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2011-11-28

Kara no Shoujo Review


Title: Kara no Shoujo
Original title: 殻ノ少女
Alias: Girl in the Shell
Release date: 2008-07-04
English release date: 2011-06-29 (voiceless)
                                  2013-10-04 (voiced)
                                  2013-12-09 (Limited Physical Edition)
Developer: Innocent Grey
Publisher: MangaGamer & TLWiki

This time let's review something on a darker and grittier side of a visual novel world. How about a serial murder story set in a post-WWII Japan that doesn't pull any punches when it comes down to displaying the darkest abyss into which a human psyche can sink? Yes, that is a perfect description for "Kara no Shoujo" a.k.a. "Girl in the Shell" - a visual novel heavily influenced by the writings of Edogawa Rampo. Even the chapters in the novel are named based on the titles by this author.

ABANDON ALL HOPE, YOU WHO ENTER HERE

You start the game as Tokisaka Reiji - a private detective and a former police officer, that at the start of the game receives a case from his friend at the force, Uozumi Kyozo. The police is shorthanded and there were victims of brutal murders discovered in the neighbourhood: a girl has been hacked to pieces and her body parts except for torso were found in Inokashira Park, soon thereafter another girl was found buried in a shallow grave in Tama Cemetary with her leg set on fire. A work of a single murderer or are those two different cases? That is what you will have to find out. In order to advance his investigation Reiji goes undercover in Ouba Girls Academy where some students recently have gone missing as he suspects that the missing students are the victims of the current slayings.
Creepy imagery peppers the story.
Soon it becomes clear that the murderer is drawing inspiration for his killings from Dante's "Divine Comedy", As the situation escalates and more corpses are piling up, Reiji will have to race against the clock to save those he cares about.

Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.


As I have already mentioned, our protagonist here is Tokisaka Reiji. He lost his lover six years ago and subsequently quit the force, starting out again as a private eye. Currently he is living with his sister Yukari. At the start of the game he takes up two cases: a murder at Tama Cemetary and a request by a strange girl Kuchiki Toko to search for her true self.

One of the few times when we fully see our protagonist.

For an investigator he is quite a smart and resourceful guy with a keen mind. Reiji quickly manages to latch onto the suspicious things and to notice hidden connections between events. On the other hand, sometimes he doesn't manage to see what is right under his nose, unless someone else points it out to him. Tokisaka is very serious and cynical, but really cares about those he is supposed to protect and his failures weight heavily on his shoulders.

What I really liked about Tokisaka is that for once we have a non-teenager non-highschooler non-donkan protagonist with a hefty life experience. However, I somehow didn't feel myself connected to him. Maybe it was his total focus on the case, so that we couldn't experience him as a fully fleshed out protagonist with his likes and desires. We don't find much about Tokisaka with an exception of small snippets of six year old events. Somehow for me Reiji was never a character whose shoes I stepped in, nor a character whom I controlled. He was just a "detective" I was reading about. That contrasts sharply with the other members of the cast that are much better fleshed out. Another thing I disliked was that he didn't have a face, which was kind of strange for a VN of this genre. Even when we see Reiji, his face is obscured by some object - his hair for example.

'For such defects, and for no other fault,
we are lost, and afflicted but in this,
that without hope we live in longing.'


The cast of "Kara no Shoujo" is very large. By the time the credits roll detective's notebook already notes 40 persons of interest, not counting Reiji himself. Every character, with the exception of Reiji (again) is fully voiced. That is, they would be, but the voice talent agency asked so much dough of MangaGamer, that they released the game with voice files cut. Never fear, though, for faithful fans created a voice patch that should really be applied as every actor does a great job at bringing characters to life.

I'm not gonna dissect (har har) all the characters, but the most important ones should be noted.
She has a sharp tongue :-)
Tokisaka Yukari is Reiji's little sister and a student at Ouba Girls Academy. She acts as Yamato nadeshiko, but her act is constantly slipping up as we see glimpses of how crazy awesome she is. Let's start with the fact that she is growing snails in her house and tries to feed Reiji grasshoppers during a picnic and end with her trying to save carps from drowning... in the water. Seriously, I love Yukari, which is quite an achievement, considering I usually don't like her type of women (meek and demure). Another thing I like to compliment is the authors' decision to not write in any romantic feelings between Yukari and Reiji. Usually, when we have a little sister character in a VN, she will unavoidably be a winnable heroine. Not the case here - Reiji and Yukari are just brother and sister. That is all.

