Visual Novel Theatre: Katawa Shoujo

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You know that thing I used to do where I would talk at length about visual novels? Yeah, we’re doing that again. Today, in our newly christened Visual Novel Theatre, we’re going to be reviewing Katawa Shoujo by Four Leaf Studios, one of the most famous visual novels floating around on the internet. Katawa Shoujo (trans. Cripple Girls) is an eroge… featuring women with various disabilities… that was put together by members of the infamous image board 4Chan. Really? And I’m going to be reviewing this, huh? And we’re expecting this to end well?

Luckily, Katawa Shoujo actually treats its subject matter with respect and maturity. I know, I was just as surprised as you. It seems that the miscreants within Anonymous can actually be decent every once in a while. The central theme of the game seems to be that people with disabilities are just like everyone else. Each of your prospective girls has their own disability, and they are a significant factor in their lives, but as presented, their disabilities are not the source of their problems. Each of the five women you can pursue seem to have already come to terms with their disadvantages and have learned to adjust to them.

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Immediately upon opening up the application, it becomes apparent that Katawa Shoujo stands apart from the pack. The production values are among the highest I’ve seen for a non-professional visual novel. The anime inspired character designs are excellent and show a great deal of care in the design. The backgrounds, which are mostly composed of heavily filtered photographs, really work with this game and serve to create a bit of a distinct art style. Significant events are shown in seemingly hand-drawn full screen portraits that serve the story well, and although they do vary in quality a bit, can be absolutely beautiful at just the right times. The music is reserved in a way that fits the mood of the game well, and is well implemented to beautifully complement the scenes. Katawa Shoujo had a larger team behind it than most visual novels, and it really shows here.

The visual novel is quite large, too. Katawa Shoujo is divided up into four acts. Each girl has their own route through the game, meaning acts 2-4 are going to be different for each romantic option you pursue. My first time through took me about 5-6 hours, which would be a pretty long visual novel on it’s own, but 4-5 of those hours were unique to the route I was on. If one were to go through each route, they could easily spend at least 20 hours in Katawa Shoujo, which is a massive amount of content for the genre.

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Our viewpoint character in Katawa Shoujo is Hisao Nakai. Hisao is a student at Nobody Cares High School, and the story opens with him standing around the snow receiving a love confession from some girl he likes. Since this is a romance story, that means we’re already done! We’ve got the girl right off the bat, which most visual novels spend most of their runtime getting around to! We win! But, it’s not to be. Her confession gets his heart pumping, as it does to most high schoolers, but Hisao’s a bit of an overachiever because he goes right to a heart attack. He spends some time in the hospital and finds out he has a non-specific arrhythmia of some sort, which has the side effects of making any strenous activity or impact to his heart possibly fatal, and of turning Hisao into a big angsty dick. Confession Chick gets tired of his angsty dickery and stops coming around, leaving him single again, which means we don’t actually win! This game just teased us with victory, then snatched it away. Those jerks!

Hisao spends a good long time in the hospital, before his parents decide to ship him off to Yamaku High School, a boarding school specifically for disabled youth. At first, he spends most of his time and energy whining about his condition and being awkward and uncomfortable around his new schoolmates, but then he starts meeting girls and that gets him more adjusted to his problems and situation. Kind of the same path I went through in high school, come to think of it. Hisao has a somewhat generic personality, I assume to help the player better immerse themselves through him. Lots of pieces of interactive entertainment do that, but how they expect me to see myself in those characters when they don’t even give them the body of a god is beyond me. Hisao isn’t quite so bland as a lot of visual novel protagonists, he definitely has his own activities and interests, but he still has a pretty basic character.

Instead, it’s up to the ladies he’s interacting to handle the strong characterization needs. One of the benefits of Hisao’s bland character is that he fits in with a variety of partners and circumstances, and the wide spread of personality types takes advantage of that factor without making him seem out of place. There are seven major characters in the game. You can pursue five of them as romantic interests. The women pair up, so if you’re going through one of their routes their friend will also be a significant player in the story. The characters are:

Emi Ibarazaki

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Cheery, perky, and energetic, Emi Ibarazaki loves running and food. She’s the star of the track team, in spite of the fact that her legs end just below the knee. Hisao never stops being amazed at how well she runs on her prosthetics, because he’s kind of a jerk who never gets over seeing disabled people differently in her route. Obviously, if you pursue her, you’re going to be doing a lot of running too, making it the only route I’ve experienced where you seem to bother doing anything about your heart health. Emi is best friends with:

Rin Tezuka

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Rin seems to live in a reality that’s a bit askew from our own. She’s always thinking and vocalizing seemingly random observations while paying little heed to the world around her, and seems to be pretty difficult to communicate with. She has no arms, using her feet and mouth to manipulate everything, and is a skilled artist.

