Important Importables Review: Katawa Shoujo for Windows, Mac, Linux

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Title: Katawa Shoujo
Price: Free
System(s): Windows, Mac, Linux
Release Date: January 4, 2012
Publisher (Developer): Four Leaf Studios (Four Leaf Studios)
ESRB Rating: N/A, 18 and over since it does have adult content, sexual situations and smoking.
Pros: Realistic storylines and depictions of relationships, detailed character art, doesn’t in any way make fun of or light of disabled people, has animated cutscenes, can turn adult content on or off, can listen to music or see unlocked images in the Extras menu and there are bad, neutral and good endings for the five characters. It’s also available in 9 different languages. Can pick up at any point in any unlocked story segment with the Library feature.
Cons: Only certain decisions determine if you get bad, neutral or good endings. Only torrent downloads are currently available. Even if you turn off adult content, you’ll still see nudity.
Overall Score: 9/10
Note: This review was conducted with adult content disabled.

Katawa Shoujo was born from controversy. It’s first moments came from potential character art of five disabled girls created by Raita that found its way onto 4chan, and the developer Four Leaf Studios was actually made up of 4chan residents and members of other assorted online communities. That alone would easily dissuade people from playing. Bring up the fact that Katawa Shoujo means Crippled Girls in Japanese only makes things worse.

Yet, Katawa Shoujo isn’t a bad thing. It isn’t insensitive. It isn’t mocking the disabled characters that star in the adventure. It isn’t a means for players to live out strange sexual fantasies, even with the adult content turned on in the options. It’s a well written and thought out adventure that takes a realistic look at relationships between individuals and shows the growth of a newly disabled character as he comes to deal with his new impediment and realizes the true measure of individuals comes from what’s inside.

A heart attack leads to a blank slate

Hisao Nakai is normal. Starts out normal, anyways. His high school crush, Iwanoko, comes to confess her love for him one wintr day and, after hearing her voice her affections, he suffers a horrible heart attack. He then spends months alone in a hospital, undergoing surgery and treatment for the congentital heart defect and arrhythmia it turns out he’s had his whole life. As time passes, his friends and Iwanoko stop visiting. Hisao even starts to think he’ll never leave the hospital.

Of course, he does get that opportunity. His cardiologist and parents feel he’s ready to head out into the world, with multiple prescriptions, and determine that Yamaku Academy is the best place for him. It’s a boarding school with 24-hour nursing staff and an adjacent hospital that caters to children and teenagers who have some kind of physical disability or health issue that requires specialized care. But it’s more than just some kind of day-care for special kids. Yamaku is designed to help its students build learn, encourage natural talents and build life skills while also allowing them to go through rehab so they can lead successful and fufilling lives. Hisao is understandably depressed and pessimistic at this point, since he just sees it as being shuffled off to some special school because he’s defective now, but a part of him also realizes this is a blank slate and a chance for him to have a new start in life.

He arrives in class 3-3 at one week before a school festival and finds that Yamaku both is and isn’t the place he expected. While understandably nervous and tactless at the outset, Yamaku provides an opportunity for Hisao to grow as a person and develop a relationship with Shizuna Hakamichi, Lilly Satou, Hanako Ikezawa, Emi Ibarazaki or Rin Tezuka.

Katawa Shoujo is more professional than some commercial visual novels.

Before you even start wondering, Katawa Shoujo contains no stereotypical or weak characters. Each member of the main cast is completely capable despite any disabilities he or she may have, and may even have surprising talents that will surprise the player. For example, Emi is a character who lost both of her legs below the knee in a car accident. Despite that, she’s the star running on the track team and runs multiple events at each meet. Rin has no arms due to a birth defect, but is a fantastic painter and is charged with the creation of a large mural for Katawa Shoujo‘s opening festival. Shizune is the president of the student council, even though she’s deaf and mute and has to have her friend Misha on hand to communicate with students who don’t know sign language. These characters are more than competant and happen to be ordinary girls who just happen to have some extraordinary circumstances to deal with. While some of these characters may have issues that initially inhibit them as the game begins, like the burn victim Hanako, they also grow throughout the game with the help of their friends and Hisao.

In addition, the relationships that develop between Hisao and each of the girls is incredibly realistic. As someone who’s played quite a few otome (girl’s dating sim) visual novels, I can attest that that’s quite a feat in any dating simulation. Hisao doesn’t just magically launch into a relationship with any of the five girls. They aren’t fawning over him. It actually takes time and effort to build a relationship with the girls and it happens gradually. Hisao and the girls slowly develop a friendship and eventually fall in love, sometimes not even realizing how deep their feelings are until the game’s end. Things aren’t always perfect or happy and they even have issues to worth through together to become closer and well adjusted individuals. Also, the endings available even reflect this. In the case of Emi, you can either earn a good end or a bad end, there’s no in-between. For Lilly, you can either achieve a good end or a neutral ending. It’s almost refreshing to see that there aren’t always limitless possibilities or a good, neutral or bad ending available.

Even more impressive are Katawa Shoujo‘s production values. It is longer and gives the player more than many commercial games. It puts commercial games from both Japan and North America to shame. I’m not just talking about the writing, characterization, character art, soundtrack and gallery options. Katawa Shoujo is the first visual novel I’ve played that was made outside Japan and contains animated cutscenes. Yes, there is actually animation in this free game. There’s a brief segment when the game first begins, after Hisao is hospitalized, and there are five segments that appear before each girl’s storyline begins. Each segment looks as though it were professionally done and offers a brief vignette of a moment between Hisao and the girl or an insight into their relationship. I was floored the first time I saw one of these segments and it just proves Four Leaf Studio’s dedication and love for the game.

There’s actually only one downside I encountered. Katawa Shoujo does have an adult content switch in the options menu, allowing players to turn certain scenes on and off. However, this does not turn off all adult content in the game. There will still be nude character art and you’ll see the dialogue leading up to the sexual situations. The event CGs and text descriptions of said acts will be censored though, with images of food or animals appearing briefly instead of the mature content. This means there really is no “all ages” version to enjoy. So parents or gamers who just don’t like seeing naked people on their screen should know that this is definitely a game for people over the age of 18.

If you really want to give Katawa Shoujo a try and are over 18, but aren’t big on the adult situations, you can always turn the adult content off, check the box to skip unseen text and then just skip through any scenes where Hisao gets intimate with his girlfriend. From what I’ve seen, there seems to be only one or two five minute moments like this in each route, and each storyline takes about three or four hours to complete. So you can see, the focus is on the actual relationship between Hisao and the other characters, and not on physical affairs.

An intimate understandings of relationships regardless of physical abilities or disabilities.

The biggest testament to the greatness of Katawa Shoujo is that eventually, you’ll forget that all of the major characters are disabled in some way. Even though the disabilities are physically visible in the character art for Lilly, Hanako and Rin at all times, I found I kept focusing more on what the characters were saying, doing and feeling than what they looked like or challenges they faced. This change comes through in Hisao’s character as well, as by the second act of each route Hisao has gone from tiptoeing and occasionally tactlessly conversing with his classmates to seeing them all as ordinary people who might just happen to be a little different than everyone else, and even becoming protective of them in some situations and wondering why other people are reacting to them the same way he did when he first met them.

I can understand why someone would be skeptical heading about Katawa Shoujo. It deals with some very strong and sensitive issues. However, it doesn’t skirt around these issues and disabilities or mock them. It’s straightforward and honest. Which is probably why it is such an effective visual novel. It rings true. If you want to play a really good visual novel about interpersonal relationships and don’t mind occasional adult content, then you should put any hesitance aside and try Katawa Shoujo.

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