If you’re a fan of Visual Novels, it’s highly likely you came across Katawa Shoujo at one point or another. You may have thought it was developed by a highly professional Japanese studio. The true story is a little different.
In short, someone posted a drawing on a forum. One user on it said “Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if we made a game out of it?”. Then the people on the forum made an entire game out of it, for fun.
The long story is quite interesting – in 2007 someone posted a drawing on the anime & manga board of the imageboard 4chan. The idea to make a game out of it went from funny to actually serious, development forums were created and hundreds of people were randomly writing stories, drawing art and coming up with ideas. If you want to learn the full story, the website gives a better overview. You can also find the development forums – they are a joy to read through.
The original drawing that sparked the process:
What you might expect from such an endeavor is an amateur scrapheap of ideas. What you get instead is a proper, bona fide visual novel that looks like a serious project by a triple A studio. The art is great. The story as a whole is inspiring. The characters are surprisingly deep and “real”.
As for the story, you play a student whose heart almost gives out and discovers he has a disability, so you’re sent to a special school for kids with disabilities. There you meet a group of girls who each suffer from a different problem and you learn to pick yourself up and live life to the fullest. That’s really about it – the rest of the focus is on the characters.
The game has a lot of positives – the girls are interesting and diverse, with each one having an attitude related to their handicap – the girl without legs is sporty, the girl without arms is artsy. By choosing a girl whose path to follow, you’re not only choosing which girl you like the most, you’re choosing your own path in life. The choices are sometimes un-intuitive, but you still follow a journey rather than a “route”. That is one of the best parts of the game, the way it ties in your romance with your life, a delicate balance not many visual novels achieve.
If you get drawn into it, here are plenty of bittersweet and touching moments with every girl and the game delivers strongly on emotional impact. Yes, there are moments where you or the girl are overcome by your disability and bad fortune in life, but they are mostly there to set-up the determination for learning to deal with life. There’s a good amount of humor, which tends to go from very subtle and brilliant (like catching a glimpse of Misha laughing deviously in the background when you suggest an orgy, while everyone else looks horrified) to meta 4chan humor that falls very flat. The tones are light, the story never goes too deep and the romance is very much innocent. The sex scenes feel exactly like a highschool romance, for good or bad. The art is amazing at times, drawn with pure love and passion.
The game has plenty of downsides if you look deep at it, as expected from a crowdsourced project. While the story does an amazing job avoiding to fetishize the disabilities of the girls, you can’t really escape the nature of it. It can really drag on – no matter how immersed you are, there will be moments where you hold the skip button. The sex scenes make perfect sense with the way they feel, but there’s no escaping the fact some are kind of awkward and not very erotic (with minor exceptions). It doesn’t help that the art is incredible, but there’s a noticeable drop in quality around some sex scenes.
It’s hard to criticize the project the same way you criticize a properly developed visual novel, since this was done basically for fun. Digging through the development forums and threads, you can’t help but feel nobody cared if anyone would like it, they just loved what they were doing and had fun with it. The level at which it arrived is still above and beyond what it should be.
And, well, it’s totally free and available for download on the website.
Play or don’t play?
- You want something lighthearted, bittersweet at times
- You want a coming of age story
- You want to see a unique project with a fascinating backstory, the chaotic essence of the internet at its best
- You like the art style
- You’d like a realistic setting
- You don’t want any fetish stuff (as long as you look past the disabilities as a potential fetish), anything that could be taken as gross, outright porn, lots of focus on the sex
Don’t play if:
- You’re focused on the sex scenes (they’re probably its worst aspect)
- You can’t shake the feeling its fetishizing girls with disabilities
- You’re put off by lolis or jailbait – you can avoid the girls drawn like that, but they’re still there
- You are put off by dreary, long texts and don’t like skipping
- You judge things in too much detail – Katawa Shoujo is great as a whole, but it’s very rough around the edges