Rakuen is an indie puzzle adventure game, first announced back in 2013 and developed by game composer Laura Shigihara. It’s been four years, but Rakuen is finally available on Steam for PC, Mac, and Linux. I’ve looked forward to this game and had the pleasure to play it through to completion the other day. So is this game the new indie gem of the year?
In Rakuen you play as Boy, a sick child living in a hospital. There isn’t much to do in the hospital so he gets bored often, but Mom always reads his favorite storybook to him: “Rakuen.” One day, a series of mysterious thefts occur in the hospital. Along with several food items and personal belongings, the Boy realizes that “Rakuen” is missing as well. After solving a few puzzles and meeting neighboring patients in the hospital, the Boy retrieves his storybook.
As Mom reads him the story again, the Boy laments that he’s stuck in the hospital and wishes he could go to the world of the story: Morizora’s Forest. Mom tells him that it is indeed possible and the two travel into the world together. The Boy wants to talk to Morizora, the Guardian of the Forest, who can grant one wish. But to accomplish this he must help out his neighbors by interacting with their other selves in the fantasy world. As the Boy helps, he unravels the spiral of secrets each patient holds and must confront the hidden darkness that lurks within the hospital.
What is Rakuen?
Rakuen is a story-rich puzzle game with no combat. The game is a little slow to start with. For the first couple hours, you need to solve quite a few puzzles and start meeting all the hospital patients. The hospital environment itself is a little dull, but I’m pretty sure that’s kind of the point. When you enter Morizora’s Forest, everything is gorgeous in comparison. The colors are vibrant, the landscape is beautiful and the characters are adorable beyond belief.
One of my favorite concepts the game presents is that the two worlds are separate yet connected. That creates some of the best puzzles. If you are stuck, you can test out many things to see if they will have any effect on the other world. Often times that is the solution. In one instance, if you decide to water a plant in the hospital, a beanstalk will grow in the forest, gaining access to new areas. Some puzzles are a little tricky, but if you have Mom in your party you can also ask for a hint from her. You also need to make sure to look for plenty of entrances to the forest since you can’t get to certain places otherwise.
I also loved how the characters in the real world are depicted in the fantasy world. For example, Tony is a grumpy old man living next door. He gets mad at the nurses and complains about not receiving visitors. So his fantasy alter ego is a large grouchy bear tormenting other villagers by trampling their crops and yelling at them. All of the alternate selves are very fitting and charming.
Rakuen‘s adventure elements are also very strong. All the NPCs are quirky and interesting to talk to. It’s worth talking to each one at least twice, since their dialogue will change every other time. Early on in the game is a large dungeon full of puzzles to solve and plenty of zany characters. There are also many parts of the forest. However some parts are blocked off by obstructions whether it is a rock or a sketchy villager. In that case you either need to use a tool to get through, or find a secret path around. I spent a lot of time just exploring the world, often searching for secrets and goodies to collect.
That brings up a good opportunity to talk about:
There are only one or two sidequests, the main one being to help furnish the patient lounge room. Partway through the game, a section of the hospital opens up that can be filled with furniture, pets, entertainment and other items you find during your quest. It goes from an empty room to being a place full of life and personality and it’s extremely satisfying watching it grow. If you want to complete it you’ll have to do some thorough searching. You’ll need lots of money to buy all the items, search obscure areas for jukebox CDs, and be able to locate all the pets in hiding. I felt like I searched everywhere, but didn’t complete all of it according to Steam achievements. A second playthrough might be in order in the near future being the completionist I am.
One very cool thing about this sidequest is that you do not need to return to that location if you want to place the item. Simply select it from your inventory, no matter where you are, and the game automatically places the item in the patient lounge. So even if you’re busy you can add to that sidequest while trekking onward with the main story.
The soundtrack in this game is terrific. It is almost entirely composed and performed by Laura Shigihara herself. If you are familiar with her work, then you probably can already imagine how good it is. There are over 50 tracks in the game, some happy and cheery, some haunting and somber. It even has a variety of vocal and instrumental. But all of them are suitable. I remember one song specifically, only played in a few rooms. Despite finishing everything I needed to do in that room, I didn’t want to leave because it was so catchy! The music truly is one of the best components of the game and I intend to purchase the soundtrack as soon as I’m able.
This is where Rakuen truly shines. When you begin helping out the patients, you learn about them. You learn about their lives, their family and friends and why they are in the hospital. These segments of the game are very powerful and emotional. They will resonate with you deeply, especially if you or a loved one have gone through something similar. I admit, I got pretty choked up at one point because one of the character arcs hit a little too close to home. It dealt with a personal secret fear of mine and the tears were real. SO real. If a game can get me to cry, then you know it’s doing a good job with emotion.
The fascinating thing about learning about the other patients’ past is that you experience it firsthand. During the arcs there are segments where you get to play as the patient’s fantasy selves. The Boy quite literally has to walk in their shoes to help and understand them. Along with that, you as a player, feel like you can understand their hardships and circumstances better just by playing as them for a few minutes.
As aforementioned the game is very pretty and the characters couldn’t be cuter but as a notice: This game gets dark. At times anyway. When traversing through character’s memories, you will come across eerie locations and some unsettling creatures. You can find journal entries and articles that foreshadow some tragic events. Also writing will show up on walls that were previous blank before, and that never makes me feel okay. Often times you only have an incessantly ticking clock to keep your thoughts company. Luckily, I love games that evoke this uncomfortable feeling. But the game manages to bring you back to a happy place and heartwarming resolution for every bleak or depressing part. And that’s the correct way to do it.
As a follow-up to the dark parts, just because this game does not have any combat does not mean there is no way to fail or even perish. Unfortunately I met an untimely end with a game-over screen once during my adventure. So tread carefully and beware the creepy spirits.
I like Rakuen a lot if it isn’t already obvious, but I do have some criticisms. Probably wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t have some of those. One part of the game I enjoyed was the puzzle dungeon: Morizora’s Cave. Since it showed up so early on I was expecting a few more fun puzzle dungeons. Unfortunately… that is the only one in the entire game. It was pretty large, and I understand that it’s difficult to create something that expansive along with the mini-map interface. But it is still slightly disappointing. I guess I’m complaining that a part was too good to not show up again.
Sometimes I got the feeling that the pacing of the game was a little off. And in a game that is sometimes difficult to describe. For starters, it is a few hours before you get to see the other characters’ backstories. But when you hit the first one, you hit the second one very quickly after that. Then there is another long puzzle break before the next backstory. Additionally the first two backstories are richer in detail and contain more puzzles than the others, therefore making the first two much longer. I felt the need to adjust myself frequently based on how quickly the pace changed.
While Rakuen was a great experience for me, it might not be for everyone. If you aren’t into puzzles games you likely won’t enjoy it, or you might ragequit on one of the more frustrating puzzles. The game is also heavily story-based and requires a lot of reading and emotional investment. Those two things are cornerstones of this game. Personally I enjoy those things, and I think most gamers do. The puzzles even remind me of some 2D Zelda games. If you’re skeptical, I would still suggest trying it out, because the game has wonderful content.
Despite my criticisms, I truly love Rakuen. I was at a very appropriate time in my life to appreciate this game. In fact, seeing video games tell a deep meaningful story is the main reason I still play games. The game did not let me down. It is brimming with a lot of emotion that is both heart-wrenching and uplifting. Get your feelings ready for a rollercoaster. While I don’t consider this the best indie game I’ve ever played it is certainly among the better ones. And it is sure to leave you with a good (even if bittersweet) feeling. I hope that anyone else who chooses to play Rakuen enjoys it as much as I did.