Review by MarioSuperstar
"A very immersed visual novel that teaches you how to see beauty in imperfection."
Katawa Shoujo. The name is enough to immediately steer people away. When you first see a couple of screenshots, your first impression is that it's another perverted hentai game filled with teenage women in skirts. This judgment couldn't be further away from the truth. You then take a look at the development team and see they're associated with 4chan. Once again, the judgment that this game is shallow solely due to the association with 4chan is short-sighted.
Katawa Shoujo took a good five years of development, so it is clear that it's not another shallow, perverted hentai game. It all started in January 2007 on a 4chan imageboard. A group was formed, and they took the name of Four Leaf Studios. The team contained various members from 4chan and other internet communities. Unfortunately, this project team would only come together once. As soon as the game was released, Four Leaf Studios announced its termination. The game was released as freeware on January 4th of this year, and it received much positive reception. The game was received so well, that it immediately sparked communities dedicated to it.
The game is classified as a visual novel which isn't a mainstream genre at all. You will spend most of your time reading text. In fact, the only gameplay element existent in the game is the choice system. This system enables the player to make two or three choices throughout the experience and depending on the choices the player chooses, he or she will determine the type of ending to the story. While the absence of live-action gameplay may turn traditional gamers off, I assure you that Katawa Shoujo provides a unique experience worth trying for anyone who has yet to play visual novels. This opinion is coming from a guy who has gameplay as his most anticipated aspect of any new game.
Once downloaded, the game's presentation gives a pleasant first impression considering the developers were no more than a team of common artists and writers. The main menu's theme sets the tone perfectly. The best way to describe it? It sounds like a theme you'd hear from The Young and the Restless. This theme easily communicates the legitimacy of the story to any possible doubters. Once starting the game, the cut-scenes are professionally animated, menus have plenty flexible options, and reading the text is smooth. The developers were even smart enough to give certain colors to character's names in the text box, so this makes it much easier to read. The overall presentation throughout the game is solid.
The story opens up with a young male student by the name of Hisao. It is a snowy afternoon, and Hisao is having a conversation with his close female friend. Hisao's friend slowly leads into an important announcement that entails her true feelings for him. After receiving the announcement, Hisao collapses and becomes diagnosed with a heart condition called cardiac dysrhythmia. He would then be forced to attend a school filled with disabled students. The main objective of the game is to guide Hisao throughout this daunting experience of leaving the familiar and entering the unknown.
Throughout the story, Hisao will gain new friends and companions. Most of these acquaintances will be female, so the choices you make decide which acquaintances Hisao becomes attached to. There are good, bad, and neutral endings. Personally, I think it's very interesting to see the differences in relationships you build by only making one choice on one day.
Katawa Shoujo absolutely excels with dialogue; from humorous moments of your next door neighbor to the romantic feelings Hisao thinks to himself. The dialogue is so real that it immerses the player into the story emotionally, so most of friendships and love that occurs in the game is at a slow enough pace to feel natural. I must warn you: this game will touch your heart in a way it's never been touched before because many of the characters, including Hisao, possess internal conflicts and struggles that are definitely relatable to everyday life of human beings. All of the characters carry distinctive mannerisms, phrases, and personality traits. None of them feel shallow or generic, so there are no characters simply tossed in as filler. Each character plays a significant role in whichever path the player explores. I won't get too deep into who the characters are, but I will say that there is enough diversity to represent all types of real friends you may actually have. The dialogue of the game is what makes it for me: real, thought-provoking, and emotional.
The soundtrack accompanies each individual scene and character perfectly. The developers did a wonderful job of composing tracks that express varying moods and scenarios throughout the game. Nothing truly felt out of place. There were times late in the game where one of the more suspenseful tracks fit so perfectly that I felt an intense emotion such as sadness or fear. This is yet another example of how the game immerses players. Don't get me wrong, the actual tracks themselves are very simplistic by themselves. The key to the soundtrack's success is the placement of the tracks in specific conversations. Also, they slowly fade away into silence like real soundtracks. Katawa Shoujo displays a very professional way of using music to communicate how the player should feel in each scene.
As for the sound, it's done in the same fashion as music. When you're outside, you will hear birds chirping. In the city, you will hear people chatting and footsteps on the sidewalk. When a character exits the room, you will often hear a door slam shut. The placements of the sounds help accompany the music in times of suspense as well. While sound is a simple concept in most traditional games, Katawa Shoujo uses sound to help the player feel like there's action in the game despite the fact that the player is simply reading text.