Lilly Satou

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Lilly is an absolute sweetheart. Kind and caring, she always seeks to help others and is the representative for her class. She enjoys reading, tea, and the finer things in life. She’s blind, as evident by her anime-style pupil-less eyes. She’s gentle and sweet to everyone except Shizune, who’s kind of a jerk anyways. She has a very protective relationship with:

Hanako Ikezawa

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Hanako is the only one other than Hisao on this supposedly Japanese cast who actually looks Japanese. She’s a horrible burn victim, but seems to be placed in Yamaku more for her social paralyzation than her scars. She is incredibly meek, and has a hard time communicating with anybody except for Lilly. She often ditches class to hang out in the library, an act that’s generally been accepted by the school.

Shizune Hakamichi

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Shizune loves competition, and seems to twist everything into a game of some sort or another. Strong-willed and manipulative, she’s the student council president, and tries to press-gang you into joining pretty early on. She comes off as very abrasive. Both deaf and mute, Shizune relies on an interpreter to interact with the world.

Misha” Mikado

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Misha is that interpreter. She’s loud, bubbly, and friendly. She’s almost always joyous, to the point that you might want to date her instead of any of the other five just because she’s more fun. Well you can’t. For reasons that are apparent if you go through Shizune’s route. Also because Four Leaf Studios hates you personally.

Kenji Satou

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Kenji is also not a dating option, which is sorely missed. He’s the last line of defense against the feminist conspiracy, and the one sane man in an insane world. Which is to say, he’s more out of it than Rin. I found him the most amusing character, though, and for all his wild blabber, he does seem to provide some bits of true insight.

As mentioned above, the game’s pretty long. I had originally intended to play through everybody’s route before doing this review, but I ended up only getting through Emi’s, Lilly’s, and Shizune’s just because of how long each of their stories are. Well, those three, and the ending where you don’t go after any girl, and bro-down with Kenji right before you die. Remember, there’s no room for bachelors in these romantic novels. The first act starts mostly the same each time through: Hisao has his heart attack, gets sent to Yamaku, meets all the girls, mopes around about his heart and finds everybody weird. It does have quite a few branching paths, depending on choices you made, but usually, Hisao starts to get more comfortable with his situation, finds that everybody’s just normal and this is pretty much a normal school, and starts being romantically involved with somebody at the end of Act 1.

Acts 2-4 are different for each girl you’re pursuing. There are a few events that show up in multiple paths, but most everything is completely unique. The progression is different, the themes explored are different… the quality is different. It becomes clear pretty quickly into your second playthrough that each girl’s routes, at least the three that I played, are written by different people, just through writing styles. Lilly’s was my favorite, being descriptive without overflourishing and moving at a good pace. The writing in Shizune’s plot had a tendency to over-explain or overemphasize at times, but was good at making it’s central characters relatable and at realistically subverting expectations in regards to major plot points. Emi’s route had really strong character development, but had a bit of slow pacing and some really awkward phrasing. There were some inconsistencies between paths, too, such as one of Hisao’s ladyfriends taking a shower at his place, apparently forgetting that it was already established that the boys dorm has communal showers (!!). The varying quality isn’t really a problem that would break the story for you, but the novel would really have benefited by another check from the editing team.

The plots are mostly slice-of-life style things. Rather than focusing on grand schemes or devoting your life to your love, you’re still focused on just getting through school, navigating your new social engagements, and general high school things like that. The plots are pretty simple, at least in the routes I took. There aren’t going to be any twists that you don’t see coming, but the simple plot is presented very well, and it’s lack of complexity does leave more room for the day to day segments. The game’s really about getting to know the people Hisao now interacts with rather than trying to tell a strong story, and it goes after this focus very well. Lilly and Shizune’s route both make extensive use of subtlety, and while at times it gets a little too subtle in Shizune’s path, it’s usually implemented very well. All the characters are flawed, and these flaws are the main sources of conflict when they arise, but both the flaws and conflicts feel very well thought out and realistic, and are handled in a very mature manner. The amount of player input is pretty low, and may take some getting used to, but I found following the writing where it led me to be very enjoyable regardless.

And, of course, there are the sex scenes. I’m a man who can appreciate cheesecake, so long as it fits in with the tone of the work and/or contributes something to the story. The sex scenes in Katawa Shoujo don’t really do either. Often times, they seem to be out of place, tacked on at the end of some sort of narrative climax and extending the scene so that the impact of said climax is lost. I’m not even sure why they’re there. They take too much time to get to to really be meant to titillate, there was only maybe one occurrence where they delivered something of plot importance, and they’re optional anyway. They’re not even very good. They’re better than most teenage fan-fiction, so I’m not going to say the authors are inexperienced in the subject matter, but they do seem to be taking more inspiration from porn than anything in real life.

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Also, here’s a panty shot.  I don’t know why.

So, to sum things up, Katawa Shoujo is a very enjoyable visual novel, so long as you know what you’re in for. It’s a game with flaws, and its not going to be for everybody, but if what I’ve said intrigues you, it’d probably be worth giving it a try.  Unless if the thing I said that intrigues you is the sex scenes.  If you’re playing it for the sex scenes, you’re going  to be disappointed. I give Katawa Shoujo 28.651983204+894 points.  It’s available for free here.

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