When I first heard that a visual novel centered around dating girls with physical disabilities was being made, my first thought was "only in Japan". Of course, I was completely wrong. While made in the style of a typical Japanese visual novel — and even based on a Japanese sketch — Katawa Shoujo was created by a group of fans from all over the world who met on the message board 4chan.
In case you are unaware of who and what one might encounter on 4chan, be forewarned as you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy on the internet. So heading in, I was sure this would be at best a satire of visual novels and at worst a horribly insensitive, offensive, racist, sexist pile of irreverent hate. I never expected it to be the best visual novel I have ever played.
Good — A Slice Of Life
Katawa Shoujo is the story of Hisao, your average high school senior, who suffers a major heart attack when his crush tells him she likes him. After months in the hospital, he finds himself attending a boarding school catering to students with physical disabilities. There he comes to terms with his new life and even finds love.
While it is a game based around dating, much of the plot focuses on how Hisao is acclimating to his new life. Anyone who ever changed schools as a child has felt some of Hisao's worries. But more than that, he has to come to terms with having a heart defect that makes it doubtful he'll live past 30. Then add on to that losing all parental support and being part of a school full of broken people (at least as he first sees it), and you can easily envision his mindset at the outset of the game.
What makes the story great is seeing how he comes to terms with all this — or in some cases, doesn't — as well as how falling in love alters his view on what's happened in the past and on his life to come.
Good — A Diverse And Human Cast
Other than Hisao, the main characters are the possible love interests: a blind girl, a girl with no legs, a girl with no arms, a girl covered in burn scars and a deaf-mute. Of course, that's not how Hisao (or the writers) look at them. Rather, they are the polite girl, the track star, the tortured artist, the shy bookworm and the driven student council president. These characters are not defined by their disabilities. They are characters that have disabilities they have largely overcome long before Hisao ever shows up. And what personal problems the girls may have are never due to their disabilities — though sometimes their personal problems and disabilities do share a common cause.
When it comes to dating them, each story is filled with ups and downs — with some relationships being healthy and normal, and others seeming more than a bit self-destructive. Overall, they are presented as normal people — because they are. They all have their own likes and dislikes — not to mention friends and enemies — and watching Hisao come to accept this is one of the best parts of the game.
Good — A Sense Of Place
While like a digital "choose your own adventure" novel, there are really only five routes through Katawa Shoujo, one for each girl. What's surprising is how different each storyline is from the others. While some events — the school festival, the letter, etc — happen in every playthrough, the way they're handled is always different. Interestingly, most of the storylines don't even share the same time span, with one taking place over a mere three months and another taking almost a full year.
Moreover, you will occasionally cross paths with the girls outside your chosen storyline. This is a real treat for anyone doing multiple playthroughs. These encounters give you a glimpse how the girls turn out if you don't choose their storylines. From this comes one of the most surprising revelations of the game: Your character's involvement in their lives does not always make their lives better and in more than one case, it makes them decidedly worse. This is an excellent twist on this type of game as usually you are the white knight that saves the girl. In Katawa Shoujo, you discover that they get on just fine without you.
Mixed — A Soundtrack Lacking In Length, Not Quality
The music in Katawa Shoujo is exactly what it should be: emotionally charged when it needs to be, largely ignorable when it doesn't. None of the songs are annoying and more than a few are downright hummable. However, as good as the music is, I found it a bit grating by my fifth time through the game. Some more character/storyline specific music would have been welcome.
Mixed — Excellent Art Style, Uneven Polish
The visual style of the game is one of Katawa Shoujo's most interesting features. As Katawa Shoujo is a fan-made, freeware title, it was built not on a budget, but on talented people's free time. So instead of spending the considerable time and effort needed to draw the backgrounds of each and every location, they sent someone to take photos of numerous locations in Japan. Then they slightly blurred the images in Photoshop. The result is a neat little look at real world Japan as you play.
The main sprites of the game, especially the five females, are very well done, as are the special still frames of the game's most dramatic moments. Still, despite the general level of quality, some of the sprites of the background characters look a little rough around the edges and some of the still frames from less important moments could use a bit more polish as well.
But what most surprised me were the anime cutscenes that play at the end of the game's first act and foreshadow upcoming key moments in the story. If getting these amazing, well-directed scenes took polish away from other parts of the game, I for one call it a fair trade.
Mixed — Not Exactly "T" For "Teen"
I would be remiss if I didn't point out the sex scenes in Katawa Shoujo. While the game in general is far from pornographic in nature, each girl has at least one explicit sex scene in her storyline. While they do serve the plot — and are often more awkward than sexy — they do definitely make the game unsuitable to those under 18. Luckily, these scenes can be turned off in the options menu for anyone who would rather play the game without them.
In all, Katawa Shoujo is an excellent visual novel. It takes a delicate issue and treats it with all the respect it deserves, while not tip-toeing around it. Moreover, it delivers a touching slice-of-life story — or five of them, as the case may be. It really is a testament to what a group of random netizens can do when they have the same goal. Best of all, it's free. So head on over to the Four Leaf Studio's webpage and give this one a play. You'll be happy you did.