Katawa Shoujo Review

Title: Katawa Shoujo
Release date: 2012-01-04
Developer: Four Leaf Studios
Publisher: Four Leaf Studios

So, yeah... I wonder if there is a single person right now who hasn't at least heard of Katawa Shoujo (Disability Girl) - an OELVN developed by an international team over a period of about five years and finally released on this January. The history of the concept is probably known as well: inspired by Raita blah blah blah started on 4chan blah blah blah but no association with them anymore blah blah blah it's free... yes, that is the only thing you should know. Go play it and I will review it in the meantime.

It has to be like... like the color when you wake up and you know that you saw the meaning of life in your dreams but can't remember it.

What strikes us immediately upon starting Katawa Shoujo is it's production values. Ren'Py is a well known engine and probably the most versatile and simplest to use for the creation of visual novels, but I am hard pressed to remember the level of customization on par with this in any other VN. No templates were used here - everything from the starting screen to extras, to save-load screen sport a completely unique look. As you play the game, your progress is reflected on the main screen and in the library, where you can replay individual scenes if you so wish.
How everything started...
But of course you cannot judge production values just by external ornamentation. I have already said in my review of "Sugar's Delight", that OELVN art usually makes Higurashi look like Rembrandt and while KS applies the same art principle of drawn sprites versus photographic backgrounds, the final result is undeniably different. The backgrounds are very fitting to the atmosphere of the game and really evoke the feeling of there existing a certain Yamaku Academy. A filter was applied to the photos in order to give them a washed-out picturesque quality and that worked remarkably as some people on Escapist were sincerely convinced that backgrounds were also painted. Some people bemoaned that sceneries were not painted for real, but that would have really increased the strain on the developers and I'm not sure that this would have been for the better.

A lot of care went in the creation of the sprites too and they came alive with all the varied expressions creators have given them. CGs (and there are quite a lot of them) are really memorable and present an almost professional artistic quality, though there are some discrepancies betwixt sprites and CGs, like Hanako's scars looking slightly differently or Shizune looking more mature than we are wont to see her. However, such mismatch is forgivable, especially considering the number of artists that have worked on the project.
Lightning strike!
What came as a complete surprise to me, though, was the presence of cutscenes. Yes, cutscenes, created by Mike Inel. There are six of them in total - an OP and and a scene at the beginning of Act 2 for every girl. They are of surprisingly good quality for amateur productions and gave KS a very professional look.

No free Internet sources were used for music as is a staple in all the OELVNs, but rather a soundtrack was also fully composed by the team and you can actually download it separately from the game. It's worth it as the music is absolutely fitting the game and really memorable. Also, thank gods that the development team didn't try to voice the game as I don't believe they could have gotten decent talents for the task.

Now, once I got things that are more or less irrelevant out of the way, let's get to the marrow of the bone - what the frig this game is about and is it worth your precious time. I will be first to admit, that I have never played the Act 1 Trial that has been floating around on the net for years. Not because it wouldn't interest me, but because I generally dislike playing demos. Liking a demo will immediately make me want to play the full game, but Katawa Shoujo was years away and frankly I even lost hope of ever seeing it released in full. Fast forward to January 2012.

Inside Yamaku everyone is "special", which negates the "special-ness" of it.

Katawa Shoujo is a nakige visual novel set in a special needs school for the disabled. Main character Hisao Nakai appeared at a receiving end of a love confession by a certain rock-fish-girl (Iwanako). The frightening idea of a commitment scared him so much that his heart almost jumped out of his chest... literally. Recovering from a heart attack he learns, that he has an arrhythmia and is suggested to finish his high school in a Yamaku Academy for physically disabled. From there on Hisao can try to engage in a relationship with one of five possible love interests or just fall off the roof and die miserable sod as he is.
In this game our protagonist actually has a face... and personality. How unique...
As it is constantly mentioned everywhere were the subject comes up, KS treats physical disabilities in a very respectful manner. Those girls are people just as everyone is and are defined by their character traits and not by their problems. Actually, Hisao moans mostly about his plight in the beginning and is a miserable twat, until deciding to man up and realizing that his life hasn't ended and he can find both happiness and romance even after what happened to him.

The game is composed of four chapters or arcs. The first arc is about Hisao setting sights on a certain girl and is basically what we call a common route. Arc 2 follows his efforts to woo a certain girl, arc 3 in a classical formula of a nakige introduces some drama, that threatens to break our lovers apart and finally arc 4 is a resolution and a happy ending. Some girls are harder to woo than the others, but all of them are quite rewarding to follow. Actually, the game is quite easy. I finished it without a walkthrough and even written one myself. The only scene that I needed help getting was in Act1. Now, let's look at those girls one by one.

