Howdy, folks. Visual Novel time again! And this time, we’re here to talk about Katawa Shoujo.
Logo! I really don’t know what else to say about this image.
This particular Visual Novel has a fair amount of controversy surrounding it, for multiple reasons. First off, the name itself had a bit of trouble. Katawa Shoujo translates roughly to Disability Girl, although apparently Katawa ends up being translated a little more harshly than that, so it comes out as Cripple Girl. Either way sounds bad, I know. But it sort of works for the context of the game. In this game, you play as Hisao Nakai, a character who has arrhythmia, which means that his heart doesn’t work properly and may beat faster or slower than it should. Either one is bad. He ends up at a school that focuses on helping disabled teenagers become productive members of society.
So…You probably either knew all this coming into this discussion, or you’re just putting the pieces together now. Either way, yes, the game is about you romancing one of five different girls with varying physical disabilities. And yes, that’s kind of a risque subject to go to for making a VN, but given where it came from…
This project all came about from a single piece of art that popped up on 4chan some years back. It was drawn by a doujinshi artist, someone who self-publishes their own work. So manga and stuff, drawn by the artist, and then they handle all the other aspects too, instead of being part of a big company that does it all. That bit’s not super important to the idea, but more knowledge is better than less. At any rate, this image popped up on 4chan’s /a/ board, and it got people talking. And before you go any further, you should probably be aware that despite its reputation, not ALL of 4chan is a festering cesspit full of awful images and terrible people. Granted, that’s there, but those folk, generally referring to themselves as /b/tards, tend to hang out on 4chan’s “random” message board, also referred to as /b/. The rest of the boards have their own set purpose, varying from wallpapers and backgrounds, television and film, gaming, and just all manner of pornography. But usually when you hear 4chan referenced, people are talking specifically about /b/ and those who dwell within it.
So the image popped up, this one right above here. And that…inspired people, I guess? They came together, and quickly, and ended up forming a makeshift production company, called Four Leaf Studios, naming themselves after the four leaf logo of 4chan. And they worked. For five years, they worked at this game. When it was finally released, it was free, controversial, and a huge hit.
A game which translates to “Cripple Girl”, by a company of folks from 4chan, wherein you meet and date girls with physical disabilities. And you can sleep with them. What could go wrong, right? People were all set up to hate this game. But that’s when things ended up taking a turn that not many people expected. The game was…good. The game was VERY good. And today we’re going to talk about why.
To start things off, this game is mechanically beautiful. Even disregarding all of the content, the game is BUILT fantastically. I was particularly pleased when I accidentally skipped over something in the text of the game, and scrolled back up to see what it was. I expected the game to do what most other VN’s I’ve played have done, and let me see a text log of whatever was said. Instead, it simply rewound the game by one screen and showed me what was happening. So not only do I see the text, I also see the character with whatever expression they had when they said the text, and I miss nothing. AND if you scroll up and down really quickly, you can make the characters look like they’re dancing. Not that I wasted my time on that…more than a couple times.
So mechanically? Impressive off the bat. The soundtrack? Forty-six different songs of varied emotions and length, most of them quite good. In fact, I’m listening to it right now as I write this.
But the best part, the best part by FAR, were the characters and the story. Each route can be quite a bit different, ranging in both content and length, as well as interactivity, but each route is worth the time and effort. Well, mostly. And probably the most impressive feat in the game was how well they handled the subject of the disabilities. It was all handled with a respect I would have not thought possible coming from 4chan. Most companies wouldn’t touch subject like this, but these folks disregarded the stigma and went for it with gusto, and ended up crafting a world of interesting and unique characters.
And as mentioned briefly earlier, you CAN sleep with the girls of Katawa Shoujo. There are sex scenes in the game. Which can be weird. But they’re handled pretty well, some of them are even relevant story-wise, and there’s an option in the options menu to turn the sex scenes off. So if that sort of thing bugs you, you can enjoy the story of the games without the boobies.
So let’s talk about the ladies of Katawa Shoujo, the five (plus one) major characters of the five different routes in the game.
First up, to clear up any confusion about the plus one bit there, is the Student Council President, Shizune Hakamichi. She may be deaf and mute, but she’s still the President. With her best friend and fellow council member, Misha as her translator, co-conspirator, and minion, Shizune manages to rule the school and keep things going. She can be a bit of a hardass when it comes to doing things “the right way”, and getting work done above all else, but she also has a playful side. And by playful, I mean she will whoop your butt at Risk or any other game, and will also force you to wager on the outcome. Not for money, but you may end up owing her a favour or two. Watch out for her, she’s easily the most manipulative of the game’s heroines.
