Katawa Shoujo

Review: Katawa Shoujo

A red-headed girl with short hair in a boy's school uniform sits on a table. She has no arms, her sleeves are tied off, and she lifts a forkful of food towards her mouth with her toes.

I blinked back tears, my heart aching in my breast, deeply affected. I opened my post-editor and then I began to write this, dabbing occasionally at my eyes with a tissue.

Katawa Shoujo (translation: “Disability Girl”) is a free, English, Visual Novel game by Four Leaf Studios, which is a collection of talented people scattered around the world. Five years in the making, the game is among the best of its breed, in my opinion.

There are dozens, nay, hundreds of ways this Visual Novel project could have gone awry, turning to mere pap or horribly insensitive trash; instead it is remarkably well thought-out, smart, sensitive, emotional and insightful.

The Story (minimal spoilage)

Set in Japan, the story follows a high-school boy, Hisao Nakai. A combination of heart conditions is revealed by his collapse, leading to surgery and convalescence in hospital, followed by a transfer to a remote, specialist high-school with care and facilities for the differently-abled, far from the friends and circumstances he once enjoyed.

Stately brick buildings in a well-manicured lawn and garden setting.

Through this Visual Novel, you follow along with Hisao’s journey to reclaim or rebuild his life, in a school dominated by the different and the special, influencing his path with occasional choices, leading him to eventual success or failure.

The first Act of the story sets the stage, explaining Hisao’s background and his introduction to the new school and the key characters in Hisao’s new world. Successfully navigating the choices of the first Act will set Hisao up to become involved with one of several differently-abled girls at his new school.

Which might sound tacky, but it really isn’t.

Each of these girls is central to a storyline, which may result in good, bad, or indifferent endings to Hisao’s tale as they unfold over several remaining Acts, unique to each story-thread. Each girl and her story is thoughtfully-written, well-portrayed, and Hisao’s relationships with them, and his efforts to understand himself and others, are described with authenticity, dignity and sensitivity.

A smiling female high-school student with dyed pink hair stands next to a more serious female student with black hair and glasses. In the background, another female student stands pensively, partly concealing extensive scarring with her long, brunette tresses

Likewise, the adult content in the stories is handled elegantly and tastefully. While it can be easily disabled from the game’s options menu (though things could still be rather… racy), I feel the stories are actually poorer without that content – as powerful and affecting as the events depicted can be for people of that age, the narrative overall feels just a little impoverished without them. It’s tasteful, contextual, appropriate and sex-positive (even when things don’t go so well for these beginners at sex) – not tawdry or shabby.

The tech

A tall, blonde girl with a white cane and closed eyes stands next to a shorter, bespectacled redhead, in a library.

Overall, the writing is excellent, with fewer typographical errors than you would find in a AAA game title (especially considering nearly half a million total words of written content!), full of expressive and emotive prose crafted into compelling narratives.

The stories cover ground in love and loss, joy and tears, happiness, humour and drama – and more.

Something I found particularly interesting was playing through other storylines and seeing how the same events (particularly that of a letter that Hisao receives) affect Hisao and his relationships depending on timing and his emotional state and experiences. It’s cleverly done, and allows us to see more dimensions to Hisao, his feelings and his situations than a single storyline might otherwise reveal.

The music is lovely, thematic and functional with appropriate and effective sound-effects where required – no complaints at all on that front – and the graphics are attractive and as well-made, stylish and slick as you would find in any professional Visual Novel. Katawa Shoujo makes excellent use of the Ren’Py Visual Novel Engine, on which it is crafted. It should run on a wide variety of Windows, Linux and Mac OSX hardware – and there are rumours of an Android version in the works.

The engine competently handles both windowed and full-screen play, allows the story to be saved or loaded at any time (and with commendable speed), and provides functions for skipping over text already-seen, or reviewing the prose-history in case you accidentally missed something. It works and it works very well, with only very modest hardware requirements.

The verdict

A group of school students at simple wooden desks

Katawa Shoujo is an interactive romance novel (or novels) that I found deeply affecting. I cried tears of joy and of sadness. It touched my heart and twisted my insides, and I very much enjoyed it. Being that it is also free, I cannot hesitate to recommend Katawa Shoujo to you. You can download Katawa Shoujo from here via the Web or BitTorrent.

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