Once in a while, an anomaly occurs in entertainment. These anomalies can exist between lackluster sales of an anticipated game or system, and unexpectedly great games. There are, of course, other anomalies; in the life of a reviewer however, a majority of these events will be ‘good game is terrible,’ and ‘I didn’t expect this game to be so good!’ This review is certainly the latter, and it is about, of all things, a dating simulator: Katawa Shoujo.
“What is a Dating Simulator (or Visual Novel)?” If one likens video games to, as Associate Justice Antonin Scalia does, a more interactive Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, then a dating sim is wherever the median is between such a book and a video game. The game has a level of interaction, but it is more story. Like a RPG, the game will be text heavy with moments of making choices – or should, anyway. There is a main character, typically male, who encounters a plethora of women and forms relationships with them. Choices are presented that will have values to them that will draw you closer to some people, and away from others. Sounds simple, right?
Okay, so what could possibly make a dating simulator noteworthy? I would like to draw attention to three major distinctions. First, most dating sims do not see the light of day in America – this game was released simultaneously in multiple languages, not just English or Japanese. It is also available Russian, French, Spanish, German, and a others. After checking with my foreign contacts, the translations are nearly spot-on. It is clear that a lot of thought went into the production of this tite, and it shows – more on that later on.
Second, this title was made for free by people who banded together through the notorious website 4chan (WARNING: 4chan is NSFW). If the readership knows what 4chan is, there might be some understandable head-scratching. 4chan has been the source behind Scientology protests, webhacking, and a good number of internet memes that circle the internet. Note what I said earlier: they banded together through 4chan, but 4chan did not make this game. What makes this game interesting is that it was made by a global team that may or may not have ever met in real life. This reviewer is always intrigued by teams of international developers, but an anonymous one that never physically met? It should also be said that for a free game, Katawa Shoujo is incredibly well-polished in the English version.
Third, this game features a predominantly disabled cast. There is only one prominent cast member who does not have a disability – a sign language interpreter for Shizune, who is deaf and mute. “Katawa” is an archaic Japanese word meaning ‘cripple’ literally but is translated as ‘disability’ into English. Of the other characters, one is blind, one whose legs were amputated, one is terribly scarred, and another was born without full arms. The main character – Hisao Nakai – has a heart arrhythmia, which is revealed early in the game to place him at a school for disabled children. Making the characters disabled plays a twist onto society; Katawa Shoujo makes the player look at a part of society that is easily forgotten about. This is by no means a game that makes one wish to pity the disabled; Katawa Shoujo does not contain that message. Katawa Shoujo is more a chance to look down a path to see a different aspect of the human condition. The message is positive overall, and should be rightly lauded for it.
Any good story has a character that changes or learns something about himself, others, or society. Katawa Shoujo is a veritable gold mine for change. Hisao learns something different in each playthrough, whether it is being honest with himself and others, overcoming personal demons – and there are different versions of this for each girl the player chooses to go after – and accepting life.
Katawa Shoujo is seems to have the market cornered on empathy. During the ‘Lilly’ story, the players emotions are tugged like a kite until the very end. While not every character may elicit the same reactions every time, there are multiple endings (except for Lilly) for every character which can make the ends go from high elation to crushing emotional defeat. This reviewer is quite the cynic, and I had to stop playing the game a couple times in order to get a grip on myself. Katawa Shoujo by no means blurs the line between reality and fiction, but the interactive nature of it does lend itself to making the player invest more of themselves in order to finish the game. It is worth playing through the game once to get a feel for it.
One good feature that I have not seen on many other dating sims is a skip feature. When one starts the game over to reach a different outcome, dialogue that has previously been seen can be quickly skipped over. While my initial playthrough was about 6 hours – because I like to take my time when reading text, thank you very much – but the next one was barely even half of that due to skipping text I have already read. The skipping will automatically stop when the player clicks the screen or when new dialogue happens.
Before there is much more disclosed, there is adult content. In nearly all of the stories, the characters bare more than their souls to Hisao. This is realistic when one considers that there is just-as-racy material in Dan Brown’s novels. What readers need to know is that this is not smut, and any instance of adult situations are not too different from real life. This is a novel after all, and the almost all of Katawa Shoujo‘s cast is comprised of teenagers. This matter alone almost merited this article to never be written. The reason this article is moving forward is that all major gaming publications will discount Katawa Shoujo for its adult content. Those situations are so minute that they should not be the overarching reason people do not get to hear about this title. If a non-interactive, non-motion scene depicting a real-life scenario between two well-developed characters is enough to make a player never pick a title in the first place, then that is the player’s decision to make. I will happily stand here and tell you that Katawa Shoujo offers far more than that. This reviewer believes that the scenes make sense for the character. It is no different than watching Eyes Wide Shut or Love and Other Drugs.
The music is nice, ambient, and does not distract from the gameplay. Saving can occur at any time, and the save state will pick up from the exact moment the player last saved – which is FANTASTIC. If a player wishes to make a choice, and is unsure, they can create a new state and jump back to the old one if needed.
The art is brilliant. There are numerous faces for every character, and with maybe one use of a certain face on Emi’s campaign, each face was used brilliantly. At the end of Act 1, there is an animated sequence, also well choreographed, drawn, and with appropriate music. There are two art books available on Four Leaf Studios’ website – also free for download.
Every character is different, and with one exception, there is not one character out of place. The main characters have diverse interests and quirks to their personality. There are things to like about all of the main girls, and the writing for Katawa Shoujo reflects consideration for messaging, theme and tones; each one being different for each campaign.
Here are the downsides: it’s verbosity is where this game can get bogged down. Hisao is 17, and knows words I did not before I started playing. I also do not think I was so introspective as the main character when I was a teenager, but it is needed to get the story across. The ways in which each story arch hits a climax is quite enjoyable, and Katawa Shoujo forced me to stop and consider when was the last time a novel or a game had impacted me so immediately and directly. Gamers or readers who are really into good plots and character development should really take a look at Katawa Shoujo. This is one of the earliest releases of 2012, and I have to legitimately consider if any other game will have a plot or story that comes close to half as good as this title.
Katawa Shoujo is not rated by the ESRB, and thus has no rating. If you are a parent, please exercise caution before letting the minors play this. The stories are quite intense, and pluck at one’s heartstrings. In truth, Katawa Shoujo took four years from start to finish. There are games that are bigger and have not been in development nearly as long. With Mass Effect 3 coming out soon, I will be comparing Bioware’s plot in ME3 to KS. Professional game publishers should be taking a look at KS and asking themselves, “Why can’t we be as polished as this?”
Katawa Shoujo is a creative commons game, so all of its contents are available to the global public at www.katawa-shoujo.com.
For exposing a fresh look at humanity, excellent story telling and character development…at no cost to the consumer…
FINAL GRADE: A+
TRR Videogame Revue/Playthrue by Geoffrey Beebe
AUTHOR’S EDIT (02/07/2012): A reader wanted to point out that Katawa Shoujo is a Visual Novel. This is correct, but visual novels are a subgenre of the dating sim. The definitions and characteristics of the two genres are so similar that I make no distinction between them. I confess one is more interactive than the other, but the analogy is comparing Granny Smith apples to Golden Delicious apples, not apples/oranges.