So I don’t know if anybody follows the news or not, but Katawa Shoujo came out this week. Just yesterday, in fact, as far as Pacific Standard Time is concerned. It’s been five long years, many promises, and as far as I remember a retracted idea of actually selling the game, instead deciding to give it out for free. The background story is as convoluted as the relationship threads in this game (Which is to say not really that complex at all, just a bit long-winded), but here it is now, and I’ve had the joy of playing through to completion. Or rather partially to completion, but I think getting one good ending is enough to warrant a review of the entire thing, because laziness is sometimes a valid reason not to get through the rest of something.
The story follows Hisao Nakai, a formerly average high school student who suffered a heart murmur while confessing to his high school crush. Before the two could make good on the confession, he was rushed to the hospital and confined to a bed for several months until his condition stabilized. Left with no other option, he transferred to a private school specifically for children with health problems. Will he find a new direction for his life? Love? Several awkward sex scenes and self deprecating jokes? Mostly the latter.
Say whatever you like about Katawa Shoujo, you cannot fault it for being misleading. The name roughly translates to “Crippled Girl” or some other synonym for cripple, and that about sums it up nicely, considering you have a bevy of girls with physical, and often mental, trauma to woo. In no particular order you have: Shizune, the deaf student council president and class representative;
Hanako, the extremely shy burn victim and Lilly, a blind class representative;
Rin, the armless artist
and Emi, the legless girl that I was unfortunately stuck with the minute I decided to take the nurse’s advice, who shall henceforth be known as Nurse Killjoy. Let this be a listen to you, never listen to a medical professional unless you want to end up with a flake like this.
To say that the subject matter is a bit rocky would be putting it lightly; the name and premise alone have the subtlety and sensitivity of a freight train driven by Klansmen in blackface through Harlem. When I first looked into it, it sounded like nothing but pure exploitation that used the handicaps as a means of defining the girls. The fact that it was originally conceived by members of a certain infamous imageboard certainly didn’t take away from this misconception. Yet the result was something far from soulless jabbing at various disabilities.
For perspective, imagine if the surprisingly good Brother from Another Planet, rather than being a crass metaphor for immigration with exploitation elements, were instead a full on exploitation film with surprising sensitivity and a knowing glance toward race relations.
That would be Katawa Shoujo in a nutshell; a surprisingly heartfelt execution of a superficially tactless premise, with the characters willing to make more than a few good natured jabs at each other and at themselves. It successfully straddles that thin border between sensitivity and exploitation (Take a shot each time that word is used from now on) that’s often so difficult to stay balanced on, and ends up making the situation much more realistic as a result.
The characters end developed by the end, with their disabilities playing second nature to their actual personalities; while they acknowledge the aforementioned disabilities as something that’s a part of them, they never let it define them.
Toward the end, you will no longer notice your chosen girl’s “defect” as the protagonist so kindly puts it, instead focusing on their much more fleshed out traits. The big theme in the end is that despite what these girls may go through, they aren’t any less human than anyone else. They can laugh, cry, and enjoy life with the rest of us despite what cruelty life has given them. And yes, as the numerous awkward H-scenes will tell you, they can also enjoy relations like the rest of us.
While I’m pleasantly surprised with how the premise turned out, I feel slightly more ambivalent toward the game itself. Keep in mind that this is only the fourth visual novel that I’ve played, and the second that I’ve actually completed, so some of my criticisms may be levied against the medium as a whole.
While it starts off on a good enough, if predictable, note with the protagonist learning his way around his new school, it quickly ropes you on course with one girl whether you want to or not. The first chapter is easily the most varied, often delving into Hisao’s own thoughts regarding his heart condition and his coming to terms with the girls around him not being “normal”. This is when he has the most personality, and I grew fond of it despite him turning out to be totally flat later on.
I also found there to be an odd predisposition toward some girls over others, with Emi being who most people seem to end up with if they don’t choose to go after Shizune. Again, I ended up with Emi very much against my will, after one seemingly innocuous visit to the track and an urge to keep up a footrace. That was all it took to set me on Emi’s route, whether I wanted to be there or not. Meanwhile, I was working my ass off with several Hanako-related options, but unfortunately had that route closed off as soon as the game perceived that I wanted to go after Emi.
After the first chapter, the game went very much on its rails, not leaving many choices open for the player. And while Emi’s ending wasn’t bad, getting there took way too long and was much too ill-paced. In the end, I was just not endeared toward her for a number of reasons and I wished for a choice to opt out that never came. That may have soured me on the overall experience, now that I think about it.
In the end though, despite its pacing flaws and seeming preference for some girls over others, I enjoyed Katawa Shoujo. The art style was a bit rough around the edges, but I found myself acclimate to it in no time at all, and everything before Emi’s route had me sold. The writing was about what I expected, with the occasional sharp bit of humor punctuating the Key-like melodrama. However, I would rate this a fair bit higher than Key’s more manipulative works, if only because it treated its characters as people rather than objects to gush over. In particular, the dialogue with the spacey Rin almost always made me smile, her glib wit making me wish I could jump routes several times.
Getting through Emi’s route took me around 5 hours or so without skipping any dialogue, and I imagine it’s the same for the rest of the girls. If one has the patience to play through every other possible route, you’re looking at a minimum of a 25 hour time investment. Not bad for a free download.
There’s a phrase that pops up several times throughout, usually in response to Hisao’s questions about the girls, which goes something like this: “These are only issues if you make them so.” Indeed, this is how the game should be approached. Whether you find it a sympathetic portrayal or entirely callous depends on whether you make a big deal of the issues that you see presented.
In short, it’s hardly perfect, especially considering how long it took to develop, but it was worth playing through at least once. Make of that what you will. For discussion value, regale me on your experiences if you’ve had ‘em. Who you chose, who you actually ended up with, what you thought on the overall experience, etc.