Right before the end of 2011, I released my Most Anticipated English Visual Novels of 2012. At the time, I figured it was a pretty good list. However, statistically speaking, 9 out of 10 VNs Now.com readers had a single question, ‘WHAT ABOUT KATAWA SHOUJO?!?!?!?!?!?’
The hype for the release of this EVN couldn’t have been higher by January 4th, so after playing through every possible pathway the question is (a month later) did it live up to the expectations of its grassroots fan base? For the most part: yes.
You take on the role of Hisao Nakai: by all appearances a normal young man until one day, as a girl is confessing her love to him, he has a heart attack. Basically he has an irregular heartbeat and has to be monitored for a while to ensure that he doesn’t, well, die. In order to do this and allow him a bit of his normal life back, he is shipped off to Yamaku High School: essentially a boarding school doubling as a hospital.
From there, Hisao (you) have a choice to chase after five girls with differing disabilities. This is, unfortunately, where this one nearly hits the wall. I’m not the biggest anime fan in the world: in fact I can count all of the anime series I’ve watched completely through on one hand. At the same time I can count the number of romantic/dating visual novels I’ve planned on one hand…probably even the same hand. With that background I came into this game and I was able to figure out how most of the paths would play out by at least the middle of the third act.
It would be a total and complete lie to tell you that Katawa Shoujo is doing anything new here plot-wise, because they didn’t. It isn’t Train of Afterlife criminal how familiar romantic tropes are used in KS, but it does dance near the line. Each story is fine for what it is and you will enjoy seeing these girls (and Hisao) reveal more of themselves on each path and Hisao slowly returning to his life after nearly dying. But the simple truth is, for the most part, Four Leaf Studios plays it safe in how it tells its tale and doesn’t go very far outside of its established comfort zone. Emi and Shizune’s stories are especially harsh offenders of this. Fans of this kind of work won’t mind, I’m sure. However, it could have stood up to some fresh trauma.
Hear me correctly folks: not drama, trauma. The pains of these relationships you can go through are fleeting at best and if I can figure out how to navigate each girl’s emotional maze without issue, I can imagine how quick familiars of this territory will feel.
With that said, what saves this game is its personality and sense of humor. This VN is just flat out fun to play and, let it be known, not for the easily offended or the ostentatiously politically correct. Most, if not all, of the characters have no trouble poking fun at their disabilities. For example Emi, a girl with no lower legs, and Rin, a girl with no arms, are best friends and live across the hall from each other. Let me save you some time here: yeah, someone in game thought it was funny to put the arm less girl and the legless girl across the way from one another…and I laughed.
Then there’s the fact that all of the visually challenged kids (some are legally blind, some are totally blind) are in the same class and are expected (read: demanded) to attribute the same amount of paperwork and designs to a school festival as everyone else. When there’s a hitch slows the class down on their contributions to the festival, take a wild guess at what’s thrown in the blind class representatives face? Now, saying that, I know I’ve pissed off at least five people…but I haven’t even gotten to Kenji yet.
…My god Kenji…
Easily one of the funniest characters in this game and possibly in EVNs period, Kenji is a paranoid, schizoid, legally blind misogynist determined to bring down the ‘feminist conspiracy’ he sees around everywhere around him…by staying boarded up in his room except when he needs to bum money for a pizza. No words can accurately describe the encounters you have with him during the game, however, there wasn’t a moment he was on the screen and I wasn’t on the floor laughing. You’ll have to play the game yourself to know what I’m talking about, but it serves as a great breather from everything else in the story.
Overall, there is a predictability here that is unavoidable. But it still very fun to play.
PRESENTATION & GAMEPLAY
The Presentation in KS is good, but not as solid as it can be. The designs for the characters are decent and their body language goes a long way in keeping the player invested with what’s going on. But when you get into the event CGs, the art usually takes a nosedive. While they do invoke whatever emotion the scene calls for, the art should have been much cleaner. Instead, most of the time we are left with a sketchy feel to it that bends the human anatomy in a way that it isn’t supposed to. Also while I get that high school girls are a thing for anime fans, a little consistency would be great. Shizune and Lily look their stated ages, while Emi and Hanako could easily pass for their mid-teens or much younger. Considering the subject matter, it would’ve been nice for them all to look eighteen instead of just copping out by having them say it. Overall the artwork is okay…even some of the more explicit stuff.
I am not a fan of most portrayals of sex and that has a lot to do with my personal beliefs. Despite this, I kept the filter off just to see how it was handled by Four Leaf. It was very nice to see how tastefully everything was handled on that subject with most of it being romantic rather than ‘HEY! WATCH THESE HIGH SCHOOLERS HAVE SEX!’ It’s also nice to see the overall sense of humor in the game put into some of the sex scenes. I won’t go into details here, however I think it’s pretty safe to say that as a heterosexual male I never want to feel Emi’s pain…ever.
Also, I have a bone to pick with Four Leaf over the backgrounds. I’m sure someone has gotten an answer to this already and if so please forward to me, because I would love to know the reason that the backgrounds are all photographs. Really because the rest of the game’s feel is so well produced, the backgrounds act more like a tether keeping KS at par instead of adding to the overall experience.
Where the presentation really shines is in the Act 2 FMVs and its soundtrack. The soundtrack in and of itself is well done and the FMVs are fully animated and bring something extra to the entire game that wouldn’t have happened on its own. While previewing the feel of what’s to come for each girl’s paths also give its own little narrative that makes them worth watching on their own.
Gameplay for Katawa is also very well done. On top of your basic playing options, there is also a feature that allows you to replay parts of the story you’ve gone through. If you decide to take this option, the game tracks whatever decision you’ve previously made. It’s small but a noteworthy idea that I won’t be surprised to see used by other VNs in the future.
Katawa Shoujo is completely free and each path you can take rounds out at about two hours. Since there are five paths that means that, sitting down, you can knock this game out in roughly ten hours. However, as my Uncle says, you don’t finish a Cuban (the sandwich) in 30 minutes. Despite my few issues and what you may want to do, give yourself time to soak in the flavor. Between that and the spirit of the story, I don’t know anyone who will put it down after one full play through, even if you’re not a fan of the overall genre.