Yosomiya "Tojiko" Tsuzuriko is the best friend of Yukari and an aspiring mystery novelist. She is a very energetic delinquent-ish person, who really hates her nickname Tojiko, invented by Reiji. Tojiko shows great interest in the ongoing murder investigations and frequently pesters Reiji to take her with him when he is on a job.
Our spy wannabe, Toko.
Kuchiki Toko is probably the most important person in the story. She is a strange sickly girl with a penchant for drawing. Her best friend is a namesake Mizuhara Toko and the duo can be frequently seen together. Toko takes an instant liking to Tokisaka Reiji and frequently associates with him. It is her request to search for her true self that propels much of the plot forwards. She can be considered a true heroine of the story, even though KnS doesn't have heroine routes per se.

Takashiro Natsume is a friend (with benefits) of Reiji's and a medical coroner. She is a seriously strange person. According to her, she became a coroner as that is the only legal job where you can cut up people. She is overjoyed that lately she has been able to cut up so many cute girls........
.............
...
She also always wears a monocle and has a cigarette between her lips. Yeah. I love her.

Uozumi Kyozo is Reiji's friend at the force and the current investigator in the mysterious killings where he enlists Reiji's aid in the matter. I can't help but think that the game unfairly portrays his as a bit stupid. The main phrases he mentions when something happens are "Really?", "How can that be?", "Where did that come from?"... I understand that KnS wanted to exalt Tokisaka's intellect, but I feel that poor Uozumi suffered in the process.
Kara no Shoujo
Mamiya Shinzo is an eccentric painter, whose masterpiece "Kara no Shoujo" is a central axis of the plot and gives the name to the novel.

The whole cast is incredibly colourful with their worries, likes, dislikes, burdens and dark secrets. More than half of them are really fucked up too.
» Click to show Spoiler - click again to hide... «
Oh, my!

By now I was all eagerness to see
what sights the chasm, bathed in tears
of anguish, would disclose.


Let's start the praise for "Girl in the Shell" by stating that it is one of the best looking visual novels I have seen. The unusual thing is that its art style discards anime style graphics for a presentation more steeped in realism. One can almost say, that this VN was drawn with a more westernized looks in mind. There are no colourful hair, big eyes and over the top expressions. All characters sport realistic black-brown hair, realistic features and act and behave like real people. The backgrounds are also painted with almost photographic quality. Everything here, from buildings to people look realistic.

The soundtrack is masterfully composed and verily fits the atmosphere. Some of the tunes, like the title screen music are almost unforgettable. The voice acting is also very professional. The voices of Yukari, Tojiko and Toko are perfect. On the other hand, some actors went for a theatrical performance and clashed with the whole image: Mori Yorutsuki is a greatest offender. Even as the comic relief character he tries too hard. But that is only a minor quibble.
One of the tamest murder graphics.
The plot and atmosphere of the game are really masterfully presented. There are few games that have such a psychological and emotional effect on the player. KnS engages the player from start to the bitter finish and doesn't let him slip away. The fact that translation is superb and reads fluidly and with no obvious mistakes also adds a lot to the game. Of course, that is not a surprise as it is done by the same guy that translated "Conquering the Queen".

KnS greatest achievement is creating life-like characters and making you care for them. It plays with your emotions as you help Tokisaka to follow the trail of the killer and if the bad things happen, you are left wrung out and defeated, wanting only to go back to the game and replay for a better outcome. Even if that outcome doesn't come...

Yes, "Kara no Shoujo" is not all rainbows and ponies. Actually, there are no rainbows and ponies... period. It's a very dark and twisted game and the final solution might not appeal to many readers, but c'est la vie. The main question on many forums is "Are there any good endings?". Well, good is a subjective term, all the endings are bittersweet at best, but some of them bring a message of hope just like a bird rising towards sky. Some of them are quite open-ended that a sequel is possible. One might wonder if "Kara no Shoujo 2" that is currently in the making will be a direct continuation or a completely different story.
...
Despite my praise for the story, it has some obvious flaws. The main one is inconsistency. Some events happen and characters act differently based on your actions that in no way could have affected such outcome. In other words the causality principle is completely broken here or operates by some cosmic laws that we humble Homo sapiens can not comprehend. Some obvious examples:
» Click to show Spoiler - click again to hide... «

Also, Christian mythology is a very important thematic element to the novel and Japanese are not known for their savviness in the field. I can understand how the fairy tale about a cosmic Jew zombie who is his own son confuses them and, while "Innocent Grey" got most of the elements right, especially those pertaining to fundamentalism and fanaticism, a nun and a missionary having a child together should have batted more than one eye. Just saying: nun ≠ miko. Also I don't think I'm buying one of the last plot twists that remind me too much of "An Instance of the Fingerpost", not that I think that creators have read that book...

