Game Review: Katawa Shoujo
Release: January 4th, 2012
Genre: Dating Sim
Developer: Four Leaf Studios
Available Platforms: Linux, Mac OSX, Windows
ESRB Rating: Not Rated (Content Equal To AO Can Be Disabled)
Website: Katawa Shoujo
When stricken with a life-threatening heart problem, Hisao Nakai must transfer to the prestigious Yamaku High School. A school for the disabled largely (although anyone can attend), Hisao feels lost in “Cripple Wonderland”, but soon finds himself interested in five very different girls. Lilly, the blind blonde, might catch his eye. The scars covering Hanako’s body might remind him too much of his own. Emi may be running towards the future (or away from the past), despite having her legs amputated below the knees. Rin may be the artsy girl who wants to express herself through painting, but lacks common sense… and hands. Deaf Student Council President Shizune (and her nigh-omnipresent interpreter Misha) might have the masses clamoring for change, but she could be too stubborn to hear them. In Katawa Shoujo, you must help Hisao navigate Yamaku High, but grades might be the least of your problems.
Katawa Shoujo is a unique indie game. In fact, to be clear, the argument over it even being classified as a video game are defeaning; a large subset of games in Japan (with the rare occurrence coming to America), “visual novels”, traditionally, feature limited interaction, small production values, and so forth. The “game” is primarily a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book at its heart, letting the player choose an option at an important (or seemingly not) juncture in the story. For example, if someone asks you how you’re feeling (having just walked into town, but visibly exhausted due to your heart condition), you may choose to “come up with an excuse” or say “I’m not in the best of health”. These decisions, much like that of Mass Effect, affect how characters relate and respond to you, and take you down different branches of story. Some questions might be minimal, some might be devastating. The game, origination from a one-page illustration from a Japanese artists over a decade ago, became a source of discussion on 4Chan, and soon had a set of developers working on the game for the past five years. In fact, Four Leaf Studios seems to have largely disbanded after this production; the individuals involved (using pseudonyms in the credits) may go on to different works, but this title will not have a sequel, DLC, or any other further ventures related to the story, or featuring all the creators.
Therefore, gameplay is simple. Read, click to advance, read, click to advance. It’s very easy in some instances to read for an hour without interacting at all; in fact, one of the main paths you can take only has one choice to make four hours in. At the same time, another path might feature one every half hour, and you might spend that long trying to decide for the betterment of the world, your character, or the woman you’re interacting with. Beyond the main game is nothing else, once you’ve acquired 100% of the scenes (unlocking a special image in the gallery), you’re done. Unless you like rereading old books, the adventure is over.
Unquestionably, this game has one of the strongest scripts in a video game in years. It’s obvious that, in a game that boils down to the script, the developers and writers took their time in making sure each character was nuanced, was more than their disability, and was a fully fleshed character. While their may be some disconnect when comparing characters in one path to them in another (as different writers handled the different paths), by playing the game fully, many more aspects about a character will be revealed than just focus on one person. The writing is humorous when it needs to be, strong when it should be, and heartbreaking at times. If you play this game and don’t get choked up (and not even at the bad endings, tears of joy are to be shed at the good ones) at one point, you officially have no soul. This game is all about heart; the developers obviously poured their souls into it, and players will be touched to their core at the title. It doesn’t hurt that, while the graphics are generally above fan works (despite the game itself, by its very nature, being a work of fans), the soundtrack (available as a free download on their site) is jovial, destructive, and at all points works to serve the dialogue.
The game’s budget (or lack thereof) shows at times. While it’s largely a polished effort, the fact that multiple artists worked throughout shows at times. Much of the main cast may be refined and well-designed, but odd bits (such as a male character’s jacket buttoning the opposite way that it should) and unequal amounts of work (characters relegated to one specific path only have one pose and few facial expressions) show where priorities were. Coupled with the fact that the main cast all almost play dress-up, obviously using the same basic body and pose but with different clothes (or lack thereof) stands out at times. Some paths are horrifically easy and lack choices (the aforementioned path with one choice), while others end up being the Sophie’s Choice of video games, having multiple, mind-numbing options available that make you second-guess yourself and feel bad no matter what you do. While that’s life, all paths were not created equal. Additionally, while the sex scenes can be turned off (to make the game appropriate for younger folks), character development is lost by skipping them, and yet they’re not always the most pleasant (although this is true to life).
Katawa Shoujo is one of the greatest games of the new decade, and easily one of the most touching in existence. While this genre is larger in Japan, much of the titles it’s similar to haven’t reached American shores in English, and haven’t had the breakthrough hit success this title has. It doesn’t matter if it’ll never be followed up, will never be marketed, and won’t have name recognition. It’s more than the “dating sim with crippled girls”, it’s a gaming milestone that is not to be missed. The game may not be perfect, but it is beautiful in every sense of the word.
- Amazingly well-written story
- Great soundtrack
- Hit and miss graphics
- Paths range from absurdly simplistic to maddeningly difficult
- A video game cultural milestone
9 out of 10