|Version Reviewed: PC
Like the protagonist in this peculiar love story, it has been quite challenging for me to quickly adapt to new experiences. Even as a casual anime-lover and life-long gamer, I was still very much in the periphery in my understanding of the more supposed “hardcore” elements of the otaku experience. Whenever the words “hentai” and “games” are thrown together to make “hentai games” (a.k.a. dating sims, get-girls, and eroge, the common term for the genre in Japan), I would start to think about the kind of bizarre imagery put on display in Welcome To The NHK, Genshiken, Oreimo, and other anime featuring commentaries on the otaku community. Needless to say, I was fed a very biased view of what typical eroge looked like, and it wasn’t pretty. After playing this game, however, my eyes have been opened up to the real positive potential a genre like this can have for the future of gaming, if not at least the genuine impact it has on the players experiencing it in its entirety.
Katawa Shoujo has many features that set it apart from the dime-a-dozen Japanese exports that have defined the impressions of eroge in the past. First, the game put together by a team of independent developers across the globe, which was dedicated to make this a labor of love that is free to the public. There were no ulterior motives for profit (the game is free to the public, and donations to the team have been flatly refused), no incentive to pander to niche audiences (evidence of fetishizing girls with disabilities is distinctly absent throughout), and no strong imperative to raise awareness for the disabled (as one might expect if the game had been made by a specific organization whose objective is to do just that). It is simply a game that tells the story of self-discovery, romance, and companionship, which just happens to involve people with physical handicaps and medical conditions.
Katawa Shoujo is an eroge. For those who are not in the know, an eroge is a type of game in which the overall objective is to seek out a favorite companion of the opposite (or same) sex in-game through daily interactions, to make conversational decisions that would be the most favorable in improving the relationship with said person, and, with a little bit of wisdom and fortune, lead the protagonist and his companion to a happily ever after (which may or may not involve sex). At times, the right response to a situation may not be totally clear, and what the player thinks is the “right” choice may inadvertently lead the protagonist to a bad ending with the mate of one’s dreams: a break-up, a parting of ways, “friend-zoning”, or worse. But for those players who manage to bring things to a positive conclusion, they are often rewarded with scenes of graphic sexual content.
This much needs to be made clear: Katawa Shoujo is not a “hentai game”. At least, it is not the kind of eroge a typical eroge player would expect. There are no spoilers in pointing out that there is, indeed, sexual content to be found in the game. However, the scenes are toned down in a “soft-core” kind of matter, and in a tasteful fashion. That disabled persons can and do engage in eroticism is a fact of life that cannot be ignored, and in its purest form of expression, these steamy scenes can be interpreted as illustrating the universality of human love in all its forms. That said, there are many players who prefer their love stories to imply sexy time without having to describe it in detail. The always-mindful creators of this game made sure to include an option to disable explicit content for this very reason, so that gamers of all ages can enjoy Katawa Shoujo without worry.
Judging the game play of a visual novel is by far the trickiest part of any game review. The nature of the genre is that it is meant to be a book-like format with minimal interactions with the world contained within. The characters assume a greater amount of free will, talk and act as they see fit, and react to situations in somewhat predictable manners. For an eroge, however, the free will isn’t as clear-cut; there are important choices to be made. The protagonist starts out knowing next to nothing about each girl, but grows in understanding through conversation with them, their friends, their family, and through self-reflection. Then, armed with limited knowledge and understanding, the protagonist has to make decisions that can greatly impact the relationship. That is where you, the player, must step in and assume the role of the protagonist and make the choice that you feel is the best (or the worst, if your aim is to intentionally sabotage the relationship for poor Hisao). The outcome of your choices will help Hisao develop his relationship with each girl in a positive or a negative direction, until the resolution has been reached. Things can end well or it can end badly, and it is up to the player which way the wind blows in that regard.
For the rest of the time, however, your actual control over the characters and the environment is limited. The game controls are merely tools for manipulating the scenes in the way one turns the pages of a book. You press the space bar to advance dialogue. You press another button to skip ahead. Yet another button is used to rewind and review what has been said before. You save your progress anytime and anywhere, placing your digital bookmark wherever you wish. After completing an “arc” for each girl, you can reread the entire story again from start to finish, and make similar or different decisions where they are needed. Furthermore, most of the game consists of a first person view of the events Hisao witnesses and describes to the reader, with a handful of third-person hand-drawn scenes and even a few short intermission cinematics shown between acts. Hardcore gamers broken from the molds of shooters, RPGs, strategy games and the like will be in for a real surprise. Why, some may even declare: “This is just like reading a book!” and quickly lose interest in this game. If a gamer is looking for action, it won’t be found in large quantities here. If you are looking for a compelling cast of characters, presentation and storytelling, then visual novels find their greatest strength in those elements, and must be weighed as such when being compared to other kinds of games.
