I actually posted this on the Broken Heart Club forum, but i'm posting it again here as a preview because i'm thinking of getting permission to post these text reviews here as well as on The Escapist. Here's my re-make of my review for Katawa Shoujo.
When it comes to almost any medium of entertainment, it's always the obscure nutjobs who do things best. Well maybe not nutjobs necessarily, but let's think a minute on this. The most important movie of the 90s was Pulp Fiction, and at the time Quentin Tarantino was a relative unknown. Most of the actors who appeared in it were in a slump, and it was extremely dialogue heavy. But what it did have was excellent, and it propelled Tarantino into the spotlight. Or maybe we should look at video games. The best game to come out in the current console generation was Portal. It was around four hours long and built by a small team, and yet was so well designed and so funny it was basically a flawless item, and it was handled by a small team within Valve who did the best with what they have. Another good example? The Silent Hill games in their prime were built on hardware so weak it could barely render more than ten feet, yet the creators were able to use this to their advantage and create the best horror experiences to ever grace the world.
Why bring this up? Well, the same applies to visual novels. While there are mainstream items people suck off unendingly like Clannad, the most interesting things happen in the independent circle with what seems to be a rule that the cheaper the visual novel, the better it is as even total amateurs like the one woman behind Analogue: A Hate Story can create more convincing drama than Clannad's "Snow falls and everyone dies" drama. This item we're reviewing is free, and couldn't have come from more humble origins. It was based on the concept for supposedly an eroge in the back of a doujin which would revolve around fucking cripples, and the concept ultimately landed and was picked up by a hive of scum and villainy known to the world at large as 4Chan. The end result? To date, the only drama I ever got engaged in that doesn't involve mass slaughter or Samuel L. Jackson quoting bible before shooting someone.
Quite an accomplishment, but that might be hard to believe. The item in question, Katawa Shoujo, is a free to download visual novel built on the Ren'Py engine that was plagued by a surprisingly long Valve time, a title that many found offensive (Katawa is actually a derogatory term akin to "Retard") and of course the fact that it wasn't a secret that it was coming from 4Chan. Hell, the writers, animators, and composers behind itself actually named themselves Four Leaf Studios, they were practically advertising their origins. So, what exactly happened that elevated Katawa Shoujo to "Best drama I've ever read" status anyway? Well it's possible that Mephistopholes was involved, but I think one of the things that people complained about actually worked in Katawa Shoujo's favor, and that is that the five possible arcs are actually quite short, most of them ending when a relationship actually commenced leaving a lot to the readers imagination. It lasts as long as it needs to to get the drama out, ends on either a properly triumphant, bitter, or gut-churning note and then gives us the option to replay it to try and get to the arc we actually wanted. Since with one exception the arcs never wear out their welcome, it's easy to get behind them and stay with them to the very end.
But enough build up, time to talk about things. Katawa Shoujo is a school life visual novel set in the fictional Japanese high school Yamaku Academy, a private school which is largely geared to help physically disabled students receive a proper education while adjusting to their own disabilities. The lead character who tells the story is Hisao Nakai, an average and honestly kind of boring at times young man who is living at the top of his life when on a cold winter afternoon, the girl of his dreams approaches him. On a snow covered hill, she asks him to be her boyfriend. How does Hisao react to a young beauty confessing her love for him?
Fortunately for Hisao doctors revive him, but he discovers he has arrhythmia. Long story short, he will always be at risk for heart attacks like the one he had on the hill, especially after his heart was damaged by the first attack. While a rather daunting list of prescription drugs can keep his heart stable enough for him to begin to recover and live his life again, it takes four months in a hospital watching the paint dry and reading books before he is allowed to leave. Having alienated all of his friends, including his girlfriend of two minutes and one temporary fatality, Hisao is forced to make a new start at Yamaku Academy as he will still need nursing care to fine tune his prescriptions, as well as physical therapy (Mind you he forgets that last detail in every arc except one). You as the reader can choose Hisao's actions and either push him to date one of five classmates or to a horrific death at the hands of Glen Beck's legally blind and legally retarded clone.
...or is this a prequel to Glen Beck's career? He became a lunatic on the radio after he accidentally murdered someone in Japan?
That musing aside, Katawa Shoujo is character driven and most of the praise for it comes from the five candidates Hisao can fuck-- DATE!
No wait, i was right the first time because only two of the arcs actually have dating in them. The praise for it comes from the five candidates Hisao can fuck, each one of the five girls with their own arc and own peculiarities. To give Katawa Shoujo credit right now, even the characters i wound up not liking were very well realized and compared to characters you see in modern animations they have a lot of depth, and even with the ones i personally didn't like i did want to learn more about them and never at any point felt like dropping an arc. There are actually six main female characters but generally they work in three groups.
