The Many Deaths of Lily Kosen: Game Review

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from horror movies, it’s never to go camping with your friends. Inevitably, something’s going to come out of the woods. And that thing, whatever it may be, will tear the friendship group apart.

After a brief prologue, it’s at this lakeside campsite that visual novel The Many Deaths of Lily Kosen kicks off. Four friends – quiet nerd Hannah, persuasive Gabriel, and the unforgettable, baseball-bat wielding Victoria V. Valentine, along with the player – go on a camping trip to the lake. It’s here that past events come back to haunt them. Early in the game, it’s revealed that a ritual-gone-wrong to help their friend Lily, ended up in her death.

But not for long.

Lily is back, baby. And with a vengeance. Possessed by a demon, she continuously resurrects each time the players try to kill her. Along with your high school friends, you’ll need to figure out a way to defeat the demon, while managing your stress levels, and that of your friends.

What seems like an easy narrative-based game becomes much harder as the game progresses. Depending on your choices, it’s very easy to die, and lose your friends along the way. I had to replay several times in order to get to an ending where I survived. Despite some of the light tone, don’t be fooled – The Many Deaths of Lily Kosen is a horror game.

Key to your survival is managing the stress mechanic well. At certain points you can choose to speak to your friends, which opens up their characters. Your choices may or may not reduce their stress levels. And sometimes we all just need some ‘me’ time. It’s essential to spend time on yourself if you want to survive Lily’s constant attacks.

The first time I played, I put too much effort into keeping my friends alive. Really, I should have been focussing on myself. Late in the game, I ran into a lot of trouble passing stress tests. The inevitable Game Over screen nagged me for ages, until I restarted the narrative.

Towards the end of the game, a particularly clever piece of narrative design tripped me up. When I figured it out, I felt both simultaneously dumb and smart. It’s the kind of thing I’d seen before in Quantic Dream games, but hadn’t expected it here.

Even though Lily Kosen is a small independent game limited by its scope, I would have liked to see more choices (or the illusion of choice), throughout the story. Every time the player is questioned or offered a choice, the player should be able to make that choice. For example, you’re asked ‘tell me what you’re thinking’, but not given a choice to express what you’re thinking. Another example is the choice to attend or ditch class – it’s an implied choice made for the player. Understandably, this may have made the game bigger than the intention of the developers.

The game is made by independent Melbourne studio Too Many Teeth, and the Australian influence is felt in the dialogue. While the well-drawn characters and backgrounds are inspired by Japanese manga, the characters have a distinctly Australian humour to them. Laughing in the face of danger? No wuzzas mate.

The strength of the game is in how each character is well defined by their dialogue. Each one speaks in a different manner, the written voice is easy to imagine. It’s hard not to like Victoria Valentine, ready to rebel at any opportunity. Even Gabriel grew on me as the game progressed. Hannah was as frustrating as she was intended to be; the friend who doesn’t stand up for herself and broods, expecting everyone else to understand her needs without communicating them. It’s hard not to emphasise how good this is; a lot of games suffer from every character sounding the same. A great deal of thought has been put into the characters and how they view the world.

Added to this, The Many Deaths of Lily Kosen has some genuine moments of laugh-out-loud hilarity. Hannah’s dark obsession with horror movies, Victoria’s flawed and violent logic, the meta-commentary on visual novels (you seem to be coming around for a chat a lot), or the game’s preoccupation with bread. What’s with the bread? I don’t know, but I found it hilarious.

While there’s precedent for humorous horror, it’s a challenge to get the tone right. This shift between self-deprecating humour, character conversations, and the fact that these teenagers killed their friend sometimes feels a little off. After Lily’s first death, talking to your friends can sometimes feel like the events haven’t impacted them as much as they should. Which is fine, if they’re unhinged themselves… But this isn’t always the case. I replayed certain scenes where characters had died or lived, and it was interesting to see how the dialogue changed or was added through the impact of the choices.

Perhaps the tonal conflict is most notable when the friends skip class to play card games at school. The lack of urgency seems odd given the circumstances, after experiencing the death of Lily Kosen. What would Buffy the Vampire Slayer do? The Scooby Gang would be straight to the library to find out more. Or the internet. A little bit of research does happen, but mostly through Gabriel’s ingenuity. 

One particularly well written scene is when the player offers to dispose of the body in the lake. It’s a dreamy sequence, which captures this languid feeling of being stuck in water. Something’s not quite right, but it’s never explained. The horror atmosphere is perfect in this moment; I was left wondering if my character would drown early on.

The game is designed to be replayed, and thankfully it has an excellent skip function (you would not believe the games I’ve played which don’t have this). It makes it easy to run through the game a second or third time, to explore the relationships between the characters, or deep dive into a particular backstory. I didn’t have time to go fully through each character’s story, but I’m curious about how the stress mechanic would work if you chose to focus on one character alone.

If you’re a fan of visual novels, The Many Deaths of Lily Kosen is worth checking out for its likeable characters and clever writing. While some of the narrative choices could be expanded, the stress function makes it a challenge to survive the story unscathed. Like I said, it’s never a good idea to go camping with your friends.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this game in exchange for an honest review. This has not affected my opinion of the game.