The engine used to create this game is called Ren’Py, a free software program that provides users wishing to create and publish visual novels with ready-made template gameplay designs. It is a very popular program, and has been used to make many other free visual novel games since its debut in 2004. It is therefore no surprise that this would be chosen as the solid foundation to build Katawa Shoujo upon.
The artwork used for each character was meticulously hand-drawn and colored, with the kind of polish found mostly in well-established manga and anime venues. Four Leaf’s dedication to the game as a freely-distributed work is very commendable, and one can really see the pride and love they felt for the whole project. The decision to use real-life photographs for backgrounds is interesting to make note of. These images were blurred with Photoshop technology and painted to match the colorful anime style of the characters in the forefront. Although much effort was made to make it a convincing setting for a Japanese private school for the disabled, the limitations inherent in using real-world photography are obvious. It is understandable that there is great difficulty involved in obtaining authentic photos of Japanese locations, particularly private institutions. However, some of the scenes may have been better presented as hand-drawn interpretations. Nevertheless, the call to use photographs served its purpose in giving a basic idea of the setting while minimizing background distractions and bringing the characters and dialogue closer to the fore.
The music in the game is nothing short of phenomenal. Each piece was an original composition by the musicians of Four Leaf Studios, and was primarily done in the classical style. The use of piano in the majority of the tracks gives a personal touch to each scene, and appropriately conveys the right kind of emotion for each scene. Feelings of comfort, tension, fear, guilt, and hope; there is a composition made for all of these, and then some. Every once in a while the classical motif is broken up by a jazz number, or some comic relief’s theme song, only to return again to its classical consistency. The impact of all of these elements together do well in putting the gamer/reader in the shoes of Hisao as he interacts with the world around him and narrates the present state of affairs in the first person.
The storyline is the bloodline of any visual novel worth its salt. Without a compelling story or characters, visual novels cannot provide the kind of immersion that it is capable of achieving. To this end, Four Leaf Studios managed to create a captivating tale of a young man trying to find himself when his life is changed forever. Hisao’s personal struggles with finding acceptance in his disability and for the disabled peers around him are struggles many people can relate to, even if they may not suffer the physical limitations he has. These struggles are what shape him throughout the story as he meets others who have their own unique circumstances to tend with. Each girl has a different story to tell, to name a few of them: a double amputee who is passionately driven to compete as an athletic runner, a burn victim who hides herself away from the world behind the comfort of books and games of logic, and an armless artist trying to discover who she is and where she is going. As Hisao gets to know each individual girl intimately, his perspective on the world changes and develop to closely match that of hers, which is to say each girl helps to shape Hisao into a better person in their own way. Yet, each girl is unique, and Hisao’s changes are all very different depending on who he spends his time with, which is to show a very realistic picture of the effects relationships have on individuals.
In lots of ways, Katawa Shoujo breaks away from most generic eroge, which tend to cater more to the player’s desires to escape reality and indulge in love fantasies where he is the white knight saving girls from some kind of horrible fate. The relationship that eventually develops between Hisao and his female companion, regardless of whom he chooses, is refreshingly interdependent and healthy. One may even argue it could do more to encourage the “forever alone” crowd to go outside and give love a chance, than to create an artificial chauvinistic haven for anti-socialites to hide away.
This game was certainly full of surprises, from start to finish. The more I played Katawa Shoujo, the more my misconceptions about this kind of game were shattered. I was thoroughly impressed by the efforts of Four Leaf to put together a compelling game about love and relationships in the disabled community, and for doing it as appropriately as they have. There was much love put into this game, and that much is for certain. The hardest part of this review, however, comes in how to recommend this game to others who have difficulty looking beyond the “hentai” elements or its sensitive subject matter. The social implication of recommending Katawa Shoujo to others notwithstanding, this is a game that this reviewer in particular feels should be played by as many people as possible. Even as a stand-alone love story, it serves as a refreshing commentary on the human condition, and that not even a physical disability can bar the way for an extraordinarily positive outlook, or the promises of love and lifelong companionship. In short, Katawa Shoujo is an experience worth having, and it is a positive example of the impact visual novels can potentially have on the lives of gamers.