Heartwarming, heartbreaking, heartstopping, and a whole lotta heart.
To put it as bluntly and politically incorrectly as possible, this a game where you date crippled girls, spawned by 4chan.
Let me clarify that a bit. Yes, Katawa Shoujo is a dating sim in which the protagonist is given the opportunity to romance a variety of his peers at a school for the disabled. The idea came from the back-page scribbles of a Comiket fanbook, which somehow wound up in the hands of 4chan’s /a/nime board, who fell in love with the idea, formed a group, did some brainstorming, and eventually created this game.
Having said that, I’m now in the position where I have to convince you, dear reader, to kindly stop hovering your mouse over the “back” button, because then you’d be missing out on one of the most unique, interesting, heartwarming and overall fucking great games to come out in recent memory. It’s also free and available for download right here, so the only thing that should be holding you back at this point is that you’re patiently waiting until you’ve finished reading this review. Right?
First off: a little backstory. Katawa Shoujo, despite the misleading title, was not made by Japan. The group Four Leaf Studios is made up of 21 multinational volunteers; essentially ordinary folk with a far-from-ordinary idea. It’s also over a decade old, from idea to inception to finished product. So yeah, it’s the anime-style cripple-loving equivalent of Duke Nukem Forever, except that instead of the gnawingly empty feeling of 15 years’ worth of waiting for a heaping platter of shit, you get to experience the kind of joy and self-satisfaction typically reserved only for things like Charlie Sheen’s opinion of himself.
I guess this how Lilly sees line breaks.
ACT 1: DAT PLOT
You play Hisao Nakai, ordinary high school student whose latent superpowers awaken when his crush asks him out; except that his only power is having a heart attack and it’s not actually a super power, he has a life-threatening condition known as arrhythmia. Hisao is then advised to swap schools to Yamaku High, a school that specializes in disabled or otherwise un-ordinary students. Needless to say, breaking connections with everything and everyone he knows and discovering he could die at any moment doesn’t go over very well with ol’ Hisao, and neither does having his heart literally broken by this girl.
You. (artist’s likeness)
Though the place takes some getting used to, with the help of the people he meets and the friends he makes, Hisao manages to turn the downward spiral of his life into something downright enjoyable. After all, assuming you the player point him in the right direction, he might just mend that broken heart of his, thanks to the efforts of the female cast. Or end up in a crumpled, whiskey-soaked heap in the dumpsters behind school. No pressure.
And that’s really where this game shines the brightest: the characters. To say they act like actual people might seem insulting, but I’m talking about their virtualness, not their disabledness. Gone is that nagging feeling during a great deal of anime-related/inspired stories that the writer is just throwing darts at a giant sheet of cute quirks and fetishes. Katawa Shoujo’s characters can easily pass the Turing test without having to flash their panties for a passing grade.
You’ve got Shizune, the Student Council President whose competitive spirit and take-charge personality crown her Queen Gets-Shit-Done, though being deaf-mute makes communicating her exact feelings difficult; Misha, Shizune’s disturbingly loud, cheery and inseparable best friend/sign-language interpreter; Lilly, the tall blonde and classy young lady who enjoys tea, walks in the country, and reading, though being blind since birth limits her to Braille; Hanako, an impossibly shy book-loving girl usually seen either with Lilly or hiding from the world in the back corner of the library, where her extensive burn scars can finally go unnoticed; Emi, the local track star and self-proclaimed “Fastest Thing on No Legs,” with an infectiously bubbly personality and the kind of headstrong determination that would shame Rocky Balboa; and Rin, a short-haired girl who is great at painting and abstract conversations but bad at making sense and shirts, the last two respectively due to being an Osaka-calibre space cadet and not having any arms.
An amusing arrangement of side characters help fill out the cast, give out extremely useful advice, or generally be entertainingly insane. Kenji, for instance. Kenji is, well… You can’t just describe the Kenji experience, you have to see it in order to understand it. Even Hisao himself rises above the generic dating sim protag archetype; he’s got dreams, thoughts, opinions, and his own personal issues which he needs to settle before he can help others with their own.
Yer a misogynistic paranoid schizophrenic, ‘Arry Potter!
As for the plots of the 5 different routes themselves, they’re generally very solid. The one weaker route is made up for by two excellent and two positively stellar What’s thankfully absent is the use of “forced drama,” aka unexpected, unwarranted and un-foreshadowed bad things happening just to squeeze a few tears out of a shellshocked audience; misery flavoured deus ex machina. Thanks to the phenomenally written characters and their interactions, the characters drive the plot as opposed to the plot pushing them forward. No impossibly tragic backstories, and the backstories that are tragic are handled magnificently realistically: you are a high school student, not a therapist. You aren’t magically going to solve everyone’s problems with a few forced platitudes and a quick fuck behind the sports shed, and where do you get off trying to “fix” people anyway? It’s indescribably refreshing to see this sort of thing handled so well.
And the endings? Let’s just say I almost had a heart attack of my own; the good kind. You may find yourself uncomfortably happy. Cheek muscles hurting from smiling for half an hour straight, that kind of happy. You might go out and do something recklessly happy, like buy a homeless man dinner or pet a kitten. Katawa Shoujo takes no responsibility for any unplanned acts of happy you may inflict upon others or yourself.
Please play responsibly.
ACT 2: DAT GAMEPLAY, DEM ARTS
In terms of technical aspects, the game is nothing fancy, but there’s a sort of warm softness to the whole thing that is both comfortable and endearing. There’s a fair few special effects to spice things up as well, including an interesting fade to black, and the reoccurring - and terrifying - heartbeat effect, a warning that Hisao is always just a few wrong moves away from death. Sprites are nicely detailed and adorable, backgrounds are of the “blurred photo” kind that adds to the sensation of softness, and the CGs are an absolutely lovely sight: reminiscent of watercolour paintings that warm the cockles of the heart and all that other “feelings” stuff. Really, I can’t praise the artists enough for the CGs, they’re like concentrated kitten petting in visual form.
