Milky Way Prince - The Vampire Star is not a pleasant experience. The subject matter is heavy: expect a story of abuse, manipulation, trauma, self-harm and more, and expect it to leap into that story head-on. These things aren't alluded to or discussed through the veil of metaphor; they aren't themes. They are the entirety of the story, the entirety of the game. With that said, expect this review to talk about those things in some detail, too, so please be aware before you continue reading.
Naturally, the same heads-up is given before you start playing, but in many ways this is something that goes beyond a content warning. My immediate response to Milky Way Prince, after finishing it in a single grim sitting, was to wonder why this game exists - why anyone, in fact, even ought to play it. Even beyond its unpleasantness, Milky Way Prince's depiction is aggressively literal. Plonked into first-person you experience all of this game directly, leaving something that, at your least generous, you could describe as a three-hour trauma simulator.
Why make that, and why play it? The easy answer is a moral one: video games ought to tackle difficult subjects like abuse or trauma, and the representation of them in media is a moral good in itself. That notion is a popular one but it is only half-true, and it's clumsy. The wrong kind of depiction can do more harm than good. More than that, even the right kind is limited - representation for representation's sake can confine a game to the role of courier, hand-delivering a message to you by way of normative, didactic parable. What would the message of Milky Way Prince be, in that case? Nothing any reasonable person doesn't already know.
The real answer, I think, is technique. Milky Way Prince is the work of Italian developer Lorenzo Redaelli and his micro-studio, Eyeguys. It's his first game, initially made for his university thesis and first released on Steam in 2020, only coming to consoles now. And, even ignoring the fact it's a debut, it is masterly stuff. Masterly because by mastering technique you get to skip past the teaching style of storytelling, to the style that aims to explore. To dig at and to challenge. This is the good stuff.
You play Milky Way Prince as Nuki, a young adult who has always longed to find, and fall for, his Milky Way Prince, a fabled lover who seemingly falls from the stars and lands in his lap, inviting him on a quest to fix the universe. Soon enough, you meet Sune, an archetypal Sad Boy, drawn in something like manga style (Redaelli cites manga artist Suehiro Maruo and animated film director Masaaki Yuasa as inspirations), he's delicate and dangerous and damaged, an intoxicating mix for Nuki. You fall into an entirely flawed version of love. What happens next is, in many ways, less important than how.
Nuki and Sune's relationship is quick and vicious. As Nuki you'll work your way through waves of internal monologue, unanimously self-doubting, depressive, self-loathing. You'll repeatedly wake in your room, gazing out at an evolving sky that shifts and swells with the intensity of your obsession. There are a half-dozen things to interact with, adventure game-style, in your room. The nursery rhyme book that opens the story sits on a shelf for you to re-read. You can plink-plonk on a piano, gradually developing an appropriately melancholic tune. You have a pet starfish to mutter to and a bathroom, complete with pills that are never taken, a single remaining spritz of perfume, a toothbrush, and - ominously - a razor.
Seemingly small choices made with things like this will branch Milky Way Prince's story. Before which date do you apply your final bit of perfume? Do you shave, the way Sune apparently likes it? Can you ever take your medication? More consequential though is your choice of dialogue, branching but also ingeniously capricious. To Nuki and to you, Sune is a puzzle to be solved, opening up to the choice of some lines before he suddenly demures, easily and counterintuitively offended. Nuki's response to this is one of growing desperation, to be loved by Sune but also to save him from himself - Sune is, literally and figuratively, a star destined for supernova. Nuki's greatest flaw is to think that he is not only able to stop the onrushing explosion, but that he's also responsible for it.
Nuki's struggle, and the spiralling, out-of-control consequences of it are gripping, if almost unbearably difficult to witness. But again, what matters here is the how of it. Redaelli plays with form relentlessly. Dialogue, for instance, will often shapeshift as you work through it - options will duplicate, repeat, or disappear before you, the right words squirming out of your hands just as you think you've caught them. Sometimes you'll need to hammer the same response over and over, sometimes it's all you're presented with, sometimes you'll see your response from the other side, twisted and obscured, warped to the reality of someone tragically unable to see it.
The simplest of shapes and colours - a couple of concentric circles, a shock of red on black, a crash zoom or a 2D character drawing slowly rotating in the air - can yield extraordinary, outsized results.
Sound, too, is impossible to pin down, veering from lullaby-soft to an oppressive, perfectly deployed silence, to piercing attacks. Most remarkable of all is what Redaelli is able to do with what is ostensibly a very limited set of tools. Milky Way Prince is mostly two-dimensional, sometimes dropping you into 3D spaces like your room or Sune's but rarely letting you move about. But the simplest of shapes and colours - a couple of concentric circles, a shock of red on black, a crash zoom or a 2D character drawing slowly rotating in the air - can yield extraordinary, outsized results.
All of this pulls together most effectively in the most unchartered of territories for video games: sex. Seemingly the final frontier of a medium that can, at least in its mainstream, feel stuck in late puberty, sex in Milky Way Prince is handled with an impressionist metaphor, but one of assured incitfulness. Two stars orbit one another, before a constellation forms of Sune, testing you with a kind of consent questionnaire-cum-intiative check to the tune of: will you always love me? Will you always protect me? A recurring set of questions that mutates, as the story progresses, from a kind of tender mantra, to manipulative phrasing, to overt coercion.
Each time it's followed by five rotating symbols, to represent the senses. Choose one to briefly perceive or do something you can rarely predict - ruminate on the texture of Sune's tongue, open your eyes during a kiss, wonder if you should try biting his neck. These are often dark or absurd little vignettes in Milky Way Prince, but also ones that most effectively capture the real weirdness, the awkward self-consciousness, of how humans think when at their most intimate and exposed. It's a special kind of deliberate ridiculousness, one that takes genuine maturity of thought.
That, above all, is the reason to play Milky Way Prince, and the reason why it exists. Games of this subject matter can at times feel like a kind of development-as-therapy, where the creator exorcises a daemon through the retelling of a personal trauma. That can be an almighty powerful experience; it can also, on occasion, feel a little crass. Milky Way Prince moves somewhere beyond that, to a place where it can resonate with, and ideally also challenge its audience. But subject matter aside, you should play this for the same reason you might watch the early, uneven short-features of great directors, or read the first scrappy, hundred-page novels of a favourite author: to experience a prodigal talent, just as they begin to discover what they can do.
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