Most games I tend to hear about either via friends or gaming news websites. I don’t particularly claim to be an expert (although you should probably treat me as such… You may call me Professor Sabor117 from now on…) but I do consider myself pretty clued up on the goings on of the Gaming world. So when I heard about Katawa Shoujo on an online image board (because I am indeed a denizen of the internet) and nowhere else I admit I was intrigued.
Even more intriguing, and indeed surprising, was the general reaction of the internet to the game. It’s a common thing on the internet to find a post which people can claim “gave me a feel” and usually the feel in question will be one of sadness or depression. Something which essentially evokes the following reaction: “Lie down. Try not to cry. Cry a lot.” Katawa Shoujo apparently gave so many people feels that the whole internet was abuzz for a fair amount of time about just how wonderful the game was, how the stories (or some of the stories in particular) spread feels about in every direction with no regard for manliness or lifting ability. And fresh from the truly heart-wrenching experience of The Walking Dead I was more than ready to pull out my handkerchief again.
So, yeah, I was interested. I wanted to know what could possibly have caused the places which will laugh quite happily at completely socially unacceptable things on a daily basis to turn into a bunch of sobbing saps. The game’s name translates literally to “Cripple Girls” which isn’t the greatest of starts in all honesty. It is an interactive novel in which you take on the role and see the world through the eyes of one Hisao Nakai. At the start of the game Hisao is diagnosed with a dangerous heart condition which means he has to move to a school for children with special needs and over the course of the game it sees him slowly coming to grips with his disease and his new surroundings. As well as this the game focuses intensely on the relationships Hisao develops which will always focus on one of five different girls in the school (each with different disabilities). Depending on the choices you make the story will go down various paths with Hisao either not forming any relationship (which is classified as “losing”) or the relationship with the focused girl ending well, badly or neutrally.
An important point I have to make, something I was not aware of when I first downloaded the game: it is important to note that I called it an interactive novel, NOT an interactive story. An interactive story, with The Walking Dead being a perfect example, is a game where the story is the focus and the player experiences it through any amount and types of gameplay and interactivity. An interactive novel is a subset of an interactive story where, for the most part, you are simply reading. This wasn’t something I was completely aware of until after I started the game and so I do need to confirm that now. As a game, there is barely any interactivity and for the most part you are simply reading. I even feel a bit awkward describing it as a game because of the low levels of interaction between player (or reader) and the game.
The game has a style which surprised me a little as well, expecting something like a low budget Walking Dead I was surprised to find that the vast majority of the game is not animated. There are a few (VERY) short animated cut-scenes and there is a tiny amount of animation during the various scenes in-game but for the most part what you see will be something like this:
Dialogue between characters and Hisao’s thoughts all come up in dialogue boxes like the one in the screenshot. Between each dialogue box the characters might move a hand or change expression, but the variety is small and the animation minimal. Something else I was not prepared for is that, except for a few sound effects (crowds and knocking for example) and the backing music, there isn’t much sound either in the game. Really then what you are looking at is approximately 4-6 hours (for each individual story from start to finish takes bout that long) of reading set to a background of still images and music.
I should probably mention now that with the five girls there are five major story arcs, each divided into four chapters. The first chapter is the “general chapter” which you will play/read every time and is where Hisao locks in on one of the girls. And then each of the four arcs can end in at least two ways. So really, despite the main, starting chapter (which does change depending on each choice made) there is an awful lot of reading to do if you want to find out everything.
The interactivity of the game is, like I have said, also very minimal. In every story arc, from the start to the finish, there is an average of perhaps 15 decisions. A fair number of these decisions are in the first chapter as well. Each decision is predominantly between two choices which sometimes are an action and sometimes a line of dialogue. It’s very minimalist and really, like I have said, almost feels like calling it a game is doing games a disservice.
It might well be clear by now that I am honestly not too impressed by Katawa Shoujo, but there are some things I like about it. Despite not being particularly into anime, I have never actually disliked the style and I think it’s actually perfectly nice and acceptable here. The music is also quite good and, while not exactly varied, is something I did notice as being well suited for what the game was.
Now, here is where I ought to start talking about how good the story/stories were. But as I have said I am not being all that upbeat about the game. First of all I was thrown into a whole lot of reading I wasn’t expecting with literally no playing. And then I came to one, very unfortunate conclusion. The feels that the internet claimed were rife throughout the various stories just never hit me. Now this is not to say that it’s badly written. On the contrary, my experience with the game suggests that actually each story (written by a different author) is actually really quite well written. It’s just that, it’s not anywhere close to what I was expecting. On my first playthrough I ended up following the story arc of a girl called Emi, a girl with no legs and a keen runner. I also ended up with the good ending, and honestly while it was kind of sweet and pleasant it just wasn’t particularly memorable or amazing.
Checking online, in a flurry of confusion and disappointment, I discovered that the most popular stories (the one’s usually deemed most worth reading) were with the girls Lilly or Hanako. This is, instantly, a problem. If playing a game as you would, just trying to choose what you would do in Hisao’s place and the story you are given is “Not as good” as playing it in a certain specific way then obviously a fair portion of the game is flawed. However, I was desperate to try and see what the internet saw in the game and so I tried again, deliberately following Lilly’s path this time.
I will admit to one thing, Lilly’s path was definitely nicer and, I think, better written than Emi’s but the fact remained that it, quite simply, was not so unbelievably amazing or upsetting. Honestly the best word to describe the story I can come up with would be “sweet”. Nothing more. The way Hisao comes to terms with his disability is also quite interesting, but again not exactly inspiring.
So there you have the major problem. Despite a nice atmosphere and design combined with reasonably well written and executed stories there really isn’t much going for Katawa Shoujo. As a book it might do better, but as a game there are too many issues and this is a review of a game. There is way too little choice or interaction between player and game, the amount of immersion is generally terrible and it remains a massive problem that there are “better” ways to play the game.
If you are interested in the game it is easy to download and install, being both free and a small file, but I think you would need to be aware that what you are in for is essentially a book with pictures. And if you like that sort of thing, then that’s fine as well. It’s just so very far from my own preferences that I think I can only give it a
Postscript! A warning for all readers! Prepare for awkward reading…
When you go to download the game it warns you that it is an 18+ title. Now from that I was expecting adult language, of which there was a fair bit, and perhaps allusions to sexual content. I thought it might even go so far as to imply that Hisao, and the girl he was with, would have sex with a fade-to-black type thing. What I was NOT expecting was the fact that the game left ridiculously little to the imagination. The writing remains in-depth and descriptive of the scenes (no casual implications here) and instead of a fade to black you are left with still images of… well… If you look at the image above. THAT… With less clothes… Not only did this catch me completely by surprise but it also felt just so horrendously awkward reading it… You have been warned. Not for the faint hearted.