KATAWA SHOUJO (PC)

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Rarely do I ever come across a game where I actually feel emotionally shaken after finishing it. Games like Bioshock and Pokemon made me feel…different after completing them. I can now add Katawa Shoujo to this list of games. Despite being a 2D visual novel, the characters found within Katawa Shoujo are more three-dimensional than the characters I’ve come across in first-person shooters and action-adventure games.

The origin of Katawa Shoujo is a very interesting one deserving of its own article. The idea for the game originated on the /a/ (anime) board on 4chan, a user named RAITA posted some of his drawings which included sketches and ideas for a visual novel set in a disabled school. Interest grew among the 4chan community and eventually several developers around the globe agreed to create the game under the moniker 4 Leaf Studios. Development began in 2007 and the game was released on January 4th, 2012. Katawa Shoujo literally translates to “Crippled girls”, and that is what the game is about. The main character, Hisao Nakai, suffers from a heart attack and discovers he has an arrhythmic heart. This forces him to move from his current normal public school to Yamaku High School, a school exclusively for students with physical disabilities. It is here where Hisao learns to cope with his disability, meet others who have their own impairments, and perhaps find love.

From left to right: Emi, Rin, Lilly, Hanako, Misha, Shizune

From left to right: Emi, Rin, Lilly, Hanako, Misha, Shizune

In Katawa Shoujo, there are five girls that Hisao is able to have a relationship with: Emi (whose legs were amputated), Rin (who lost her arms to a birth defect), Lilly (who is blind), Hanako (who was severely burned as a child), and Shizune (who is deaf). Each has their own personality and is much more than their “disability”. Each love interest has her morals, dreams, and likes and dislikes. Each playthrough allows you to see this for yourself, and I actually felt a special bond with every girl after I finished their story. The writing throughout the game is very sincere and heartfelt, with each path having its share of happiness and heartache.

In my first playthrough I ended up with Hanako, who is a shy, quiet girl who suffers from severe burns on half of her body. She was often found reading in the library, inside the safe world of her books instead of the social anxieties the outside world placed on her. However, as I got closer and closer to Hanako, she revealed more about herself and I found that she was not as fragile as she appeared and I was reminded that people do not want to be treated like an expensive vase or brittle piece of glass, but rather as an actual person with their own strengths and deserving of respect. In this playthrough I actually ended up with the “bad” ending: where the girl breaks up with Hisao. I was heartbroken but it also helped me to understand that point. When I went back to get the “good” ending, I found myself learning how people want to have their own sense of independence and do not want to make others worry or become obsessed with their care. And this is perhaps the most endearing and important part about Katawa Shoujo; it teaches you how people actually want to be treated in the real world and the lessons from this game are not only applicable to the girl you are romancing, but are rather relevant to interacting with the world as a whole. I can think of several “Hanako”‘s whom I’ve met within my life who I treated as very delicate and emotionally sensitive, when perhaps I was not giving their individuality and strength enough credit.

My last playthrough also made me think a lot about myself and my own past. The girl I saved for last was Rin, who is an armless girl who is obsessed with painting. However, she is also a bit “out there”, with no one being able to truly understand her. Even Emi, her closest friend, admits that she cannot understand half the things Rin says. And as I continued along Rin’s path, I often found myself frustrated with how Rin seemed impossible to connect with, she seemed to have a disconnected view of the world, with her own thoughts being unintelligible to how most people think. However, occasionally Hisao and Rin do link on one point and another, and in that instant they are able to truly understand each other. Throughout this playthrough I often found myself asking the same questions Hisao asked himself as he was trying to decipher the puzzle that is Rin. She lives on another “wavelength” than other people that makes her truly difficult to understand, and I found myself relating to how people are unable to fully understand one another because of their thought processes and upbringing. Navigating  Rin’s route is much like trying to figure out a complicated and intricate maze, every turn seems to only confuse more and more. However, when you get to the end you feel like you truly accomplished a great ordeal and you come out a smarter person. Rin’s path is where the writing of Katawa Shoujo truly shines as it effortlessly conveys complex ideas and makes you realize something about yourself along the way.

I won’t go into details of the others paths in order not to spoil the entire game, however I will mention that every path is worth playing and has something to important to take away from it.

Being a visual novel, I also feel like it is important to address the art contained in the game. All of the girls are drawn beautifully with each of them having their specific quirks and personalities visible in their faces and animations. The background art is also magnificent, it seems to have an almost dream-like quality where a lot of the colors and shades blend into one another while still portraying a full landscape. Each girl also has a special movie played after the first chapter which showcases Hisao’s relationship with them, and while these are not the most professional works of animation I have seen, they are still better than one would expect from an indie game. Being a mature game, there also sex scenes present, however they are presented in a tasteful manner and feel much less like fetish porn but rather feel like an intimate bond between Hisao and his love interest. There are many pieces of artwork  for each girl and despite being 90% complete with the game, I still have 10+ items not unlocked in the gallery.