The game's graphics and artwork display a mix. The backgrounds look like actual real life places. Due to the anime-styled characters being surrounded by environments that don't necessarily fit them, this may feel weird at first, but you'll eventually get used to it. As for the characters, many of them appeared to be drawn with much thought. Once you see all the different characters within the game, their personalities are readily expressed through their postures and faces. There will be times where some facial expressions don't fit the sentences spoken by the character, but this is very rare. Even if the facial expressions don't match the dialogue, the writers make the effort to elaborate through Hisao's thoughts from time to time. For the most part, the characters are drawn tastefully, so you don't have to worry about females in this game being portrayed as sex objects.
Speaking of sex, the readers who got this far are probably wondering if this game has sexual content. It does, but do not let this simple fact consume your mind. Do not succumb to what I like to call The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Effect in which you take one small thing out of a whole and grow it into something bigger relative to the actual core of the game. For those who wish not to see any of it, there is an option to turn it off. I'm not sure what it's replaced with, unfortunately. Most of the sexual content is natural, so do remember that they are miniscule overall.
The game does have its weaknesses. I strongly feel that some paths certainly aren't as natural as others. I applaud Four Leaf Studios for not making it as unnatural as a porn plot. Believe me when I say this game isn't catering to perverts; however, there are some scenes that simply make you want to scratch your head.
I also feel like women may have a harder time enjoying the game. Men will have no problem because the protagonist is male. The romance is mostly from a man's perspective. It's understandably hard to include a protagonist female path. That would require extra dialogue changes which would have made the development even longer. Since it's unreasonable to ask for a female protagonist, perhaps Four Leaf Studios could have made more of an effort to not make the teenage male perspective of relationships dominant? I'm not entirely sure on how they could have gone about this, so this minor complaint may sound like a lost cause.
The last issue I have with the game is that some conversations drag on for a while. The plus side of this is that idle chit-chat helps contribute to the game's realistic nature, but some of the text just feels like they're unnecessarily added.
There is plenty a player can get from this game's story in inspiration. The purpose of becoming disabled and attending a school with disabled people is to see beauty beyond the surface. Not just the physical surface of their obvious abnormalities but also their personalities. It is essentially a smack in the face to traditional big-breasted and skinny drawn women you would expect in Japanese-themed games. So many characters in this game have layers of emotions fueled by various things, and it speaks to me that Hisao can love any of new friends he makes. Perhaps we're capable of falling in love with more people than we originally think? In addition to this, it's obvious that choice-systems in video games are by no means rare anymore, but this game does a splendid job of showing us different ways to accept a new world. Hisao has varying dreams and aspirations as well as concerns and fears depending on the person he has a bond with, but the good endings all show that he overcomes them in different ways. This is not all that can be taken from the game, so I implore you to see the others for yourself. Once again, for common developers, they certainly beat my expectations.
Most people are going to say that there are plenty of similar games that do a better job. That's probably true, but you have to remember that these guys aren't huge publishers. Add in the fact that one look at this game will raise suspicions of perversion due to its association with the word Shoujo, and you have an unexpected, pleasant experience. I will certainly give these guys credit in developing something real and tasteful. Teenage male experiences are not known for being the way they are presented in this game, so while the game won't be a new experience to everyone, it's still a breath of fresh air for some.
Unfortunately, there will not be a sequel due to Four Leaf Studios announcing that they'd only do a single project. I think a sequel would have been perfect! So many more perspectives and experiences are left untouched: marriage, love triangles, infidelity, and much more. Of course, I'm just a guy speaking from the perspective of someone who's only played one game of this type once, so maybe I look silly making these suggestions.
Katawa Shoujo is a great example of a game being made by the people. I personally find the development process to be amazing. Can you truly imagine strangers on the Internet getting together for five years and creating a game from an extremely unpopular genre in the West that turns out to be amazing? The dialogue is real and emotional, the soundtrack has been carefully allocated to the dialogue and characters, the characters have layers of personality, and overall presentation is solid. The only areas Kawata Shoujo falls short in are some unnatural scenes, possibly catering to only the teenage male demographic, and some unnecessary conversations. I still must applaud Four Leaf Studios on doing a job well done in creating an immersed visual novel that touches the heart of many people, disabled or not, in the wonders of young love.
Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 04/23/12
Game Release: Katawa Shoujo (US, 01/04/12)
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