Geekscream: Katawa Shoujo Review

Katawa Shoujo

Katawa Shoujo

Four Leaf Studios? Dating sim? Crippled girls? Promises of sex scenes in the final release? Katawa Shoujo – literally “Disability Girl” – seems, for all intents and purposes, a ticking time bomb of internet drama. Given the 4chan roots and inherently controversial subject matter, not to mention the bad rep hentai visual novels have in general, any skepticism on the audience’s part is probably well warranted indeed.

But whether or not it deserves that skepticism is another thing altogether.

The sketch what started it all.

The sketch what started it all.

The history of Katawa Shoujo is worth noticing, at least in summary. A fuller picture can be taken from the latest devblog entry (as of May 11, 2009, at http://katawashoujo.blogspot.com/2009/05/long-history-of-katawa-shoujo.html), but to put it simply, a sane world would not have seen Act 1 come to the light of day. The entire project was based on a sketch made nearly ten years ago now, by a Japanese doujin artist going under the pseudonym “Raita,” colored years later by an English translator, and somehow sparked a threshold of interest in that most infamous of English-language imageboards – some emergent property out of the sheer number of spectators that managed to draw in just the right number of writers, developers, artists and even a few musicians…

…to fall flat on its face.

Katawa Shoujo is remarkable, first and foremost, for being something of a phoenix unto itself – a theme that plays out in both its internal world and its meta-context. Somehow or another, despite competing egos amongst *chan denizens, despite what was initially a massively slapdash script, despite burning through gods knows how many artists, they managed to do the impossible – they saved a completely amateur, nonprofit work from the burning wreckages of premature abortion. Despite the usual reputation of *changoers, what appeared out of the ashes wasn’t just a short, slapdash demo, with crappy art and worse interface (never mind the actual first demo – “Grid1” doesn’t count), but a product that is, for all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from a professionally released visual novel.

Hell, maybe that’s selling the dev team short. Professionally made visual novels have a huge range of qualities – and from a technical standpoint alone, Katawa Shoujo is at least an upper-midtier release. Though I believe the original plan was to use original artwork for backgrounds, the decision to instead stick with a filtered stock of photographs was perhaps a moment of accidental brilliance, allowing a dreamlike immersion into the game’s universe while still, paradoxically, giving richer details of the world than would have been possible with hand-drawn art. The Victorian-era architecture of the school, the wrought-iron gate, and even the roads of the small, adjacent town form an organic but impacting support for the narrative.

In-game screenshot

In-game screenshot

The character designs, too, are outright professional. Quirky at times, yes (not a bad thing – Shizune wouldn’t be Shizune without what a friend of mine refers to as her “troll grin.” >:3), but there are no discernible flaws in either the dialog sprites or CG art. They’re standard anime art style, yes, which can at times be a flaw unto itself – but the last thing you’ll hear complaints about, in relation to Katawa Shoujo’s art, is a sameness in character design or a lack of expression. The girls aren’t just moeblobs, and they’re not just differentiated by hair style, rack size and – in this case – disability. Their body languages and appearances, even with school uniforms, are highly individualistic, and even nuanced. Though the industry-standard use of sprites during non-event dialog makes for an unavoidable level of repetition and sameness at times (Shizune loves playing with her glasses), it isn’t anywhere near so overdone that it effects the enjoyability of the game.

And the game is very enjoyable. And sympathetic. Forget about 4chan’s reputation – in fact, forget that the original concept sketches ever showed up in 4chan. This is clearly a labor of love from the individuals on the dev team. While the use of a wide range of physical disabilities and ailments, ranging from burn trauma, deafness, blindness, thalidomide syndrome and partial amputation, the story’s treatment of the physically disabled is done with empathy first and foremost. Act 1’s overarching narrative can even be considered an object lesson in why you should not only treat the disabled with respect, but treat them with the same respect as a “normal” human beings – being disabled is a far, far thing from being incapable or inferior, especially given the nonlinearity of human ability. And on the converse, having a disability isn’t cause for shame and self-pity.

Was I a skeptic when I first heard of this project? Tell me who wasn’t, and I’ll show you a liar. But they’ve won me over. If the collective vision holds true for the rest of the game, if the writing retains the promise held in the Act 1 demo, then regardless of the h-scenes, regardless of the controversy, regardless of what any other skeptic may have to say, this will be a game worth playing.

Plus, it’d be nice to have the Japanese fangroups demanding subs for once.

Here's to the eventual full release.

Here's to the eventual full release.

(go download the sample already, ye bastard. It’s at http://katawa-shoujo.com)

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~ by Gonzo Mehum on May 11, 2009.

4 Responses to “Geekscream: Katawa Shoujo Review”

  1. The Japanese fangroups ARE demanding subs already. Already seen a 2ch thread with posts questioning when the JP translation will appear, plus a video on Nice Nico Douga with JP subs partially applied to a few scenes…

    Feels good, not gonna lie.

  2. Played it and loved it, I can’t wait for the full release. Took a while to get the full 100% because of one particular scene. And it’s good that for once the Japanese have to wait for subs.

  3. I would love to see the Japanese fan-translate this game, just for the lulz. Honestly, I didn’t even get five minutes into the demo: I started, and immediately realized that it would be excellent. I’ll hold off until the final release, I’ll play it, and I’m nearly certain that I’ll love it. This is exactly what the OEL VN community needs.

  4. My goodness, I love the art. Too bad it was targeted to male players :P I wish there was more games targeted at the female population. That would be so awesome ^w^ Great work, guys!

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