One long post about one not-so-long visual novel
Thinking back on it, the fact that Katawa Shoujo even exists almost seems like a miracle in itself. With a team of twenty or so volunteers working for half a decade to make it a reality, I can only imagine the number of places where the entire project could have fallen apart. That the game even made it to final release is a testament to the team’s dedication. That it’s actually pretty good – well, that’s something more than just persistence.
A rough, spoilertastic rundown of my thoughts after the break.
I’ll start with the bad, which in this case was Shizune’s route. I will admit that I didn’t get the best impression of her character from the Act 1 preview, but my problems with her arc have less to do with her personality than the overall plotting. In short, her story suffered from a lack of focus; while there were a lot of great ideas sprinkled throughout her path, none of them really resolved to my satisfaction. Take Hisao’s learning to sign, for example. Overcoming the barrier of Shizune’s deafness could have made for an entire story on its own. Instead, Hisao seems to pick up the ins and outs of an entirely new language within months, if not weeks, and the problem gets shoved aside almost as soon as it’s brought up. After all, the story needs to move on to Shizune’s tensions with her family, her history with Lilly, her friendship-that-might-have-been-more with Misha, her stress from doing literally half of the work of the Student Council, blah blah blah… you get the idea. At times, I got the sense that Shizune was being pushed out of the spotlight in her own route, especially when it came to the ridiculous, and largely pointless, interactions with her family. (I will grudgingly give a tip of my hat, though, to whoever came up with the reference to Kanou Jigorou, even if his given name does sound a lot like “gigolo.”) Needless to say, in the midst of all of this, her relationship with Hisao doesn’t get much of a chance to develop into something meaningful. Funnily enough, if there was a bright spot in the whole mess, it was the route’s heartbreaking bad end, which seemed to have more emotional content than the entire rest of the path combined.
The clearest contrast I can draw here is to Emi’s storyline. Now, I’ll be frank – her route’s not going to win any points for originality, but it was simple, to the point, and smoothly executed. Much like its heroine, Emi’s arc has a sense of playful self-awareness to it, which shows in the dialogue and some of the subversions of expectation throughout her story. I particularly liked how Emi’s character turned into something more than the one-dimensional exercise-obsessed caricature that Act 1 seems to give off. While some of the twists on her character type, like her age and sexual experience, are again obvious, at least in hindsight, they fit smoothly into the rest of her portrayal. My primary quibble with the story lies with Hisao’s occasional denseness, especially when Emi manages to get away with avoiding the subject of her dad with exactly the same words she used earlier to shrug off Hisao’s concern about her limp – the one that later turned into an infection and forced her into a wheelchair. Then again, to be fair, it’s hardly as egregious as some of Hisao’s behavior in Katawa Shoujo’s other arcs, let alone the lead-brick obliviousness of certain anime leads. Oh, and there’s also the issue of some of the CGs reflecting her *ahem* original character design, but the less said about that, the better.
Lilly’s path, too, isn’t all that thematically deep. As I’ve mentioned in private discussions, though, it seems almost written specifically for people who consider her their favorite character, and since I’m one of those right sentimental fools, her arc is also my favorite out of the five. It’s not shy about being a romantic melodrama; this does admittedly work to its detriment in the final chapter, which is a bit rushed and predictable, but even then I would be lying if I said that the ending didn’t run me through the emotional wringer. Hisao, for his part, manages to pull off some amazing maneuvers in courting Lilly, most notably with the music box as a going-away gift. Maybe the setup was a little too coincidental, but I’ll be damned if that wasn’t the smoothest thing I’ve seen a protagonist do in a romantic visual novel. The artwork, too, is just beautiful, and perhaps the most consistent of any of the routes; the CG of Hisao and Lilly in a Hokkaido wheat field, in particular, reminded me strongly of ef or 5 cm/s, which is a good thing in my book.
Now for the two stories I expected to be the heaviest coming in: Rin’s and Hanako’s. I’ll go over the latter first, because it bears a lot of similarities to Lilly’s route. In this case, however, that’s not a good thing, because, well, Lilly’s not supposed to be the focus any more – Hanako is. Yet Acts 2 and 3 of her story felt like a recapitulation of many of the events of Lilly’s arc, alongside the painfully slow development of Hanako’s character and relationship with Hisao. Things don’t really kick off until just before Act 4 begins, and by then it’s too late to give the theme that eventually does emerge – Hanako’s wanting to be seen as a capable person in her own right, not just something to be protected – suitable consideration. I kind of wish that Hanako’s bad-end outburst were a part of the main story, not just something triggered by a rather incredible regression in protagonist sensitivity, as it really lays the essential conflict bare. That and a few other scenes, like her revealing the full extent of her scarring to Hisao, did stand out in my mind. They’re worth the price of admission if you’ve already played through Lilly’s route (plus you get a glimpse of Hanako’s adorable pouting face), but not enough by themselves to make up for the route’s flaws.
Rin’s path does a better job of showing the obstacles that the main couple has to overcome to really make their relationship work. Unfortunately, one of those obstacles is Hisao’s own personality at the beginning of the arc, where his insistence that Rin go forward with her debut exhibition comes off as insensitive and irrationally exuberant. I do have to cut the writer some slack, since Hisao is rather star-struck at this point, but it’s frustrating to see him do it all the same, and it’s hard not to feel that Hisao and Rin are just talking past each other in an endless circle because of it. The route does manage to break through and end on a high note, though, and in a natural fashion that avoids turning Rin’s personality upside-down while still clearly showing that she does trust Hisao. I feel compelled here to drop in a mention of Rin’s “neutral” end, which brings up an interesting dilemma. Would she be better off seizing a rare, promising chance at developing her talent as an artist, or staying at Yamaku and learning to open up to Hisao and her other classmates? Ultimately, I’m not sure there’s a good answer.
On the overall, Katawa Shoujo met my expectations, and in fact simply blew them away at the best of times. I was especially impressed with how polished the presentation was; the music was a real highlight, so much so that I’d occasionally just leave the game open while I did other things just so I could leave the soundtrack on in the background. Fortunately, it’s available for free download now, so I don’t have to do that any more. The artwork was spottier, particularly with some of the CGs, and there were a few noticeable instances of suboptimal editing in the scripts, but I didn’t find these issues too distracting. If you can get past the unfortunate two-word description of Katawa Shoujo as “cripple porn,” you’ll find a visual novel with sensitivity and a good bit of heart to it, and for that I am grateful to the developers who spent so much time putting it together.
Oh, one last thing. Iwanako doesn’t play all that much of a role in the plot, aside from the prologue and her letter in each of the arcs. I can’t say that she should have been more prominent – in the story, she’s mostly a symbol of how Hisao overcomes his past burdens, and I’m fine with that. I can’t be the only one curious, though, as to how a story like this would play out from her perspective.