The first one you encounter is the student council lead by Hakamichi Shizune, a driven if overly competitive young woman who has ambitions to restore glory to her seat, only her job is made difficult by the fact that unless you have HIsao join the student council, Shizune's only assistant is her kind of stupid assistant Shiina Mikado, a.k.a Misha, a pink haired demon. Shizune is the president of the student council and her arc revolves around Hisao learning to cope with her quirks as Shizune herself learns to work a ten foot metal pole out of her ass. Oh yeah, there's also a language gap that needs to be bridged. The reason Shizune allows someone who is largely useless to her to remain in the student council, outside of a possible lesbian crush, is because Misha pulls double duty as Shizune's interpreter, Shizune you see is deaf and never learned spoken language, so she communicates with sign language largely through her interpreter. There's a fun game you can play with them in trying to figure out at which points the actually rather coarse Shizune's influence ends and her bubbly dimwit interpreter begins inserting her own opinions into the translations, but Shizune's arc tends to be a little polarizing, people either love it or want to beat Misha to death. I fall in the latter category and can't speak much more on things, so let's move on.
The second group Hisao encounters in the introductory arc is the two flower girls Lilly and Hanako. Lilly stands out in being the tallest of the female cast (not to mention having the most impressive rack, even if proportionally Shizune's is bigger) and also being the most friendly, always behaving diplomatically. It actually makes her arc the most boring one even though it's hard to hate Lilly, since she doesn't have much in the way of character flaws a lot of the drama has to be inflated by Lilly's best friend Hanako. Hanako wound up stealing the show for me, but bare in mind I am psychotic and like her because, even if I'm not shy, our personalities are the most alike, Hanako is cynical and misanthropic because she was abused by her classmates and became withdrawn to the point that she largely forgot how social interactions work, she often panics whenever someone tries to talk to her.
Why? How did she get to such a state? Well while it's implied she was always shy, things may have been made worse by the fact that she was orphaned and disfigured in a house fire, having burn scars on close to 1/4 if not 1/3 of her body, including scars on her face. Hanako's arc can easily be the most enjoyable if not always the most pleasant because interacting with her for people not used to the emotionally skewed (Like say for example our protagonist Hisao) can be difficult because her reactions and opinions can sometimes seem alien to Hisao, and it's hard to determine just how psychologically damaged she really is. I think the fact that the problems of the Hanako arc come from character flaws on both sides, Hanako not ever letting Hisao know her opinions and feelings and Hisao taking a white knight mentality towards her, and any of the three endings to her arc come naturally as any one of them can happen if Hisao is left to his own devices. Hanako also creates a very interesting paradox, but I'll get into that later.
If Hanako is so shy though, how did Lilly become her best friend? Good question! While I like both of them there tend to be back story inconsistencies, mostly relating to just how long they actually knew one another, but things are probably helped by the fact that Lilly is blind and can't see Hanako's scars, so she can't reel at them.
...oh by the way, Lilly is blind. She was born blind though and can navigate with minimal assistance, so don't dwell on it, she certainly doesn't.
Lastly we have the amputee sisters Rin and Emi. Rin is Yamaku's local artist, having to paint with her feet and mouth since her arms were lost to a birth defect, and Emi is Yamaku's track star and the fastest thing on no legs!
...she also looks like she's 14 and wears pigtails. Excuse me lolicons, I'll be staring at Rin while Emi is on screen because I don't get off on looking at people who look like they're too young to consent to sex.
Yeah yeah. Anyway the Rin arc is my second favorite to the Hanako arc, though it's all because I like Rin. The Rin arc also cemented my hatred for Hisao, but bare in mind that kind of like with the Hanako arc, I knew how to handle things better than Hisao did since I'm more familiar with the mentally unwell. The thing about Rin is that it's hard to understand just what the fuck she's saying. It's not that she has difficulty speaking, quite the opposite, the end of her arc shows she can speak backwards with little difficulty, it's just that what she says is so incoherent it's hard to pin down what she wants. This is made worse by the fact that her thought process seems to be a little fucked up as she herself rarely knows what she wants out of life, her drama largely coming from the fact that people can't understand her. She also is pretty hilarious and weirdly attractive even without arms, or maybe that's just me.
Emi's arc, weirdly, is most reminicent of Hanako's arc since their disabilities both stem from traumatic events. Emi lost her legs in a car accident and like Hanako she's paranoid of white knight tendencies and doesn't let people help her even when she does need it. Even if that's a bit of a low hanging fruit, I didn't dislike the Emi arc, I just wish Emi would lose the pigtails. It's the opposite of the Lilly arc, good drama but a kind of uninteresting character.
