[Note to all readers: This article is spoiler-free]
Recently, I’ve gained an interest in visual novels. Over the years, I’ve stumbled across a few that were either very poorly made or written for a younger audience and lacking in depth. As such, the genre never really piqued my interest. I don’t know why, but out of nowhere, I suddenly decided to give visual novels another chance and before long, I stumbled upon Katawa Shoujo by Four Leaf Studios, which can be downloaded for free.
How it came about
Katawa Shoujo has an interesting origin. Four Leaf Studios was formed specifically for the purpose of creating Katawa Shoujo. The individuals involved originally met through a discussion board on 4Chan. Yes, you read correctly. This project started out as a 4Chan thread.
It all began with this concept art from Japanese artist Raita Honjou. Honjou never ended up following through with this project.
This soon lead to a pinned thread on 4Chan’s /a/ board where Four Leaf Studios would eventually find each other and over the course of several years, make this visual novel a reality.
On to the game itself
If I were reviewing a standard video game, I would typically critique elements of story, gameplay, performance, and music in a formulaic manner. I don’t feel this format quite holds up when judging a visual novel. Instead, I will be discussing aspects of the project that I feel are significant to the overall impact on the reader. Furthermore, I will not be treating this as a formal review, and more as a spoiler-free discussion about Katawa Shoujo.
Katawa Shoujo is set in the fictional high school of Yamaku Academy in Japan. Yamaku Academy is a school specifically catering to those with physical disabilities. The main character, Hisao Nakai, transfers to Yamaku following a heart attack brought on by cardiac arrhythmia.
A school for the physically disabled provides a setting that is not only interesting enough to be engaging, but is unique enough to feel refreshing. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read a story that takes place in a typical public high school. After a while, it gets a bit old, and I’m thankful that Katawa Shouju took a slightly different approach.
An integral part to the story is not only the plot, but the interactions and personal growth of the characters themselves. Many stories use their characters simply as a means to an end. The hero saves the world and gets the girl, but if you replace either the hero or the girl, nobody notices. In Katawa Shoujo it’s the other way around. It’s almost as if Hisao’s interactions with the characters shape the story around them. If you replaced the setting or the overarching plot points, I doubt it would make a huge difference.
I would love to go in-depth about each and every major character in the game, but unfortunately I can’t. So much of their personality, their outlook on life, and their emotions are connected to their individual pasts and to story elements in the game which are revealed as Hisao gets closer to them. If I were to reveal too much, I would ruin the most important aspect of the game.
Instead, I will simply give a brief introduction into each of the main characters.
Emi can only be described as bubbly and determined. Despite having no legs, she managed to be a track star and is a never-ending source of positivity. She is friends with Rin, and the two often spend their lunch breaks together on the roof
Despite having no arms, Rin is a very talented painter. Aside from this, nobody really knows very much about her, including her best friend Emi. This is likely due to the fact that half the time, what she says makes no discernible sense to anyone.
Nobody really knows much about Hanako as she is incredibly shy and will rarely speak more than a sentence or two to anybody. She has visible scarring on the right side of her face and on her right hand. When she isn’t busy reading, she is often accompanied by her only friend, Lilly.
Lilly is the very formal and polite representative for her class, which is almost entirely comprised of visually-impaired students. Lilly herself was born blind and often spends her days drinking tea and talking with Hanako.
Shizune is the president of the Yamaku Academy Student Council. She is very diligent in her duties and will always make her opinions known. She has difficulty communicating with others due to her deafness, so she is almost always near her best friend and unofficial interpreter Misha.
Katawa Shoujo follows a pattern similar to a choose-your-own-adventure book. However, the linear style of Katawa Shoujo differs from many stories in which the reader can alter the outcome.
Infrequently, the reader will be given a choice of two or more dialogue options. The overall story is decided by these decisions. These decisions will be one of three types
Some decisions are entirely unimportant to the overall story. These decisions will really only affect a few screens of dialogue and serve more as a means of immersion than anything else.
Other decisions are there to guide you into the bulk of the story. In the early stages of the story, your choices will decide which of the five girls will be the focus of the remainder of the story.
The final type of decision you will be asked to make will affect the outcome. For every storyline, there are multiple outcomes. If you are on the Hanako path, your decisions can lead to a happy ending, a sad ending, or an ambiguous ending. There are 13 endings in all including one “secret” ending which will finish the story earlier than the rest.
I personally enjoy this narrative style as it allows for each character to have their own story arc and personal development without being thrown together in a manner that would have been very unsatisfying and rather forced.
Furthermore, Katawa Shoujo is linear enough so that I felt I could sit back and experience it unlike some CYOA books which push constant decisions onto readers, forcing them to think, guess, and backtrack often. A story as deep as Katawa Shoujo’s wouldn’t be well served by constant input from the reader. After all, it’s a story first and a game second.
