Katawa Shoujo (PC/Mac)
Developer: Four Leaf Studios
Release Date: January 4, 2012
MSRP: Free (Download)
Come on guys and gals, don't say you didn't see this one coming from a mile away. An English language visual novel with a seemingly controversial setting and theme; there's no way we were going to just let this slide with a simple release announcement. I spent the entire week of Katawa Shoujo's release playing the game non-stop, eventually unlocking 100% of the CG's and music. I then decided to let the game sit for a little while so that I could better solidify my thoughts on what I had just experienced. This is in many ways a very important game, and it'd be a shame to do it disservice in the name of getting an article out quickly.
I like visual novels in theory. I find that I'm drawn to games in the genre that, rather than focusing on the romance element, are more about an overall story that drives the main action. For example, I really like Steins;Gate because, while it does have a strong romance component, that isn't the primary draw. Visual novels that center everything around the core romance oftentimes come off as cheesy, forced and frustrating. I've never been fond of the whole 'white knight' thing you see all the time in VN's. I dislike that I'm supposed to swoop in, save these damaged girls from their pasts and themselves, get laid and live happily ever after. That sort of thing has always left a bad taste in my mouth. The sex is clearly a reward for the player rather than an important step in the relationships of the characters.
Katawa Shoujo is immediately unique in that it was not developed in Japan, and it's completely free of charge. I'm sure that many of you are more than aware of the strange tale behind this visual novel, but for those who aren't, I'll hand you off to Four Leaf Studio's official website. The product of many talented individuals from around the world, Katawa Shoujo is in many ways a visual novel that shouldn't even exist. It is a game spawned from a simple, very nearly offensive concept that would likely never even get made in Japan.
Physical disabilities are understandably a touchy subject, and producing what some would describe as a 'porn game' that fetishizes this kind of thing seems wrong on so many levels. The problem is that it's very easy to judge something entirely on its name and concept. I've read comments from plenty of people who have sworn off Katawa Shoujo, and have even gone so far as to label those who are enjoying it as sick and twisted. I personally believe that if you haven't tried the game for yourself, you are in no capacity qualified to talk about the game, what it's trying to accomplish or about the people who have enjoyed it.
Let me tell you what Katawa Shoujo is not. It's not a porn game. It does not fetishize the disabled. What Katawa Shoujo does do however, is tell a touching story about people and the ways in which they overcome the barriers separating one another. It tells a story about growth and how each person we come into contact with plays a small role in how we shape ourselves and the path we want to follow in life.
You follow the protagonist, Hisao Nakai, a male high school student who has a heart attack at the very beginning of the game, leading him to discover that he has Cardiac Dysrhythmia. This heart condition kicks in whenever Hisao does something that increases his heart rate. Realistically, he might not even live past 30 depending on how well he takes care of himself. Due to his health problems, his parents enroll him at Yamaku High School, a place designed for those with physical disabilities that would be hard to cater to in the average Japanese school. It is here that he goes on to meet new friends and companions, and begins to rebuild his life in a way he never could have imagined.
Katawa Shoujo is not, mechanically speaking, very different from any other visual novel you might have played. Gameplay comes in the form of the choices you make throughout each of the five very different routes. Sometimes the correct choice appears to be obvious, only to end up being something else entirely. The game does a good job of making you feel as though you're making important decisions. Without spoiling anything, you'll find that whatever experience you have with other visual novels might actually work against you here. Compared to my most recent VN experience, Conquering the Queen, I was surprised to find that there was a significantly larger number of dialogue choices in KS.
Visually the game is an attractive mix of art styles. It sometimes lacks consistency, but that's made up for by the oftentimes beautiful CG's sprinkled throughout the game. I was particularly blown away by the animated opening credits and the five animated cutscenes that signal the beginning of each individual route. Full animation is rare even in paid products, never mind an indie effort like this. Katawa Shoujo does have sex scenes, but don't expect to get your rocks off with them. They're mostly very classy, some of them edging closer to an R rating than an X.
Music is where the game surprisingly excels quite a bit. I adored the soundtrack so much that I downloaded it off the main site and have been listening to it periodically while writing/going out. There are some really fantastic tracks and on the whole the soundtrack has a very nice consistency about it. Music should always be an important element in a visual novel and I'm happy to report that Katawa Shoujo doesn't disappoint in the slightest.