Even grown-up girls like to play with dolls.
Hanako Ikezawa is the first girl I went after and she suffers from burn scars covering the right side of her body. Her self-consciousness and shy scared cat behaviour distanced her from all the people (with the exception of blind Lilly). It's hard to make her trust you, especially as she gets more and more gloomy with her approaching birthday. At first I thought that the fire that hurt her happened on her birthday, but it was just me being wrong genre savvy. Hanako is a delicate flower, but with a steel frame and you cannot do a bigger mistake than thinking that she needs your help to overcome her problems. I immediately felt a connection with her and in the end she has probably my favourite, or at least very highly valued, path. I don't know if my perception after playing other paths got screwed somehow, but I think that Hanako's is also the shortest path, though I must own that she has three endings. The only other girl with three endings is Rin.

I merely have a healthy adolescent sex drive.
Mafia princess... if we believe Kenji.
The second girl I went after is Lilly Satou - a blind half-Scottish girl and an only friend of Hanako's. This path differs strongly from all the others as it is mostly a straight love story rather than a drama. The only problems that Hisao and Lilly have to overcome are external ones - unfavourable events that threaten to split them. Lilly is a strong character that is self-assured in her blindness and doesn't treat it as disability. Despite a very different sort of conflict here I really liked Lilly's path too. Her route also introduces us to Lilly's sister Akira - a suit wearing beer chugging jolly girl with a penchant for getting minors drunk :-) It's a shame that she's already taken.

I think I want someone to see what's inside me. Not the way doctors and serial killers do.
Look, mum, without hands!
Rin Tezuka is a very strange beast. An armless artist that paints with her feet already elicits stares. The fact that you can't possibly understand what she is talking about majority of the time is just a topping of a cake. Rin claims that she can't think about more than four things at any given time; my interpretation is that she is artist crazy. Rin is probably the most pitiful of the girls and the hardest to get. She wants to express herself just like normal people, but always says the wrong words and remains misunderstood. She paints in order to express herself, but no one understands what she wants to tell through her paintings either. She is especially misunderstood by the very people that should know better (for example, her art club teacher). He thinks that Rin is a prodigious artist that needs directions, but Rin is not artist - paintings are just her way of communication. Thus the central conflict here is the saddest one and most difficult to get out of. In the end, Rin is a lovely creature and a heroine on par with Hanako.

I'm Emi Ibarazaki, fastest thing on no legs!
What followed next was Emi Ibarazaki - a track team runner with no legs. She has mastered the use of prosthetics and appears a jolly bubbly girl with not a care in the world. Of course that isn't so, as she is not only physically, but also mentally scarred by the car crash that has stolen her legs. Emi enters relationships easily, but is wont to bail out as soon as there is a need of commitment on her part. It's your job to get closer to her and teach her again to trust people. It's a sweet romance that also gives strength to Hisao... literally, as Emi's exercises help to strengthen his heart. Still, this route wasn't completely on par with the previous ones. Emi was a bit too much of a drama queen making mysteries and secrets out of completely ordinary things. Thus core revelations left a sort of bland taste in my mouth. Still, she's a good girl... and she does anal, what's not to love :-D

I'm still a little apprehensive about the possible motives of a girl whose favorite pastime is the game of world domination.
Who knew that Shizune is into BDSM...
The last girl I undertook was Shizune Hakamichi. I left this path for the last as I heard very unfavourable things about it. Well, it wasn't that bad, but the route was sincerely strange. Shizune is a deaf-mute and always hangs out with her interpreter Misha - a bubbly genki girl with loads of attitude. My thought was that the path will try to play on Hisao's and Shizune's inability to communicate and eventually learning to understand themselves. No such luck. Hisao learns sign language perfectly in about a week (a completely improbable endeavour IMHO) and so Shizune's path is the only one in addition to Lilly's, where the main dramatic factor was external - in this case, falling out between Shizune and Misha. That wouldn't be bad, but I didn't for even a moment bought that conflict and the way it was presented (it came out as a Suika rip-off and a badly executed one at that). Technically the route is also an oddity. All the other ones has lots of choices even after Act 1, but here we have a single choice that determines if you get a good or a bad ending.

Would you be interested in knowing about the worst threat to mankind since they invented vegetarianism.
Glasses off, I'm a Superman!
The other memorable characters of the game are Yuuko, a neurotic librarian, and Kenji, a friendly neighbourhood conspiracy theorist. Despite how funny and relaxing they were, I feel that authors didn't use the whole available potential here. Both Yuuko and Kenji appear to have no purpose, except for comic reliefs and sometimes verge on annoying with their uselessness. And there was lots of potential to involve those characters beyond their cardboard roles and even make them central to solving problems with the heroines. It appears that writers went the easy way and fallen victims to Idiot Friend cliché.