There’s also half a dozen FMV sequences that, which definitely lacking the polish of things with, well, budgets, are still a very pleasant surprise. Hanako’s in particular is both heartbreaking and heartwarming in all the best ways possible, and the others are no slouches either. I won’t link them, though, they’re much better when earned.
The music should not go unrecognized, either. Whether achingly romantic or cheerful little ditties, the soundtrack is excellent at setting an appropriate mood. Special mention goes out to the girls’ themes for being remarkably good indicators of what to expect: Hanako’s Painful History will require tissues and excuses involving onions and foreign objects stuck in your eyes; Lilly’s Concord is like a nice cup of horse-tranquilizer-laced tea on a beautiful sunny afternoon, and Rin’s Parity is as amusingly…weird as Rin herself. Emi’s Standing Tall is worth noting if only because how hilariously (in)appropriate the title is for her.
The game also manages to strike a fair balance in difficulty; some visual novels have insultingly easy choices:
1. Ask her out.
2. Punch her.
3. Put it in.
and some have mind-bogglingly unintuitive paths (I’m looking at YOU, Clannad), but Katawa Shoujo manages to make them worthy of more than just a moment’s pause, yet clear if you’ve been paying attention so far. Which you should do. The first act is a little tricky; Emi’s route requires you to force Hisao to be a bit of a dumbass, and in order to even get that opportunity you have to dodge the rather aggressive Student Council’s recruitment efforts. And by “recruitment efforts” I mean “slavery attempts.”
Hey baby, what’s your sign?
ACT 3: DEM FEELINGS
So that’s the general idea of Katawa Shoujo. As for how I felt about it? Pure joy. Absolute misery and despair. The warm fuzzies. Something I can approximate to love, even. It’s absolutely phenomenal at getting the player to feel feelings, and that’s the highest form of praise I can give to any form of entertainment. Something like Hanako’s rare smile, or even Kenji’s brief, confusing moments of bro-ship feel genuine and earned, which is more than I can say of countless other works. It’s fucking fantastic, is the general theme or message I’m trying to convey here.
If I had to pick a little at it, I’d say that it’s a bit short; individual routes are maybe 4-8 hours depending on how fast you read. Sometimes scenes will cut unexpectedly, signalling the end of the day at times when there is clearly more that could be said. The side characters, though interesting, are relatively few in number and though there’s much to be enjoyed piecing together Kenji’s deal throughout the various routes, the others aren’t really touched on as much as I’d like. But that just ties more in with the length issue than an actual problem. But the worst complaint I have? Not enough post-coital cuddling. Dammit 4LS, don’t hold out on the good stuff here. You and I both know I expect warm fuzzy feelings.
Did someone say “warm fuzzy feelings”? Cause I think I just heard someone say “warm fuzzy feelings.”
Speaking of which, time to address one of the major elephants in the room: that whole “18+” thing.
Perhaps you’ve noticed I’ve gone this far without really talking about the whole disabled deal. That wasn’t actually intentional on my part, but likely intentional on the game’s part. Spend a little time and effort getting to know any of the characters and they quickly surpass any and all labels put on them, especially those of their respective issues. Y’know, like how actual people work. You don’t forget they’re disabled, it’s just not called attention to and quickly becomes much less interesting than the characters themselves. It’s a game where you date girls who happen to be disabled, not a game about dating disabled girls. As Hisao says to himself very early on, the thought that people would be defined by their disabilities is disgusting. And that’s essentially the core of the game itself: people can and should only be judged individually as the people they are, not as a pile of character traits held together by willful ignorance and laziness.
If you step back and look at it, this is a very odd game. Besides the obvious points, it’s a multinational (mostly English-speaking) game that uses most of the conventions of a Japanese dating sim, or ren’ai game if you want to be anally retentive about it. However, either because it’s free and therefore doesn’t need to sell, or maybe because having an outside opinion allows them to mess with the standard conventions, it’s missing a lot of the cringe-inducing cliches of the medium. No blatant panty shots, no standard anime character archetypes, Hisao doesn’t have boob-attracting magnets in his hands when he trips; none of the things anime-watchers have come to expect -and loathe - from a somewhat stagnating medium.
If this isn’t the phrase every guy dreams of hearing, I don’t know what is.
Not only is this refreshing, it’s also hopefully a sign of things to come. The visual novel medium is largely nonexistent in the West, and with Japan all but monopolizing it, for those of us who enjoy this niche we find it extremely finely tailored towards Japanese interests. So when something like Katawa Shoujo comes along, it’s heartening to see things like this exist, and makes me wish all the more for its success so that others can imitate, learn, and improve on it. That’s also why I’m writing this sloppy literary blowjob glowing recommendation.
Summed up, what do I think? The world needs more of this. It’s an eye-opener, a mind-opener and a heart-opener. If you don’t seriously reflect on yourself as a result of playing this, you’re either already a moral and empathetic savant up there with Buddha and Gandhi, or due for a trip to the Wizard of Oz, though I hear he’s fresh out of hearts. It’s an experience, and a damn moving one to boot. It’ll make you feel feelings, think thoughts, and above all else, smile. And I could be wrong, but those are some of the finer things in life.
This has been your host Deskimus Prime, back in black after an extended leave of doing things that are not reviews. I’ll just dump the download link right here once more, and if this one gets clicked more often that the one at the top of the page I’ll consider my work here a success.