Next up is Lilly Satou, the blind class rep from across the hall, and mortal enemy of Shizune. A former student council member herself, Lilly prefers a more laid-back approach to management, rather than Shizune’s slave-driver method. Whereas Shizune is rarely seen without Misha, Lilly travels everywhere with her friend Hanako Ikezawa. But unlike Misha, Hanako has her own route, so we’ll be discussing her in a few paragraphs. Lilly doesn’t rely so much on Hanako as Shizune does Misha, but in this case Lilly tends to end up in a motherly role for those she meets. She’s kind, caring, and patient. All qualities that befit a mother. She’s also a prim and proper lady, coming from a wealthy foreign family. Hers was also my favourite route in the game, all things considered.
Then there’s Emi Ibarazaki, the most energetic and outgoing of the game’s characters. She’s missing both her legs just below the knees, after getting into a nasty car crash years earlier. She doesn’t let that stop her, or even slow her down, and has since mastered her prosthetic legs to the point that she can run track with them. She refers to herself as “the fastest thing on no legs”, and this is no lie. She can lap your character with ease. Although to be fair, your character DOES have a heart disorder. Emi spends all of time either hanging out with her friend Rin, or running at the track. She can be a bit of an airhead at times, and isn’t the brighest of the game’s characters, but makes up for that with heart. And also cuteness.
Rin Tezuka is up next. Assigned the room next to Emi because they were deemed suitable for one another, Rin is an artist who spends most of her time staring blankly at clouds or other inanimate objects, and then painting strange and beautiful pieces of art. She also doesn’t have any arms, so she does all of her artwork with her feet. She’s probably the strangest character in the game, rivaling even the dude who lives across the hall from you (who believes that feminists are moments away from launching an all out attack on men everywhere and taking over the world). Her route is the most complicated of them, because interacting with her is just…difficult. She doesn’t say much, stares blankly a lot, and is just generally a strange person. Not my favourite route, but interesting if nothing else.
And last up is Hanako Ikezawa. A shy girl who literally flees from you the first time you talk to her, Hanako’s only friend in the school is Lilly. Not just her only friend, but pretty much the only person she doesn’t actively run away from. She can be tricky to befriend, but once you get your foot in the figurative door, things get easier. She suffers from burns down the right side of her body, face, arm, torso. She was in a house fire when she was much younger. Which is one of the main reasons she hangs out with Lilly. She’s blind, so to her, Hanako is just another student, another friend.
All right. So those are the five heroines of the game, the five different routes you can go through, the five different ladies you can date. Some of the routes are awesome, some of them are just…confusing. Each route had its own different writer, so each story has its own distinct feel to it. And honestly? That’s a pretty good way of handling it, to make the routes more unique, instead of just more of the same.
The routes vary in length, time period covered, and interactivity. Some of the routes have a number of choices you can make to determine your eventual end. One of the routes has only one choice separating the good end from the bad end. In my opinion, either method is acceptable. Some people would like more choices, but personally I’m in it for the story, and as long as I’m interested, I’m having a good time. Although more choices can make you more invested in the outcome, as you’ve played a larger hand in making it happen.
The game is divided into four acts, in each route. The first act is shared by all five routes, the next three acts are unique for each character as you get to know them and experience their story. Act one is always the same, and will be the determining factor in which route you get locked into. There are a lot of choices in this act, as there are a lot of things that go differently depending on which girls you try to befriend. And there’s always the chance you’ll just mess things up and end the game drinking on the roof with the crazy dude across the hall.
I won’t go into the different routes in this write-up (that’s going to be coming up next time), but overall they were quite enjoyable. And again, surprisingly respectful to the characters and their disabilities. Each route was written by a different person, which gives them all a much more unique feel to them. Plus each route has its own supporting characters, some popping up briefly in other routes and some never seen outside of one route in particular. Except Kenji, that dude is just…everywhere.
So that’s it for now, that’s what I know about Katawa Shoujo. Well, aside from the contents of the various routes. That will be a whole different thing, to keep this one here relatively spoiler-free. If you’re interested at all in Katawa Shoujo, you should check it out. It’s completely free on their website. And again, the options allow you to turn off any sort of adult content, so there’s no need to worry about that if that’s not your cup of tea. It’s a damn fine game, and even now (a couple months after I played it), the soundtrack still evokes all sorts of emotions in me. Good ones, bad ones, and whatever ones you feel when Rin’s on screen. Still not sure.