Dating, lycra, and social media sound like an introduction to any small-town teenage survival program, but Nova Hearts isn’t your run-of-the-mill adventure. This new dating sim turned Super Sentai romp from Lightbulb Crew drops its first episode today, and we’ve already hit the man streets to see what’s lurking along the kerbside coffee shops. Due to begin airing with a free first episode on PC, with the rest of this series coming out later in the year, Nova Hearts is a dating sim that certainly stands apart from the competition. Plenty of monster menageries might pepper storefronts these last few years but this visual adventure draws on Saturday morning heroes and Japanese manga tropes to see off the competition.
Picking up this tale of love in lycra just after teenager Luce has escaped city life, this narrative leaps directly into a warm welcome home from family and friends. At the core of this episode are Luce and her two friends. The trio of childhood compatriots are quick to reacquaint themselves and make this tale feel engaging. They turn out to be a wonderfully diverse set of characters that aren’t always going to get along. Luce presents as deliberately understated, seemingly lost after her move from the city, while her fellow teen heroes can be exuberant, impulsive, or a fierce ally to have at a party or a boss battle. They can equally be cool, collected, and utterly independent, cutting across the battlefield and the social scene with seeming ease. Aside from their obvious personalities, these soon-to-be superheroes are a decent attempt at representation within the confines of an obviously tight narrative timeframe.
Social Media and Starsigns
Lightbulb continues to ground this game in the life of its leading trio, presenting much of small-town life via Luce’s phone. An in-game app chronicles the events that occur, a mystical astrology program seems to detail your links to other in-game interests, and you communicate with friends and mysterious strangers over text. At this stage, it’s an interesting idea that feels unfinished, but that’s true for plenty of this first episode.
Nova Hearts is a dating sim and superhero show all at once, and it does suffer from plot pacing that any pilot show would encounter. When our protagonist returns home there’s a definite sense of uncertainty, but never an opportunity to properly explore these events or the peripheral characters in much depth. While this means characterization can feel a little thin at times, Nova Hearts does get right into the action without much haste. Teenage hormones drag the story into parties and pickup lines in barely a few minutes, despite some solid writing and fun scenarios that struggle to feel cohesive at first. I really can’t see a character like Luce returning from a traumatic time in the city leaping into the local party scene and getting to know the locals in such an intimate way one day one. The pacing does pull things together as the first episode carries on. The initial whiplash of character choices settles down as the main three learn more about each other’s lives and their magical transformation abruptly takes hold.
As you might have guessed, it doesn’t take long for players to find themselves facing off against some unusual intruders. After an unfortunate incident out on the town, Nova Hearts barrels straight into a turn-based battler. Giant monster kittens and lusty werewolves are just the tip of the spear for this unusual invasion force. It’s a gleefully silly take on the tropes we were expecting and all of our heroes have their own way to push back this problem. Transformed in an appropriately over-the-top sequence that owes everything to the magical girl section of your VHS back catalog, the central protagonists are thrust into a turn-based battle that tries to stand out from the crowd.
While there’s plenty of inspiration from the tit for tat turn based brawls of other RPGs, combat takes place along a linear timeline. Running along the bottom of a 2D battle, this tracks events and actions in the heat of the moment. Cast time of abilities means picking the correct target and option can potentially turn the tide of an encounter. Target an opposing healer and you can push its turn back a few more seconds, giving another character the option of unloading a lethal strike on its partner. There’s an attempt to work in basic progression, upgrades, combos, and more. Despite the inclusion of these, the big bads do feel lightweight, as demonstrated by the fact that the one battle I lost didn’t seem to negatively impact the narrative.
With an evening out ruined, a superhero transformation, some odd aliens to fight, and a few genuinely inspired ideas, I’m not sure how I feel about Nova Hearts. It looks fantastic and the concept still makes me want to return to the next episode, yet it’s not quite where it needs to be for a full launch. This might be a shaky pilot, but it’s got enough redeeming qualities that I’ll tune in for the full launch later in the year. Check out the first free instalment of Nova Hearts on Steam.