Review by Talikiasmi

"Katawa Shoujo is a bit like the characters themselves."

TL;DR Version:
Plot: 7.5/10- Ignore the railroading and inconsistent writing, and you have a very solid work with a gripping story.

Characters: 9/10- The characters are incredibly fleshed out and compelling, and even the ones that aren't are very entertaining to interact with.

Music: 6.5/10- Decent, but forgettable.

Graphics: 6/10. Despite some nice animation, most of the art is generic shounen fare, with a bit of disturbing fanservice. Nothing to see here.

Fun factor: 8/10. Aside from frustration regarding the irrelevant choices and the predictability of certain routes, you're certain to have a great time.

Overall: 8/10.

Now, onto the full review:
On a whole, I'm pretty big on Visual Novels with unique premises, even more so than with your typical RPG or shoot-em-up. As with visual novels... you get very little of the gameplay that can still make those games entertaining and enthralling. Visual novels are far more akin to books or movies than to games, which makes innovation a must. What motivation do I have to buy a book, if the plot is a carbon copy of fifty other, better novels that I've already read? What motivation do I have to see a romantic comedy that is a clone of the dozens upon dozens of other generic films that get pumped out by Hollywood on an annual basis?

That said, it took a lot of good press to actually get me to play Katawa Shoujo, and even then I approached it with a colossal amount of skepticism. A game with a title whose analogue would be akin to "Crippled girls"? A dating sim that takes place at a school of disabled teenagers? A game that was made based on some images from /b/, It felt like yet another pathetically "ironic" in-joke, the punchline being the ensnarement of the saps that fell for such an obvious ploy. Yet, when the game got more and more positive reactions from legitimate reviewers, curiosity ended up overwhelming me.

I'm glad it did.

We see the game through the lens of a boy named Hisao Nakai; your typical Japanese teenager. Overall, his life goes about in a mundane fashion, until the girl he has idolized for quite some time... confesses that she loves him too. Life couldn't get any better. Hisao has severe heart palpitations and collapses five seconds later. As his hospitalization lingers on, his normal life collapses before his eyes. His friends are initially sympathetic, but slowly begin to drift further and further away. His crush's visits were awkward and became less and less frequent, until she stopped coming entirely. Then things just seemed to get worse.

Due to the fact that the collapse was the result of a severe heart condition, his doctors decide it best to have him transfer to a boarding school known as Yamaku High School, a school for people who, for various reasons, are unable to currently fit in in modern-day society. To be a bit more tactless: it's a school for the disabled.

Hisao initially responds with aggressive resentment and cynicism; his preconceptions towards the disabled fueling an aggressiveness towards them and the school as a whole. However, as the story progresses, Hisao begins to realize that these people he was judging? They honestly aren't that different from him. People are people are people, no matter their flaws. As he spends more time interacting with his classmates, he eventually overcomes his prejudice, makes friends, and finds love.

Seems a bit more deep than it appeared on the surface, doesn't it? Well, to a degree it is. It's a story that is quite moving at points, and delivers its touching and heartfelt lesson with a great deal of gusto; it will make you smile, and it will make you cry. There's no doubt about that. In fact, the characters themselves are quite strong; aside from Hisao, the stars of the show are five girls with a variety of disabilities. They range a girl with prosthetic legs, a girl with no arms, a girl that's deaf, a girl that's blind, and a mysterious and quiet girl, with severe burns covering her face.

However, these characters transcend their disabilities and minor personality quirks, and become fully-fleshed out people. The writers take great pains to make these characters human beings, and their effort shines through- absolutely none of them are two-dimensional, and they all have interesting stories to tell, as long as you give them the chance. It does take effort to make digital creations feel like people, but 4 Leaf Studios most certainly goes above and beyond in that regard.

There are also a handful of side-characters, who play a role in each story arc. While containing far less depth than the heroines of the piece, they manage to still be quite quirky and interesting, and are typically fun enough to interact with. In isolation, I would quite heartily recommend this game; in these respects it's a masterwork that's worth everybody's time.

You don't know how desperately I wish I could leave it at that, but I really can't.

The first glitch is the way the game was structured: each route was written by a different member of the design team. In theory, this was a brilliant move- it allowed for a great deal of versatility in writing, and made each route have a unique style. However, it also makes the quality incredibly uneven; while there is a great deal of debate about which routes are well-written and which ones aren't, everybody agrees that the writing is most certainly incredibly inconsistent.

Another flaw is the writing- Hisao tends to be rather long-winded. This is a common trait in visual novels, and it's one that eventually the typical reader is going to be able to forgive and ignore. However, in this case, there are plenty of cases where you could easily cut several paragraphs out of scenes and not really miss much of anything. That's a problem, and it can make certain sections of the story a bit of a slog to get through, unfortunately.

By itself, however, these aren't huge flaws. It's completely unfair to expect perfection, especially from a game you get for free. The main problem is the level of interactivity.

On paper, the difference between a visual novel and a kinetic (or sound) novel is how much you actually get to interact with the game; the idea behind visual novels is that throughout the game you are given choices, and the decisions you make will influence the direction the game takes. In this first section of the game? This works incredibly well. There are a good chunk of options throughout, and they allow you to decide which main character(s) the rest of the game will focus on.

However, once you get to Act 2 and beyond... you lose most of your power over the main character. The amount of choices you get become fewer and fewer, and except for one or two at the end of each route (allowing you to either get the "good ending" or the "bad ending"), pretty much none of them impact the story. It gives the story are rather uneven feel, and makes it feel like a colossal chunk of the game could have been turned into a Kinetic Novel with few alterations. That's a problem.

The music is decent, but forgettable. The pieces all work, most certainly, and they are spliced into the game quite well. However, none of them are particularly catchy. I certainly wouldn't put any of them on my iPod to rock out to.

The graphics suffer from a similar flaw- they're all decent, but they are also pretty generic. They all have that basic "shounen" feel to them, that any anime or visual novel veteran has seen dozens upon dozens of times already. The touch of fanservice is also slightly worrying, given the amount of respect the characters get otherwise. There's nothing new here, which creates an awful disconnect from the interesting and incredibly unique nature of the piece itself.
That said, the animated pieces are extremely well done.

As a game, Katawa Shoujo is a bit like the characters themselves: it has it's flaws, but truly? Harping on them is missing the point.. The point is to look beyond them, and embrace the heartfelt emotion and love that was clearly put into its creation. If you can do that, you're in for a great ride.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 11/27/12

Game Release: Katawa Shoujo (US, 01/04/12)

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