Two days ago Four Leaf Studios released their highly anticipated demo for the Original English-Language Visual Novel Katawa Shoujo. Katawa Shoujo has come a long way since the “Grid1” demo leaked over a year and a half ago. Every aspect has essentially been changed or replaced to make a professional-quality product that sets the bar for all other OELVNs to come.
Act 1 covers the prologue of the story and the first week at main character Hisao’s new school. On a winter day a Hisao meets with a girl and is confessed to. Despite what would normally be a happy start to a story, Hisao finds himself unable to move his body and blanks out. It is later revealed that he has a congenital heart disorder called cardiac arrhythmia which causes his heart to beat erratically in certain situations.
After four months stuck in his hospital room when everyone has long stopped paying him visits and with nothing to do besides read, Hisao is told about Yamaku Academy. Yamaku is a special school designed to help disabled students fulfill their potentials while maintaining some degree of independence. Despite his reservations, he does not try to fight his enrollment and finds himself in a “Cripple Wonderland” (not my words, quote from the game).
Though the writing may not be a masterpiece (though such expectations are unreasonably high anyway) it does a solid and enjoyable job telling the story of Hisao and the girls he befriends at Yamaku Academy. This revision of the script adds many new details to the story while eliminating others and changes many of the initial encounters with the girls.
One interesting addition to the game is the introduction of a male student named Kenji. He has extremely bad though still usable vision but his defining trait would have to be his irrationality. He believes that there is a massive feminist conspiracy and if he does nothing about it women will take over. He barricades himself in his room much of the time and freaks out whenever Hisao mentions girls. His reason for fearing girls makes no sense when revealed and it is best to avoid his advice and form friendships with the girls.
The first girls Hisao encounters are the student council pair Shizune and Misha. The two are almost inseparable partly due to friendship and partly due to necessity. Shizune is completely deaf and mute so communicates with sign language while Misha translates Shizune’s signing so that the other students and Shizune can understand one another. Together these two make a very pushy pair and try to force Hisao to join the student council with them. Despite supposedly tasked with the job of serving as models for the other students Shizune and Misha often skip class.
The next pair of girls Hisao encounters happens to be by far my favorite combination of Lilly and Hanako. Lilly is completely blind and gives off a calm, refined older sister feel to her while Hanako is an adorable girl who happens to be very shy due to her extensive burn scars. Despite being in different classes Lilly and Hanako spend a lot of time together often in an unused room they use for drinking tea and eating lunch. When not together Lilly works diligently as the class representative of 3-2 while Hanako often seeks shelter away from people in the library reading books. Both characters are made of love and I honestly don’t know who I like more since they fall into the character types I like most. At least they share the beginning of their stories and it is quite easy to tell where they branch off so I can complete both easily once the full game is out.
In many ways Lilly and Hanako are the exact opposite of the Shizune/Misha pair which seems to result in much animosity between the 4 girls. Shizune and Lilly have some unknown strained relationship from long ago and things get heated when both are present. Unfortunately Shizune and Misha try to gang up on Lilly and even go as far as bullying Hanako by ignoring and being mean to her. Worst part is that Hisao must also be mean and ignore Lilly and Hanako in order to unlock Shizune’s story. I really want to know the reason behind it all but that will have to wait until the full game is out. Until then I can’t find myself liking Shizune and Misha as much as I could.
The last set of girls Hisao meets is Emi and Rin who live in the same area of the girls’ dorm. Emi has had her legs amputated but that doesn’t stop her from being one of the most energetic girls at school or one of the fastest girls on the track team. Rin however has incorrectly formed arms so instead uses her feet and legs to do just about everything. She has a strange way of thinking and likes to take it easy by painting and cracking deadpan jokes often centering around disabilities.
Aside from the massive story reworking, the most apparent changes are in the visual department. From the title screen of the game with its bright yellowish tint it is obvious that the new Katawa Shoujo has a much lighter feel than Grid1. The menus and text box share the same styling as the Katawa Shoujo main site and development blog. Instead of a boring typical font, Katawa Shoujo uses a beautiful soft font befitting the mood set by the story. A nice touch is the colored names corresponding usually to a character’s hair color which strongly reminds me of Static Subs’ tendency to subtitle in much the same way.
Act 1 still uses photographs sent through image editing filters for all the backgrounds. However compared to Grid1’s drab black and white images, the new backgrounds help make the setting much warmer and inviting instead of feeling like some sort of boring prison. Nice touches like the “Aura Mart” (a reference to lead writer Aura) and “Shanghai” tea shop signs and the changing mural further liven the mood.
The characters look great especially in comparison to other OELVNs and even matching some Japanese visual novels. It’s relatively easy to tell that many artists worked on the character sprites due to the stylistic differences between characters but they still did a fairly good job staying consistent.
In addition Act 1 actually uses much of Renpy’s effects library unlike Grid1 which only used rudimentary transitions and text. In the prologue alone several different effects are used to create a very dramatic scene. When Iwanako confesses to Hisao a snow particle effect is used to set the romantic mood but this is soon reversed with the eerie heart pulse effect marking the onset of Hisao’s heart attack and slip into unconsciousness. When at the hospital he is prescribed new medications for his heart condition but the words just blend into a sea of letters; the screen starts to fill with word after word until it is almost impossible to read mimicking Hisao’s uneasiness over his current situation.
There are a few times when such effect looks awkward like when Rin shakes her hair. Since her entire body shifts instead of just her head it looks somewhat out of place and looks like she is convulsing. Perhaps keeping the same body posture and changing the head positions would look much more natural. For the most part however these many numerous effects do a great job setting the mood like Hanako’s shaking habit.
The audio is also fairly strong. There are two composers and amongst the two of them, they are able to create a variety of different tracks. After playing the game for a while the different tunes become recognizable though unfortunately I cannot say if any really shine out too much. For a few tracks looping the music sounds awkward and changing between two different BGMs sounds somewhat abrupt at times so a fade-in/fade-out audio effect maybe needed to create a much smoother transition. There really isn’t much to say about sound effects except when used sound perfect.
Despite what many people may initially feel about a game about disabled individuals, Katawa Shoujo seems to be on the right track to telling a wonderful story. Though there are some comedic situations, Katawa Shoujo remains respectful about the touchy subject and presents a convincing representation of the life of disabled people in a positive way. Any fan-made production would be elated to have accomplished as much as Four Leaf Studios has done on Katawa Shoujo so far but there is plenty more to come and I am anxious to see how the story will end. Honestly I am quite excited by the example set by Katawa Shoujo and gives me even more reason to work harder on my own visual novel projects.