breasted sameness. Variety is always good, and in this case the novel gets it right. Personally I wouldn't have minded a curvy girl or two as part of the cast, and perhaps some variety in ethnicity, but that's just my own tastes. Not every bit of media is going to include everything so it's ultimately up to the artist how to deliver the story and art.
The lowest point of the novel's design was without a doubt the music. Going through the scenes was like trying to read a book in a doctor's office waiting room, or stuck in an elevator. While it's undeniable that talent exists with the musician that did the score, what didn't exist is diversity. The novel would have been better served if each scene or character had distinctly different music. As it is the variation that was there just blended together into a repetitiveness that had me pulling my headset off before the end.
While Ladykiller is a visual novel rather than a game, there is a sort of game within the story. When the main character arrives on the ship it's announced that everyone will participate in "The Game", a popularity contest with the winner receiving a 5 million dollar prize at the end. The game is simple. Everyone has a vote, and players are tasked with collecting the votes of others, and all the votes they've collected, by any means necessary. In the story it generally involves sexual manipulation and coercion. At the end of the story, however, the voting results are completely pointless so players can really do whatever so it can't be considered much of a feature. Unfortunately it's the motivation behind most of the coercive sexual encounters, ultimately making them as pointless as the game the characters play.
The second part of the 'gameplay' in the novel is the suspicion points. You can gather up to 5 points before, I assume, you're found out as an imposter. Each scene, and even each conversation option, tells you how many you will gain for following that path. Since you know up front it's a more a matter of deciding how many points you want to gain rather than using any sort of skill to avoid them. You don't have to try and say the right thing, just click the option that tells you that a point will be earned or not. At the end of each day you can have all the suspicion you earned removed by spending the night with one of the characters. Of course, like most of the rest of the story the option to remove your points treats sex like a transaction so be prepared for that throughout.
The last element that seems like it would fit into this area is the touted multi-option conversations that can extend the story. This is entirely an illusion, but one that took skill to craft. On my first play through I chose scenes based entirely on a whim, read through the scenes, and followed the story to the end. The scene cards are presented to you after the question "Where do you spend the morning?", afternoon, evening and so on. Some choices do lock further scenes, and some conversation choices in the scenes open up or lock options throughout that scene. I started the game a second time and quickly realized that the choices are more like pre-filmed scenes in their entirety that you just get to choose the order of. I saw scenes in different order, and watched exactly the same conversations that I'd had on the first go, just in a different sequence. That's where the skill came in. Despite the disappointment in there being no real way to change the story through the choices I made, I realized that the writer did a good job in making each scene work no matter the order. One scene in particular, where you have lunch with several people and flirt with the Stalker, took on an entirely different connotation the second time. The first time through I'd spent two nights with the Stalker and the two characters were already well on their way to being in love. The flirting and playfulness seemed appropriate for a couple starting a new relationship. The second time I got this scene before the main character had even spent time with the Stalker, so it looked more like a dominant personality playfully picking on someone they were attracted to. Besides that as far as I could tell the player's choices during conversations and order of scenes ultimately has no bearing on how the story will progress or turn out at the end.
Like Choose Your Own Adventure on a Bullet Train
The story in Ladykiller is a mixed bag. The beginning and end of the novel are set, with a couple of different epilogues. You can change the order of scenes leading up to the climactic finale, but at the end of the day the choices one makes are just imaginary forks in the road that lead right back to the main path. It's a strange experience for someone used to conversational and story choices leading to different results, reactions from characters, and sometimes completely different endings. It's not helped by the story beginning at the end. Before you even get into the main part of the novel you see the main character tied up and being interrogated by her brother. The rest of the story is a recounting of events during the cruise. It is a clever way to tell a story, but ultimately you know where you're going to end up because of it. It may have served better to be a little more vague about the main character's circumstances at the beginning. Don't show that she's tied up. Just being vague about that one little point would have left some doubt as to where it was going. All you would know is that at the end you'll end up recounting the events to the main character's sibling.
I found the writing to overall run the spectrum from bad fan fiction to good prose, and everything in between. The entire work is in need of a good editor to help trim down the overly expository dialogue in some places, clean up some of the clumsy use of obscure words, and polish the strange wording. In its entirety the story isn't terrible. There's some specific issues that hold it back, but a core problem with the story's plot and ending keep it from being excellent.
