It didn’t surprise me that, when searching for Transcenders’ Knife Sisters on the Steam store, I failed to find anything without prior allowing for ‘adult only’ content to be displayed. Initially, I had made the same assumption as the algorithms; the moment I saw ‘BDSM’ in the description I visualized the series of tasteless sex scenes interspersed with poorly-written dialogue that so many visual novels are guilty of hosting. Knife Sisters does not suffer from such a pitfall: it presents respectful, consensual moments between its unprecedentedly diverse range of characters. Regardless, for people who find such content uncomfortable, it makes up a major portion of the game and as such is not wholly avoidable.
The other major portions come together to form an incredibly strong story; part slice of life, part occult mystery. Spending six weeks with protagonist Leo (They/Them), you’ll hang out with the members of your commune, your childhood friend, and your curious new housemate Dagger (She/Her). While Leo lives their life bunking from lectures, partying every Friday and having several romantic and sexual encounters based on your decisions, they are also dragged into Dagger’s rituals at the end of the week, in which she communicates with the titular Knife Sisters as you discover more about her own history. Alternatively, they can stay in and receive advice from their talking teddy named Kylo Zen (no, there isn’t any explanation for this character’s sentience nor his peculiar yet familiar name).
There is an air of acceptance held here that becomes apparent over time: a world where queerness isn’t shunned or isolated is the kind of comfort a game can give to somebody not fortunate enough to live in such a world. Knife Sisters undoubtedly succeeds at this and builds an entertaining and important narrative with its characters and concepts. Leo’s struggles, as well as those of the entire cast, are laid out believably in a way that makes the positive points of their lives even more enjoyable to play through. The journey from beginning to end can see Leo either open up tremendously as a person, or retreat further into the comforts of their own little home.
Putting the plot aside, Knife Sisters shines as a visual novel by reshaping the usual formula into a much more realistic depiction of Leo’s thought process. The six in-game weeks are split into six chapters, in which the player decides where to go and who to visit. Instead of having dialogue come to a halt as a number of responses or choices flash up on the screen, these options instead appear (and disappear) gradually as Leo ponders upon what they should say. The option to let every choice fade away and either say nothing or have Leo independently decide what’s best is always available. The influence of 2015’s Ladykiller in a Bind is felt here, just as much in terms of mechanics as thematic material.
However, Knife Sisters develops the standard structure of its predecessors further than ever, lending an incredibly accurate human aspect to the process of choosing what to say to progress. Attention to the nature of consent during scenes involving BDSM is benefited by the dialogue system hugely, allowing the player to dictate how far a certain scene should go if it should even occur at all. As you play you can gain both ‘essence’ and ‘anxiety’ points based on choices and events. Acquisition of the former can help reduce the latter, and if high enough the latter can prevent certain dialogue options from being available to select. Much like reality, if Leo is too anxious they will not feel able to be forward in a conversation, instead opting for more vague responses. Essence and anxiety, in turn, affect Leo’s general state of mind – allowing the player to get a vague idea of what kind of situations they will be more likely to run into or be forced to reject.
For a game set completely in black and white, it is exploding with visual personality. The illustrations perfectly suit the tone of the game, with every character being instantly recognizable and specific scenes are drawn out with just enough detail to allow your mind to do the rest of the work. The same applies to the backgrounds; there is just enough shown to give you a glimpse of the many places Leo finds themself in, but a minimalist layout often intentionally blurs the line between what is a peaceful and what is a hostile environment. Art is strikingly similar to the Wet Moon series, an inspiration cited by the developers, both in its diversity and its balancing on the line between conventional ugliness and prettiness.
Knife Sisters develops the standard structure of its predecessors further than ever, lending an incredibly accurate human aspect to the process of choosing what to say to progress
The contrasting tranquility and tension in the story are conveyed further by the excellent soundtrack: a mixture of ominous reverberated bass and reassuring acoustic guitars topped off by the sedated club tracks enriched through vocal samples from the outstanding credits song ‘The Blood of an Innocent’. The warping, slowing down and fading of the piece is used to great effect during instances such as an increase in anxiety. Headphones are highly recommended, in order to hear the full depths of the buzzing distortion as the chords progress, which may otherwise make it, in the words of composer Douglas Holmquist, ‘hard to tell if you’ve blown your speakers or not’. Needless to say, Knife Sisters features a beautifully experimental serving of audio delights, which adds an essential dimension to the game’s own atmosphere.
The developers operate from Sweden wherein Knife Sisters’ themes of sex and sexuality are far less taboo to portray compared to the rest of the West. As such, the efforts taken to see this game get published the way it did are commendable, even despite the title not quite being as accessible to a wider audience as it deserves. The numerous paths you may take pave the way for a multitude of endings, and each experience will leave you wanting more, as the song goes. Knife Sisters handles a lot of difficult material, whilst retaining stylish looks, sound and gameplay: something not many visual novels can attest to.