Now onto the meat of the thing. Production qualities and mechanics wouldn't mean anything if the story and characters weren't strong enough to support the game. Here is where Katawa Shoujo shines. Each of the five routes vary deeply from one another, with the supporting cast also changing depending on who you associate with. There is no way to get the full story of each member of the cast without playing through all five story routes. For example, in each story, you're privy to the fact that Shizune and Lilly seem to have issues with one another. No one path sheds a complete light on the subject. Once you've completed all the narratives however, it's not difficult to piece together where the two stand with one another and why.
This depth goes beyond simple narrative structure though. Each path was penned by a different writer, so while there is definitely a sense of inconsistency amongst stories, it actually works out for the better. In no two paths will Hisao ever develop the same way. His growth as a character is entirely based around the character you choose to pursue. I won't spoil anything, but the Hisao of Rin's route is a far cry from the Hisao of Emi's route, for example. This makes sense when you take a moment to think about it; the people around us shape who we are. I wouldn't be who I am today if not for the people I've met and befriended. I wouldn't necessarily be better or worse off, just different.
It is not just Hisao that develops in this way, but the female cast as well. The five main girls, Emi, Shizune, Lilly, Rin and Hanako are all individuals with goals and secrets, like anybody else. They all appear to, at first glance, represent certain character tropes from anime and manga that we've seen a thousand times before. Katawa Shoujo tricks you into letting your guard down. Within the second chapter of each respective route, you slowly discover that each girl is a fully fleshed out, three dimensional character. They don't necessarily have problems that need to be solved. You, Hisao, are not their white knight because they don't need one.
In this way, KS differentiates itself from many of its Japanese contemporaries. Not a single girl in this game is a weak willed, incompetent fool. These are 18 year old women who are growing up, becoming adults and learning about the responsibility that comes with it. We all have times when we just want someone there to be for us. Not necessarily because we need saving from our traumas or problems, but simply because it's always comforting to just have someone close. This is of course a two way road, and that is where Katawa Shoujo really struck me. The writers seemed to grasp that very simple fact and it helped the writing feel more sincere than it could have as a result. Not all the routes really appealed to me, but you'll find that your mileage will vary depending on the personal connections you draw with each route. I was frequently shocked to find that certain elements of several stories mirrored some personal experiences I've had, making the emotional punch that much stronger.
While I'm sure some eagle eye'd readers will have already noticed the 'ero-ge' tag at the bottom of this review, bear in mind that I do not believe this to be a porn game. There are sex scenes, but they are by and large designed to shed light on characters and/or reflect upon the intimacy of the characters' relationships. Sex is not treated as some kind of mystical and magical activity, but rather a part of growing up and experiencing adulthood. I said it earlier, but if you're looking for fap material, you're barking up the wrong tree.
You've probably noticed that I haven't actually brought up the fact that everyone in the game save for a select few, is physically disabled. There's a reason for that. Past the first chapter of the Katawa Shoujo, I simply forgot about it. Yes, for some of the girls, the disability is important to their characterization. At a certain point however you find yourself not focusing on that singularly. This subtly ties into Hisao's story as well, and how he comes to accept and welcome his new life; one that he had initially misjudged at the start of the game. I could go into a lengthy essay about the ways in which KS, like a few titles before it, flips the genre on its head, but there are others out there who have done a better job than I could do at this point.
I'm hesitant to give this game a score beyond just asking that you play it. The fact of the matter is that this is a completely free title made by a group of people with a huge love for the project. That they asked nothing in exchange blows my mind when, as far as I'm concerned, this could just as easily have been sold for $20.00 and you wouldn't have heard a sngle complaint out of me. As such, whatever score I give the game isn't based on the value you're getting, but rather the quality of the experience versus the amount of time you devote to it. For those of you who like numbers, I spent approximately six hours on each route, and I'm a fast reader.
Katawa Shoujo is not without its problems; the occasional art slip, the odd bit of stilted dialogue here and there. At the end of the day though, I shed true, honest tears for characters that don't actually exist. I spent a week of my life drawn in by a group of high school students in their final year, trying to find one another and the power to move forward.
Katawa Shoujo is the first English language game this year to truly hit me emotionally, and for that I'm giving it a nine. Give it a try before you judge this little gem. You might be surprised by what you find.
9.0 - Fantastic. Negligible flaws. Otherwise very, very good; a fine example of excellence in the genre.
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Elliot is an associate editor for Japanator and can be found contributing to Destructoid on occasion. He lives in Japan and can be found on Twitter @RyougaSaotome. more | staff directory
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