Another spectacular but oft-overlooked aspect of this game is the music. The music was composed by NicolArmafi and Blue123, and it is absolutely beautiful. Each piece conveys the exact emotion of the scene through sound and affected how I experienced each chapter of the novel. Even now as I listen to it I can recall an exact scene which incorporated this song, how I felt that the moment and the choices I or Hisao made, and how it affected Emi or Shizune, or any of the other girls. The soundtrack draws you in makes you experience the game as if you were actually there. This is not a game that can be fully enjoyed without the sound turned on.

Overall, Katawa Shoujo is definitely one of the best games to come out of 2012, personally going into my top 5 games released this year and likely into my top 10 of all time. The emotions and thoughts that I experienced throughout this game were like no other and I certainly look forward to a new playthrough of Katawa Shoujo, and hopefully, a new game from 4 Leaf Studios in the future.

 

Download link for Katawa Shoujo

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DISHONORED (Xbox 360, PC, PS3)

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So just yesterday I beat Dishonored, one of the best new IPs to come out of 2012 and a game very similar to Thief and other stealth-assassination games. Backstory: You are Corvo, the bodyguard to the Empress who was sent on a mission to find a cure for the plague that terrorizes your home city of Dunwall. You return empty handed, and as you are discussing your results with the Empress Jessamine Kaldwin, she is assassinated and you take the blame. It is up to you to get revenge upon the men who framed you and to put Emily, the rightful heir, on the throne.

When I first fired up the game, I instantly felt myself drawn into the world of Dunwall and felt the plight of citizens facing the plague. The very first optional mission presented to the player in the game is to play hide-and-seek with Emily, the Empress’s daughter. This is a great minigame as it teaches the player to value stealth as a key tactic in the game and allows you to connect with an important character in the story. I instantly fell for Emily as a daughter/child figure and felt for this poor girl who lost her mother.

Dishonored does a great job of pacing throughout the game, starting off with its tutorial mission that does not feel like a tutorial at all but rather a dashing escape from prison. At first I was a bit frustrated with the controls of the game as there was only one control option that mapped sprinting to a button rather than pushing down an analogue stick, but I’ll chock that up to one of the pains of console gaming. The missions are very thorough, each one providing a multitude of paths and methods to complete them and ultimately take care of our target. I could either take possession of a rat and slip through a small grate to get past the guards, or I could simply jump from rooftop to rooftop.

How can you not love that adorable face?

How can you not love that adorable face?

One memorable mission was “Lady Boyle’s Last Party”, in which Corvo has to assassinate Lady Boyle who is hosting a party. The issue is, there are three Lady Boyle’s and there are hosting a masquerade ball. Because Corvo always wears a mask you are able to enter easily enough, but finding the right Lady Boyle proves entertaining. In my playthrough I schmoozed with the elites at the party gaining information on which Lady Boyle was wearing what color and eventually found her. I offered to go “upstairs” with her and promptly choked her. (No, it wasn’t consensual) I then gave her to a nice gentleman on a boat who loved her and no blood would be shed.

The reason there exist so many tactics in Dishonored is due to the various abilities available to the player. In the game there exist six powers: Blink, Possession, Dark Vision, Devouring Swarm, Bend Time, and Wind Blast. Blink is essentially short teleportation, Possession allows you to control animal and, if powered up, people.  Dark Visions lets you see through walls and cones of vision. Devouring Rats summons a horde of rats to devour your enemies. Bend Time lets you slow down, and even stop, time, and Wind Blast is pretty self-explanatory. (shoot wind out of your hands)

Because I was attempting to take the “good” or non-lethal route, my playthrough mostly consisted of Blinking around, sneaking past guards using Dark Vision, and occasionally Possessing a rat to get into a hard to reach room. While Dishonored gives you many weapons such as a sword, crossbows, grenades, and mines, there were only two weapons available to my playthrough: sleep darts and chocking from behind. The worst part is, you can upgrade the amount of darts your crossbow can hold but it doesn’t increase the amount of sleep darts you can hold! I don’t know if that was a bug or a design decision  but it certainly makes the low chaos ending harder to achieve. However, that makes it all he more satisfying when you complete the game and I feel that having only those two options did not make the game that more difficult. (I was playing on Hard if you’re interested)

The game’s AI was pretty satisfying, with them appropriately responding to collapsed allies or noises. Dogs especially were annoying, as they were not worth using a sleep dart on but unfortunately you can’t choke out a dog. (Massive oversight by the developers, I could totally choke out a dog.) All of the characters present int he game felt very human and were well written, I could see compassion, greed, nobility, and even a bit of perversion in the characters. *cough Piero cough* The game even introduces religion in the form of “The Outsider”, a supernatural being who can invade your dreams and grant superpowers to those he deems worthy. Books and pamphlets throughout the game also provide a rich canon with many ideas and options open for a sequel.

Overall, I was quite satisfied with Dishonored. The gameplay and missions were all well done and thoughout, the story is engrossing and involved, and the characters are deep and relatable. MY only main gripe would be the disappointing ending, which was not disappointing because it was “bad” per say, merely that it was very abrupt and did not seem to meet the standards that had been placed on the story up to that point. However, I still look forward to another game set in the universe of Dunwall because games like Dishonored as hard to come-by these days. A truly great IP with unique gameplay that I hope to see more of in the future.