Review by Triwing
"The Vast Femininst Conspiracy"
Katawa Shoujo. Disability Girls.
Just the name is enough for most people to dismiss this game, but for those of us who kept an open mind in delved into the world of Yamaku High School were rewarded with a heart-warming, and heart-breaking, experience that lasts for days, if not weeks.
An important thing to note about the game is, well, it's not exactly correct to call it a game. In the most basic, technical definition, it could be considered a video game. A much more appropriate title would be visual novel, a very popular genre in Japan which feature minimal gameplay in favor of wide-reaching and engrossing stories. The most gameplay in Katawa Shoujo would be from the occasional choices you make ushering you down the path of one girl or another, and even these are few and far between.
For five years now this game has been in development by a rag-tag group of individuals from the /a/nime board of 4chan, as referenced in their group name, Four Leaf Studios. The project was inspired by a simple sketch by the same name from an artist known as RAITA, a doujinishi artist from the Zettai Shoujo circle. The sketch included pictures of the five girls that Hisao would be able to romance, as well as a very bare-bones description of their back stories. A sticky featuring the sketch lasted on the front page of the /a/ board until January 4th, 2007, where posters discussed actually creating the game, like many internet communities do. What was unexpected, however, was them to actually do it.
But now Katawa Shoujo is finally released in all of its glory, so let's get straight into the review!
The game takes place from the perspective of Hisao Nakai, high school senior, the very definition of average teenager. That is until Hisao suffers a major heart attack one winter day, putting him in the hospital for four months and revealing a condition that's been hidden from him all his life: arrhythmia, a condition that causes to heart to have an irregular beat. Hisao's life is turned upside down by this condition. Every day he has to take a handful of medications, seventeen in total, just to stay alive. A sharp blow to his chest or simple overexertion can send him into another heart attack, and he may not be so lucky as to end up with a mere hospital stay a second time.
Because of this, Hisao is forced to attend Yamaku High School, a school designed to help students with varying disabilities overcome their problems and become functioning members of society There he meets his five potential love interests: Hanako Ikezawa, Emi Ibarazaki, Lilly Satou, Rin Tezuka, and Shizune Hakamichi. Each of these girls is special in her own way. Hanako suffers severe anxiety as a result of scars she received when her house burned down as a child. Emi lost her legs in a car accident. Lilly was born blind, Shizune a deaf mute, and Rin with underdeveloped arms. Despite this issues, Hisao quickly makes friends with the girls, and perhaps goes even further.
Being a visual novel, the story is the strongest part of Katawa Shoujo. The premise, as off-putting as it may be at first, is actually one of the game's most endearing qualities, in fact the way the game treats this issue is one of its biggest draws. As you learn more about the girls you learn that beyond their handicaps they are normal teenagers which hopes, dreams, desires, and urges. It is possible to completely forget their disabilities and see them for them and not just their inhibitions. This makes the characters extremely relatable and provides for a very emotional experience if you allow yourself to become immersed in their personalities. There are plenty of points where you could come close to crying, laughing, or simply getting annoyed at Hisao's idiocy.
This works two ways. The comic relief is also written smartly, as expected from a team originating on a site like 4chan. The most notable comic relief comes in the form of the only other male student Hisao regularly interacts with: Kenji Setou. Kenji's paranoia knows no bounds, and he is often found rambling on about his theories on the vast feminist conspiracy that he claims is threatening the globe. Outside of Kenji, the humor largely depends on which girl's route you chose. Emi and Shizune's routes are more lighthearted than the rest due to their personalities, while Hanako's and Rin's are definitely less jolly.
Many people heard about Katawa Shoujo as a hentai game about crippled girls, which is partially correct. There are some mild sex scenes in the game, most of which barely show more than a little nipple here and there, but do vary in content, and these scenes can in fact be turned off from the options menu, replacing the pornographic images with hilariously out-of-place pictures of varying animals. Those who play this game for these scenes will be sorely disappointed, as to even get to them you have to endure at least a couple of hours of straight dialogue for very little reward, at most two or three static scenes that last for only a handful of minutes.
Never has a visual novel been lauded for its gameplay, and Katawa Shoujo is no different. The most gameplay this game offers is in the form of two or three choices that, depending on which you choose, push you down a different girls path.
After the first act, these choices then affect the ending of the game, where choosing wrong could lead to the girl's neutral or bad endings. The choices are few and far between though, with some routes having as little as one choice throughout the entirety.
Other than that, the most interaction in the game comes from clicking the mouse to move from one line of dialogue to another. Not the most fun you could be having with your time, but you're not really playing this game for the gameplay, are you?
Not much to say here, the game consists of mostly static sprites standing in front of rather generic backgrounds. Occasionally there will be a beautiful hand-drawn picture to help drive home the emotions of the scene. While not exactly rare, these scenes only appear every so often, but are definitely the high point in the game's art direction.
The sprites are not much more than what you'd expect either. They are pretty and accentuate the girl's features well, and serve their purpose quite dutifully. Besides slight changes in facial expression or stance there's not much more to the sprites.
Due to constraints around available artists, the team had to scrap the idea of individual hand-drawn backgrounds for every scene. Instead they went with real life photos of areas around Japan, with filters thrown in to show the change in time and weather. Not the most exciting thing in the world, but for backgrounds they serve their purpose adequately.
The tracks are great, but there's really nothing notable here. They serve their purpose of adding to the scene at hand very well. When Caged Heart starts playing, you know something is wrong. Likewise, when To Become One starts up, something is definitely right. Generic Happy Music is just that, but not in a bad way. Overall, the sound track is good, but not in a memorable way.
All in all, Katawa Shoujo is a very well made game. You can tell that the developers wanted to create a truly emotional story, and they not only succeeded, but they surpassed most everyone's expectations. Despite being a game about dating girls with life-changing disabilities, everything was wonderfully done, not even the sex scenes seem out of place. Even though they have officially disbanded with the completion of Katawa Shoujo, I have high hopes that Four Leaf Studios can make a new game, or at least the members of the team can go into the business of creating more wonderful visual novels.
That is, unless the feminists get to them first.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 01/25/12
Game Release: Katawa Shoujo (US, 01/04/12)
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