But the side characters are just as important as the seven main ones. Hisao will also frequently interact with Yuuko the librarian, a manic depressive off her meds who is still kind of appealing, the head nurse (His name is never given) who always wears a stupid grin but ultimately offers solid medical advice, and Mutou, his science teacher who always works well with the smart kids and absolutely fuck-all else, I'm sure you've met the type. There is also a conspiracy theorist named Kenji, but I'm convinced he was just added in because Four Leaf wanted to make an attempt at the most unappealing character to ever exist. Nice try Four Leaf but you were defeated by the fact that some cartoon studio made a show based on the "My Little Pony" dolls. Kenji may be a piece of shit, but we never hear him sing, so he's more appealing than Pinkie Pie if nothing else.
"But wait," I hear you cry, "this was based on the rough draft for an eroge and you mentioned fucking. Is there porn in this?!"
...no. No there isn't. There are sex scenes that can get graphic but a lot of them are awkward, in fact the most graphic one is so pitch black in nature I actually lost a boner to it. The sex scene in the Hanako arc is the only one in which you see genitals and penetration, but all throughout it the atmosphere is so stilted by the preceding dialogue, the awkwardness of the sex itself and the fact that the melancholic "Painful History" track keeps playing even when the fucking starts that it is impossible to be aroused, and in my opinion if a sex scene exists as a function of the drama and not spank material, it doesn't count as porn. Since for the most part the sex scenes all serve the drama (there is an exception though it serves more as uncomfortable comedy than something to gawk at) they feel like they're speaking on an element of human relationships, and it's helped by the fact that they tend to be a little awkward even when passion is at it's highest, like the people who wrote the scenes have actually had sex in the past. Again, it serves as either a show of intimacy or stress and fits into the drama without it becoming ridiculous. But enough about the sex, how are the technical aspects?
...okay no one is going to ask that. But anyway, the Ren'Py engine is capable of keeping track of what dialogue bits you have and haven't read and as far as I can tell create unlimited save states, so it's pretty easy to unlock all the content. The music tracks you've encountered can be listened to in the extra menu, and on that subject while the music can get old at times, there are plenty of enjoyable tracks that serve the atmosphere really well. There are also six animations that appear at the start of each arc (One for the opening arc and one for each character arc) and their quality is varied but not great, though for the budget the group was working with I can say that they're not bad either. During most of the visual novel characters appear with varied sprites that generally are well drawn and funnily enough well animated as the screen adjusts for when the characters in the text are sitting down, standing up, and there are also some interesting effects that kick in when Hisao's heart is acting up. There are also CGs which, while generally well drawn, do have kind of a weird problem in that there are continuity issues in between the still images and character sprites and dialogue. This is most noticeable with Hanako whose scars will change shape and shade in different still images though you may also notice that in some of the images, most noticeably within the Shizune arc, dividing lines and background connections aren't totally erased and you'll sometimes see things in the background bleed into the foreground, like when you'll notice stars in the background show up on Shizune's bra.
...no questions damnit. Still despite all that in general the art gets a passing grade, especially since all of the characters are nicely expressive in still images, sprites and animations.
To sum things up, Katawa Shoujo is good.
Um... no. I won't go that far. It's good, but it still has some obvious flaws. There are occasional disconnects in between the arcs even though with a lot of them it's implied that most of the events are happening regardless of Hisao's presence in that one character's life, but that's not a deal breaker. Some of the music tracks can grate, and I feel Kenji should have been dropped entirely as he only ever contributes to a bad ending in the introductory arc if you prevent Hisao from ending up with any of the five candidates, but what can you do? Actually there's a problem with arc-specific side characters as well, characters who appear only in one arc tend to be either forgettable or unlikable. Emi's mother is kind of boring, during the Rin arc she's pushed into the professional circuit and the owner of the studio she goes to work for is not just boring but comes off as really quite stupid, though explaining why would be entering spoiler territory. Lilly's sister Akira is interesting in her own right but Shizune's little brother Hidaeki is barely worth mentioning. Her father is worth mentioning though, JIgoro was Four Leaf's second entry in the "Create the Most Unlikable Character" contest. He's a megalomaniacal prick with severe adequacy issues, presumably the Michael Savage to Kenji's Glen Beck, and every time he's on screen you start to wonder why we couldn't just meet Shizune's mother instead, or why there isn't an option to get HIsao to perform the Black Sacrament and have Jigoro killed. But even with those flaws, ultimately Katawa Shoujo is one of the best visual novels you can find and definitely an item worth checking out if you haven't already.
In fact, why haven't you? I'm making an alternate version of my Escapist Magazine review for Katawa Shoujo to introduce myself here, you should already know what I'm talking about. If you don't, download it.
DO IT NOW!
See you next week!
Next Non-Game Review: My Little Pony: Friendship is Murder
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2 posts • Page 1 of 1
Interesting review. I liked Hanako a lot too. I haven't gotten to Rin's arc yet (I actually downloaded Katawa Shoujo a while ago but totally forgot about it....played it one day and realized I loved it). Though I liked Lily's a lot too, it's nice seeing a modest girl who doesn't even know her own beauty