There are a lot of visual novels out there, most untranslated as Japanese developers don’t have a market for them over here, or are disinterested. They range from school comedy, to drama, to supernatural and fantasy. Most involve courting a girl and having sex with her. Others not so much. Ultimately, it comes down to single experiences and what you take away from it. Katawa Shoujo is a unique entry to this field. Developed independently by twenty-one anonymous people worldwide who met on the world’s most popular imageboard, 4chan, supported only by one single JPEG and an idea, spent five years developing what would become one of the biggest English Visual Novels to hit the internet.
The story begins in the fictional Yamaku High School for disabled children, located somewhere in modern Japan. The main character, whom the player interacts with the story through, is Hisao Nakai. Originally from the city (implied Tokyo) he is hospitalized following a heart attack outside while he was meeting a female student who confessed her love for him. He spent months inside the hospital after learning he had a congenital heart defect, arrhythmia. Once a normal, outgoing guy, he became noticeably bitter and downtrodden having spent months in rehabilitation as his friends and family slowly disappeared from him. Eventually, upon his release, he was transferred to Yamaku, a facility that operates like a traditional high school, but has a full-time medical staff, on-campus living, and assists with students with disabilities. With the intention of getting a “fresh start” in life, he arrives at the school and immediately begins to interact with its students and facility.
Hisao is immediately introduced to the Student Council President and class representative, Shizune Hakamichi, only he mistakes her interpreter and friend Shiina “Misha” Mikado first without realizing. Shizune is deaf, so she communicates through sign language and writing. Misha effortlessly translates everything for her and acts as her voice. A bouncy, bubbly, cheerful girl, Misha wastes no time trying to help Shizune recruit Hisao for Student Council, which appears to consist of only them two. In contrast, Shizune is more focused, determined, but eager to take on a challenge and will challenge anyone who she deems interesting. She enjoys playing strategy games with people, electing to play Risk with Hisao and challenging his decision-making skills in the final moments. She comes from a well-to-do family with a brother who is many ways like her but not deaf, and a father who tends to over-communicate his feelings and directives on to everyone who will listen.
As Hisao is looking for the school library, he stumbles into a room being used by Lilly Satou, a fair-skinned girl with blond hair. Lily’s condition is that she is blind, and uses a retractable cane to get around with. Being half-Scotish and half-Japanese, she enjoys tea very often and has a very calm and relaxing manner, except when dealing with her class representative duties, which she has to report to Shizune with. Lily is in fact Shizune’s cousin, their fathers being brothers, and it appears they used to get along well until a prior incident broke them apart. She spends most of her time reading books in Braille and with her friend, Hanako.
Having been led to the library, Hisao then meets a girl in the corner on a beanbag, reading quietly. This turns out to be Lily’s friend, Hanako Ikezawa. Hanako has noticeable burn scars on half of her body, most covered up by her uniform. It’s fairly obvious she was involved in a fire, but keeps her long hair covering the affected side of her face so no one can see. She is very timid and shy, slow to speak up or talk very much to anyone except Lily. She can be often found in the library reading, or helping Lily with her groceries. The others note how often she misses class, due to therapy sessions, and times when she simply doesn’t show up, something the teacher remarks as being a normal process for some students, to allow them time to adjust and recover at their own pace.
On the way out the door to lunch on the first day, Hisao collides with Emi Ibarazaki, “The Fastest Runner on No Legs”. Emi noticeably is missing her legs from the knees down, instead having prosthetic springs fitted exclusively for running track, which she does effortlessly. Full of energy and spirit, Emi is given the task by the school nurse to help Hisao stay in shape and improve his condition, something she eagerly accepts. She also invites Hisao to eat lunch up on the roof with her and her friend Rin. She doesn’t like to dwell on her past or anything about her condition, she believes only in her ability to move forward, and encourages other people to do the same whenever possible.
Lastly, on your way to the art room to run an errand for the Student Council, you run into Rin Tezuka, Emi’s friend and Art Club member. Rin noticeably does not have arms, and when you first encounter her, she is eating lunch with her feet. A cryptic individual, Rin’s hobby is to paint very bizarre and surreal scenes using only her feet, and one of the first you see is a large mural outside of the school for the upcoming festival. She is friends with Emi, who helps her do things she cannot without arms. She tends to be very inquisitive and vague, often countering questions with questions, or supplying a conversation with irrelevant facts.
Other characters assist in the story unfolding, such as Hisao’s roommate, Kenji Setou, partially blind and full of rebellious rhetoric about conspiracy theories and plots by “feminists” to enslave the male population of the school, Akio Mutou, the science teacher who often encourages Hisao to consider a career in science, Yuuko Shirakawa, the school librarian and part-time waitress at a local cafe, and Nurse, who is actually a male, but oversees the medical facilities on campus and keeps close tabs on Hisao’s condition as well as Emi’s. Throughout the story, Hisao confronts his own demons about his life with a disability, as well as the other girls and the demons that surround their disabilities. He finds love and friendship among a student body that aren’t disabled, but normal boys and girls who have disabilities.
Katawa Shoujo is actually my first real foray into Visual Novels, mainly because even though many exist out there to play now, I’ve only experienced bits and pieces of some, not an entire game. I had medium expectations going into it, because of the source material, the fact it was an indie production, and it had the “4chan Seal of Approval” (SoAs are something we like to stick to our software at work because our software has problems). So what could possibly go wrong?
The good news is this game is fantastic in every way. The art is a mix of still sprites, panning/cycling backgrounds, and some FMV-like animated cutscenes for each character. They’re surprisingly well done, and you’d think this entire game was done by a professional studio. The story is a mixed bag, overall it is excellent, very well written, and executed well. There are little nags here and there, for example, Shizune’s route is very underdeveloped, suggesting they did not go in the direction they wanted to with her. Rumor is they had to re-write it, so I’m afraid they probably intended something much better. Rin’s route also got quite confusing, mostly due to the nature of her character. Most folks agree though that Hanako and Lily’s routes were the best written of the game, and really highlight their characters even to the point where you understand a little more about what real people with these types of conditions face. I won’t go as far as to call it DEEP or anything of the sort, but if it doesn’t provoke some thought in your head, you are a lifeless sod.
A lot of material is out there for this game, mostly on the official forums, but I’ve begun to form my own Visio flowchart of the game for reference:
Still a draft, things like lines and some other stuff still needs to be added, but that covers the first half of the game leading into the individual routes. I’ve seen a few other charts and thought it would suit Visio’s style for making flowcharts.
Also, several threads on 4chan collected Youtube links on favorite music themes for some of the characters.
Emi – Phil Collins – Easy Lover http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnDYattQH3Y
Rin – Genesis – Invisible Touch http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oMiDhmL_zFo
Hanako – Goo Goo Dolls – Iris http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NdYWuo9OFAw
Lily – Celine Dion – Because You Loved Me – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9CkKuA86Mis
Shizune – Savage Garden – Break Me Shake Me http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tJY6xGm_6f0
The official music in the game is also very well made, so give that a listen as well.
4LS sadly has stated they will likely never made additional content or a sequel to this game, so take it for what its worth. Maybe they will be persuaded to make another some day, or someone else will step up and try to take it on. Time will tell.
PS: I understand there is a 4LS developer named Delta also. I am not him. Sorry. I wish I could be, but I’m afraid I am just this guy who write this silly blog. Had I been cool enough to pay more attention though years ago I’m sure I would have loved to participate in such a venture. It would have been exciting.