If you asked someone the first thing that came to mind when asked about image site 4 chan the results would inevitably wildly vary – from a simple site for pictures and heated commentary, to its invention of now common internet memes – all the way though to its more…..disturbing connotations.
So when I first heard of Studio 4 leaf, a 4chan collaborative group of programmers, designers, artists and writers from around the world, had formed to attempt to produce as close to a professional quality visual novel [and one with a less than standard storyline – more on that later] I admit I had a feeling of apprehension – all too often I had seen attempts by western fans to create their own VN’s, with nearly all of them inevitably failing, either in writing, graphics or all round quality.
5 years of work, and a resounding sell out of their initial work at Japan’s biggest fan works convention Comiket, and Studio 4 leaf have finally released the fruits of their labours – “Katawa Shoujo” [“Crippled Girl”].
The story focus’s of Hisao Nakai , an otherwise ordinary school boy, whose life is turned upside down when it’s discovered that he has a heart arrhythmia – a potentially fatal heart condition where his heart has difficulty controlling its rhythm.
Due to Hisao still being a high school student, and the fact that his parents can’t pay for further hospital treatments [makes you glad you’re a UK resident], Hisao is instead transferred to Yamaku High School – a school that’s not only equipped to cater for the needs of disabled students, but also gives them the means of enjoying some sense of a normal school life – at least as much as is possible.
It is here that, in true dating sim style, that Hisao’s introduced to his [and the players] choice of girls:
Shizune, [R] a confrontational deaf-mute student who, along with her hyperactive translator and fellow student Misha, make up the Schools student council.
Lilly [L], a blind half Japanese student and class rep, whose calm, lady-like exterior is often tested with her quarrels with Shizune. Lilly is also friends with Hanako, whose shy personality is exasperated by her burns across her face and body – the result of an accident? Or maybe something more…..
And finally we have the chalk and cheese of the group – uber energetic high school track runner [despite having prosthetic legs] Emi [L], who is friends with Rin, a talented artist [albeit often air-headed] and fellow paraplegic [in her case a lack of arms or hands].
Yep, I did mention this was a less than standard storyline – the unique factor about the girls, and indeed all the characters in this game, is that they are all in some way disabled – but don’t turn away just yet!
Rather than over romanticizing or treating them as merely helpless damsels to rescued by the protagonist [or to be treated as less than sex objects ] Katawa Shoujo has taken a realistic approach to these people, with each havering their own unique traits and characteristics – from Shizunes aggressive and confrontational personality, always feeling any resistance to her to be a challenge for her to defeat, to the revelation that for all her initial appearances, Rins true personality is less than her air-headedness may reveal, to even that the origins of Hanakos burn scars were of a less than accidental nature…
Now for newbies to this type of game, there is not that much of overall control as to the fate of the game – the character you eventually date [or not] depending on which of a number of choices that appear on the screen at key time being your only real way to choose the course of the story – while this may be alight for fans or people used to the Visual novel format, this may prove frustrating for first timers, and may outright put off others used to more direct control of their character’s and scenario’s.
Additionally the nature of this series rewards the player for playing all the various paths by releasing artwork, music and scenes into their own galleries on the main menu, increasing the playability of the game for much longer.
And yet I find issues with the series – the music used while nice to listen to the first time, when it get played over and over again during the same scene it can get annoying. Also the writing for each characters path [ each done by a different writer] show differences in quality – with out giving spoilers Lilly’s seemed the least interactive, with only 3 choices really available to determine the course, Hanakos seemed rushed, Rin seemed the most complex, and Misha is the only one not to get her own individual path, instead she’s amalgamated into Shizunes path.
…And yet, despite this, I cant say that these are really deal breakers – the writing that at times seem disjointed compared to each other, on their own however are both powerful and heart breaking at the same time – myself and many others who have played this game are made to actually feel for the characters plight and story – and that is what makes me recommend this for everyone, despite my complaints.
If you want an opportunity to try out a surprisingly heart string pulling and powerfully developed Visual novel that’s also made in the west then Katawa Shoujo is a must to play.
Katawa Shoujo is available to download for free from their main website – www.katawa-shoujo.com