First, the good. It's clear early on that the sex scenes are where the writer spent most of their creative effort. At the beginning they can be a little tedious, most of them starting as some sort of quid pro quo manipulation for points, or favors where one partner coerces the other into bed. Once the manipulation is over and both parties are clear on the transaction, often involving a repeated affirmation of consent, then you get to the part of the story that was actually very good. Titillation aside these scenes tended to show the most character development, the best description, and depth of feeling. Characters showed their vulnerabilities and personalities more clearly in those intimate parts than any other point in the story. The writer teases the reader, drawing most of the encounters out just enough without making them too long. I found myself wanting to get to those scenes, not because of the eroticism (that plays itself out after the first couple times), but because they were more interesting parts of the character arcs.
The novel has been criticized before for dragging out the consent aspect and I can see why. Usually after talking someone into the act, either through emotional or political manipulation, the dominant character in the scene will ask repeatedly if the submissive still wants to go through with it. When I was in the role of the submissive through the main character it got to the point where I personally would have been annoyed..."I said yes, how many times do I have to say yes." It's one thing to assure your lover that they can put a stop to the action at any time, but we've already established that none of these relationships or encounters are healthy to begin with. It seems out of character to be the kind of person that would manipulate someone into sex, then be concerned that they might not be into it. Overall the initial part of most of the intimate encounters in the story are strange.
The rest of the dialogue was hit or miss throughout. It's often expository and sprinkled with clumsy use of obscure words that comes off as pretentious at times. I found myself saying several times, "People don't talk like that." One example of many:
"When you cynically set your own petards...I hope you're not surprised when you get foisted upon then."
Tropes and fourth walls
From the beginning the writing breaks the fourth wall by having the characters give you tips on navigating the dialogue options. This is rarely a good idea unless you're intentionally going for a parody of similar work, or Deadpool. It also starts with the end. It's a storytelling technique that works in a movie, book or show, but in a visual novel that purports to give the player a choice, it's counter productive. You know the end right up front, so you know that none of your choices will change it. No matter what you do the main character will wind up right where it all starts. The story does keep the mystery as to how the main character winds up in that situation, but it eliminates any sense that your choices will have any effect.
I found many of the characters to be bad stereotypes, but that's not unusual in works of fiction. Often the writer overcomes that with a better delivery; showing that there is truth in all stereotypes, and the fact that the trope isn't what all people are. Unfortunately there were some scenes that stopped me in mid-thought and had me asking, "Is this a real thing or a bad trope done poorly." One female student says of her female lover, "Of course she's my type, look at how she looks and dresses." Another has that same lover saying it's odd because she doesn't like beer, odd because lesbians like beer, "It's a thing." I stopped, read them again, and wondered what the hell? Saying things like that has always been a huge no-no the way I was raised, but maybe this is an inside joke that I just didn't know. This is meant to be an LGBTQ inclusive visual novel, so I asked some of my LGBTQ friends about it. The response ranged from it being lazy, reductionist, and stupid to a friend on Twitter, GwenLilyKnight, responding with an ironic turn around: "all cis white men love sports ball and vote republican and go to church every Sunday", followed by, "LGBTI folks are lots of different communities and styles, folks keep forgetting because everyone wants to speak for us", and "it's offensive to me."
The plot itself, the actual events behind what's going on with the character's brother, is a bit convoluted and cartoony. It's entirely likely that the intent was to create something a bit over the top but be prepared for it if you pick up Ladykiller. The villainous plans of the brother are just ridiculous. It's like a cartoon parody of a bad Bond villain and their plot. While the mystery of what is going on is kept secret, it could have done with a little more foreshadowing. There are several things wrong with the ship that you don't even get a hint of until the end. More build-up in the mystery would have made the story a little more interesting as you made your way to the end of the cruise.
Toward the end there's one controversial part that the developer recently edited due to complaints. Oddly enough the opening of the story has the Brother asking his sister to tell him the whole tale without "any self-censorship", but in this case art isn't imitating life. The scene is one of the few where you get to see some true development for the main character. She is faced with a real choice, an awful decision between two terrible outcomes. One of the choices she can make leads to a lot of inner discovery, and a note to the reader that nothing is ever as clear-cut as we think. Up to this point she's basically a walking, talking, sexual creature and you don't really get to know much about her except she's trying to act like her brother. For a long time we don't even know why, except something to do with summer school, so we have a hard time figuring out all the motivation except to get pretty girls into bed. Now she has to think of someone else, or think only of herself. If you take the distasteful route of being manipulated into sex, like the main character has been doing to others the entire time, then she has a lot of internal questions that you are privy to. It actually made for one of the more poignant and real parts of the entire story.