Reality has no chance of living up to what someone has inside their head.

Katawa Shoujo was a long and memorable journey. The writers did a great job to bring both characters and events to life. Some called writing overly descriptive, but I don't think so. The girls were very distinctive and likable and I didn't even for a moment regret reading this work. However, it took much more of my time than it should have and it was mainly because I was frequently bored. I have to own, that I'm not exactly a target audience for this kind of game. My interests lean towards horror and sci-fi and I usually say that slice-of-life by definition equals shit. Don't misunderstand, I liked Katawa Shoujo. It was really refreshing to see a successful OELVN that really benefited from being made in the west. Still, it was slice-of-life scenes that stuck sticks in my wheels. I was bored for long passages of time while reading casual scenes and awaited for something meaningful to happen - some drama, some action, anything to get me going. I would put down the game on the back burner and pick it again days later wishing for the game to be shorter and straght to the point. I realize that it's mostly a problem of my preferences, than of anything else, but I still feel that authors could have made casual scenes more... colourful... more striking. Giving subplots for Kenji, Yuuko, Nurse and Mutou would have really enlivened otherwise dry scenes.

I claimed above that Katawa Shoujo benefited from being made outside of Japan and that is certainly true. I wonder why the creators put the setting in Japan if they did everything in their power to make it so... unJapanese. Let's call it an artistic licence, shall we? One could even call KS a deconstruction of anime and VN tropes as authors try to veer away from the usual trappings and portray the events in a decisively realistic manner instead of employing common clichés of the medium. The blooming romance is portrayed in probably the most realistic manner I have ever seen in a VN and sex scenes were definitely the most realistic.

Sorry I wasn't in class, I was experimenting sexually with my girlfriend and it tired me out.
It's important to be clean.
Oh, yes, the sex scenes. There is an option to turn them off in the options, but I would never dream of doing such blasphemy. They come at very appropriate moments and do not break the flow of the game. It's obvious that they were written into the plot rather than added post factum for the titillation purposes. It's also obvious, that they were written by someone that actually had sex in comparison to all those eroges written by virgins that put hymen near the cervix (LOL). I might not have bought Hisao tripping over lube bottles or having condoms conveniently in his pocket, but it only merited a giggle out of me instead of a facepalm. Sex in KS is sometimes romantic, sometimes sweet and sometimes clumsy. After all first times are not usually perfect and virgins suddenly do not become sex gods out of the blue (I'm looking at you, Nasu!). The amount differs between routes, from one scene with Hanako, to two and half with Lilly. The explicitness also varies, with most of the routes giving us semi-hardcore exposure, but for Rin that gives us only two soft erotica scenes.

It's just for fun, anyway! Between friends~! It's about causing humiliation, suffering, and absolute despair! Isn't that the point?
Roadside Picnic.
All in all, there was a monumental effort put into this visual novel, moreover it was all done by volunteers with no payment on their free time over five years. And the final product provides a spectacularly immersive experience if a little unpolished and dull around corners. The main trait of this novel I have to compliment is its life-like presentation. The main trait I have to condemn is long-winded slice-of-life scenes that go nowhere. To sum up, Katawa Shoujo is worthy to experience.

P.S. A side game Katawa Crash has been created by the team and takes after the more (in)famous Nanaca Crash. It's a fun little time waster that you should check out. My current high score is 25660,94

Links of Interest

Visual Novel Database
Official site
Developers' blog
Katawa Crash thread
Katawa Shoujo walkthrough written by me

Final verdict: 72%

1 comment:

  1. Very nice review, I don't think I could add much to that :). I think Rin's and Hanako's routes are the best developed ones, and yes Rin was very pitiable. There were some very good lines in there too, like you've shown.

    However, it's not just you who thought a lot of the story dragged on and was boring at times - even as someone who often likes slice of life, I found it very boring and had to put the VN away each time.

    If there was any kind of tension or something to spice it up, also along with what you mentioned about Kenji and Yuuko having any purpose instead of being time-wasters, it would have made many scenes a lot less boring.

    By the way, on topic of the animation-scenes, from some people I heard they were disappointed with the simplicity of those and that they found it to break the story-flow way too much with its over the top presence and spoiled too much.

    While I disagree with them that the animation-scenes were badly produced or disappointing, I think they have a point with the other two problems. Especially Shizune's route didn't profit from the animation... then again, it wouldn't have been much better without it either.