Each rent her breast with her own nails.
And with their palms they struck themselves, shrieking.


As KnS is an adult VN, it obviously has H-scenes. Most plot heavy games are not known for the quality of sex scenes, so let's see what sins of flesh are presented here.
Yes, please.
Well, it's a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand H-scenes are so obviously shoehorned in for the perv audience, that it's laughable. Their presence makes no sense whatsoever and they come at the oddest moments. Nonetheless, the scenes are of an above average quality with lots of CGs per scene. Seriously, long ass H-scenes in "Conquering the Queen" had only 1-2 CGs, where we have KnS with 3 times shorter scenes and 4-6 CGs for them. H-scenes look very pleasing to the eye and are short enough that their presence do not interrupt the flow of the story plus I'm a massive perv, so I will hail KnS H-content as a success.

Always before him stands a crowd of them,
going to judgment each in turn.
They tell, they hear, and then are hurled down.


"Girl in the Shell" is not only a visual novel, but an adventure game. In addition to the novel part which is presented in an ADV format (and occasionally NVL when we view the events from the POW of other characters), we have map movement, point'n'click adventure gameplay and inference part that is basically drawing conclusions from the evidence. And here are my main complaints as the mixed system doesn't work very well at all.
Well, hello "Still Life" where were you?
The first person point'n'click adventure sequences were a very welcome gimmick, but a gimmick it stays. There were way too little such scenes to make a lasting impression and technically they were not executed well. Pixel hunting was really annoying as some of the clickable objects were so close together, that it was impossible to discern them as separate objects. Also, some of the objects were so thoroughly obscured by the scenery that even with a walkthrough I had problems finding them. However the main problem was an auto-exit for those sequences. There was always one object which ended the sequence upon clicking even if you haven't found all the clues available in the room. That was a very stupid design decision. Instead "innocent Grey" should have made finish button that would manually end the sequence when you believe to have found all objects of interest. On the whole, p'n'c gameplay could have done with lots of improvement, but it was not really unwelcome.
By the end of the game this whole page is filled to the brim.
Map movement, on the other hand, was totally unwelcome. There were absolutely no indications were you should go at any given moment to trigger a necessary story sequence or find a desired clue. There was so much map movement, that a walkthrough became not an aid, but a necessity. I chose to do a first run of the game with no aid and choosing what I felt like. Outcome - the very first bad end. Considering the number of endings (4 bad ends, 2 semi-bad ends, 2 normal ends and a True End) I can't even begin to imagine how the makers expected us to fare when the gameplay is such a convoluted mess. Inference scenes, however, were not hard, but they again were quite rare and served as just a gimmick.

When KnS was first launched it suffered from some problems. The first version of the game was mistakenly uploaded with no DRM. The second version introduced a horrible bug, that spoiled the identity of the killer. The third version had a broken skip function as it skipped everything (even the unread text). This version that I played had everything fixed. Yes, even the skip bug is gone or rather now the skip button sometimes doesn't skip text even if you have obviously read it before :-) Oh, well.

Then we came forth, to see again the stars.

In conclusion, this is a really solid and well crafted visual novel with an engaging and emotionally involving plot, even though it suffers from technical presentation. KnS is also very long and will entertain (if the word 'entertain' fits here) you for at least 40 hours. I think that 10-30 h time presented on the vndb doesn't really do justice, as I think i spent more in order to get all the endings.
Happiness... at last?
I wish that it sells well and we get not only it's sequel, but also prequel "Cartagra". There are only a few novels of this genre available in English and I hope this is not the last we will see.

P.S. As of 2013-10-04 MangaGamer released a voiced version of the game and an official patch to be applied to the unvoiced edition. As of 2013-12-09 a Physical Edition including an 11 track soundtrack has been released.

Links of Interest

Visual Novel Database
Official Japanese site
TLWiki site
Buy an unvoiced digital version of Kara no Shoujo at MangaGamer
Buy a voiced digital version of Kara no Shoujo at MangaGamer
Buy a Limited Physical Edition with an abridged soundtrack
Walkthrough for the game
Unofficial voice patch or buy an official voice patch
A recap of Kara no Shoujo Japanese trial (it is completely different than English trial and serves as a prequel to the main story. Originally posted by some anon on /jp/.)

Final Verdict: 80%

2 comments:

  1. IMO all endings in this game are kinda meh,but bottomline it's quite a great time killer

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  2. Anonymous6/12/12 13:02

    It pulls you in for sure, but I wouldn't recommend playing this game late at night, with all the lights off... its a VH sure, not Dead Space, but still, some of those murder scenes can leave you with your eyes wide open (or shut) with your heart pounding and skin crawling (even more so if its a character you like)

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