I found it very intriguing to learn that Katawa Shoujo had multiple writers and that each storyline was written by a different person. This leaves each storyline with not only its own plot, but its own narrative style and overall feel.
Though I believe this approach has been a net positive, it was not executed perfectly.
There are occasional inconsistencies across different storylines. For example, there is one storyline in which Hisao’s heart condition affects him much more than in any of the others. Hisao’s outlook on his arrhythmia is also different across multiple storylines, with some choosing to make him more bitter or self-conscious than others.
Additionally, I was left feeling that one storyline in particular was more poorly written and less satisfying than the others (No, I’m not saying which one). This storyline seemed to lack a lesson where the others sought to impart a little wisdom. I also feel that this storyline did not properly flesh out the girl’s character flaws or properly resolve them.
That being said, the writing is not awful. It simply did not hold up very well next to the absolutely stellar work done by the other writers.
You can’t have a visual novel without some visuals. Katawa Shoujo is an anime story that I would personally describe as charming.
The dialogue primarily consists of static sprites on top of a background. The images only change in between dialogue screens, though every character comes with a full range of expressions which are integrated into the story to give them more life.
In some areas, the sprite models are not used. Instead, a singular image is used. This is primarily done in areas of story significance so that they stand out in the mind of the reader.
Each storyline also has a short animation that plays for the reader. This will heavily feature the character who’s storyline is chosen and is accompanied by music. As all of these animations have story significance, I will not be showing any of them here. You’ll just have to experience them for yourself.
Overall, I feel that Katawa Shoujo presents itself very well. Though the artwork is certainly no masterpiece, it does its job well. Each character has their own style and personality that comes through in their art as well as their dialogue.
Katawa Shoujo is designed for an adult audience and it includes sexual content. This can be disabled in the options menu, but I would strongly recommend against it. The sex scenes are very important to the story and to the development of the individual characters.
Katawa Shoujo handles this sexual content in a very mature and careful manner. Unlike many other visual novels with adult content, sex is not the focus. Instead, it is another piece of the story and is another part of how the characters interact.
I should re-iterate. Katawa Shoujo is not designed to be fap material. If that is what you’re looking for, it’s probably best that you go elsewhere.
If there is one criticism I would give of the sexuality in Katawa Shoujo, it is that I feel that the writers were pressured to include it in their storylines. Most of the time, this was done beautifully and it contributed very well to the surrounding story. However, in one storyline, I felt that the sex scene was somewhat rushed. Hisao and the girl in question (no spoilers, remember?) were having a very emotional and intimate moment before they eventually have sex. The sex itself felt somewhat out of place with the rest of the storyline. It felt entirely out of character for both Hisao and the girl to have had sex at the time and in the manner that they did. The emotional-turned-sexual nature of the scene was powerful enough on its own with just foreplay, and the intercourse felt somewhat wrong. I unfortunately cannot explain any better without spoiling it. I believe the writer only added the sex scene because s/he had to.
Though there are safe-for-work images I could use to show you the sexuality of Katawa Shoujo, I feel that they would constitute spoilers. As I said previously, the sexual content is vital to the story and it would be unfair of me to ruin it for you.
The entire 46-song soundtrack of Katawa Shoujo is comprised of original pieces written specifically for the story.
I absolutely love it. The songs always establish the mood perfectly and quite frankly, I think the music is beautiful.
The songs themselves are all instrumentals, typically consisting of only a few instruments. The songs were tailored to specific emotions, specific scenes, and specific characters. Katawa Shoujo has one of the best and most fitting soundtracks I have ever experienced in any game.
Rather than going over all the music piece by piece, I’ll just include a few of my favorite songs from the visual novel. Go ahead and listen to them. I’ll wait.
Katawa Shoujo is something special. It’s been a long time since any piece of media moved me as much as this simple visual novel did. Throughout my multiple playthroughs, I found myself smiling at the often adorable antics of the various characters and I even audibly laughed a few times.
I felt like I connected with the characters, even though they’re just pixels and text. When one of them is clearly hurting, I want to comfort them. When they close themselves off, I can get just as frustrated as Hisao.
Some of the bad endings absolutely tore my heart out. I won’t spoil any of them, but there were times when I felt absolutely awful. I was sad and had to step away from my computer for a few minutes to comprehend what had just happened.
I love reading, but it’s rare for me to become as fully immersed and committed to a story as I have with Katawa Shoujo. Everything about it, from the characters to the music to the decision-making all combined to form a story that truly moved me. I cannot recommend Katawa Shoujo highly enough. It’s free, it’s incredible, and you have absolutely no excuse not to play it.
And to think it was created by a bunch of anons on 4Chan.
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