Kara no Shojo (The Girl in the Shell) is simply one of the most graphic and disturbing visual novels I have ever played. It is also one of the most captivating.
Set in post-war Japan (1956 to be exact), Kara no Shojo follows Reiji Tokisaka, a private detective specializing in catching serial killers. When girls from several local high schools are found dismembered, Reiji is hired to enter one of the schools and, posing as a teacher, find the killer.
Before we go any further, let's get this out of the way: several of the potential love interests are students -- though not all of them, by any means. And as is common with visual novels, there are several pornographic scenes in the game. While some visual novels offer you the choice to censor or skip such scenes, Kara no Shojo does not -- although fast forwarding through these scenes is as easy as holding the space bar down for a few seconds.
Post-war Tokyo is a great setting for a noir-style murder mystery. Corruption is everywhere: the Yakuza have free reign and American soldiers walk the streets with near impunity. And with the utter destruction caused by the war, official records are often misplaced or even gone altogether -- allowing for practically anyone to make a new identity for themselves and leave no one the wiser.
Moreover, the mystery becomes that much more complex as Reiji -- and thus the player -- is bound by 1950s technology. There is no DNA testing and no blood spatter analysis -- pretty much everything you learn comes through mundane physical evidence, fingerprints, and autopsies. But perhaps the biggest handicap (and one that most of us probably never think about these days) is the lack of cell phones -- the use of which could have prevented most of the game's deaths.
While many visual novels content themselves with scant few choices, Kara no Shojo is practically the opposite. The story itself is filled with the usual dialogue choices -- some of which matter and some of which don't -- but most of the "choice" comes in the form of how you spend Reiji's free time. Nearly every afternoon of the game's roughly two-month time period, you are faced with a choice of where to go in Tokyo. Each afternoon you are allowed to pick two locations in Tokyo and see the events that happen there before the story proper moves on.
The events you see are vital to your path through the story. Sometimes, who you encounter affects who will become your love interest. Other times, you will stumble across a piece of evidence that completely changes the path of the game -- often without you realising it at the time.
But just choosing where to wander around is far from the game's only interactive element. In fact, in several ways, Kara no Shojo plays like the games of the Ace Attorney series. As you play, you will often find yourself gathering evidence at crime scenes or in the rooms of victims/suspects. Then, from time to time, you will be forced to logically piece together what you know so far in order to proceed with the plot.
Perhaps the highest praise I can give to Kara no Shojo is that the game presents a fair mystery -- i.e. you can deduce the killer long before Reiji does based on the evidence you collect. But while other games are likely to reward you for your intelligence, Kara no Shojo is far more likely to punish you for it.
During the first case of the game, for example, I was able to narrow down the suspects to two likely ones quite early on. But more than that, I was able to figure out who the next victim would be. Thus, I spent my time in the game with this girl, trying to both unravel the greater mystery and save her from her impending demise. Unfortunately, this merely ensured my death alongside hers.
Eventually, after several tries, I was forced to conclude that getting close to her was the cause of my constant game overs. Yet, even as I played -- forcing Reiji to be oblivious -- I kept stumbling into the same game over. Finally, after perusing walkthroughs and a lot of trial and error, I finally discovered that a choice I had made hours earlier -- namely visiting the autopsy doctor in my free time and thus gaining a vital piece of information early -- was the cause of my demise.
Moreover, after finding myself caught in a similar loop later in the game, I discovered that I had missed a piece of information at a crime-scene, thus leaving Reiji unable to discover the true killer. While the game never explicitly states so, you only have a certain number of clicks at some of the crime scenes before the story moves on -- acting like you've found everything. Moreover, the evidence may only appear the second or third time you click on an area -- or not until you've clicked another area first. This is without a doubt the most underhanded trick in the game -- and one that nearly requires you play with a walkthrough on hand.
As you can probably infer by this point in the review, as you play Kara no Shojo, you will die: a lot -- and in many horrible ways. And while the deaths also serve as clues toward solving the overall mystery of the game, that doesn't make them any less nightmare-inducingly graphic. But far worse than Reji's own deaths are those of the girls who are captured and dismembered.
Occasionally the narrative jumps away from Reiji and into another character's viewpoint -- usually that of the killer or the soon-to-be victim. Thus, for each murder you are granted a killers-eye view of the grisly scene as it happens. The game does not shy away from the horror in its text description or in its graphical display. Both the murder scenes and corpse discovery investigations are enough to churn even the strongest stomach. But worse than that is the emotional turmoil you, the player, feel as you are forced to watch.
That is the trick of Kara no Shojo, the one point that raises it far above many similar visual novels: You can't save everyone. Over your time with the game, you meet many different characters. You befriend them, spend time with them, learn about their hopes and dreams, and maybe even romance them. But, I'm not going to lie, a lot of them are going to die -- or worse -- and there is nothing, nothing, you can do about it.
Reiji, while a brilliant detective, is still just one person -- a minor piece in the overall web of the murders. He is not a superman or some kind of action hero; he is just one moral man trying to save those he can. But as a detective, an investigator, he can't save people -- not really. He can only catch the person responsible for the killings after they've already been committed. The game does an amazing job of conveying this sense of helplessness by forcing you to watch as one by one the characters you are emotionally invested in are taken away. Even in the best possible route through the game, no one is safe.
In the end, let me say this. I hate graphic gore. It's not that seeing it on the screen is so bad; but my imagination loves to take it one step further as I lay in bed at night, making for some horrible nightmares. Kara no Shojo is no exception. But despite that, the game has its hooks in me. It made me care so much about the characters and the mystery that even if I would have been playing for fun (instead of for this review), I would have pressed on to the end. And now that it's done -- even with all the gore and emotional turmoil I went through -- all I can think about is getting my hands on the sequel.
I have to know what happens next.
Kara no Shojo Voiced Edition was released on October 4, 2013, for Windows operating systems. It is available for purchase at the MangaGamer Store.