The opening theme to Katawa Shoujo, a little piano piece called Wiosna, is such an earworm that it has become one of the most recognizable music pieces in gaming for me. That might sound like an overstatement, but Katawa Shoujo is one of my most replayed games and I have had it installed almost continuously since its original release.
Visual novels aren’t a big genre in The West, so it really drew my attention when every big gaming outlet was talking about this amazing new visual novel. Very much in the same way as Doki Doki Literature Club just recently. And its popularity was certainly not undeserved. In fact, I hope reading about it here will remind some people that they still need to reinstall it and play through one of its branching storylines they haven’t explored yet.
Let’s roll back for a bit and address what Katawa Shoujo is.
This is a visual novel famously made by a ragtag group of people who banded together via internet forums, most prominently 4Chan, and decided to work and expand on a design sketch penned by a Japanese artist. The core idea of the game is that it’s a romantic visual novel with a branching narrative that pushes players into a relationship with one of several girls, BUT it takes place in a school for students with various disabilities.
The story is followed from the perspective of Hisao, a regular Japanese dude who suffers a heart attack while meeting with his crush. He is immediately hospitalized and learns that he has a rare heart condition without an available cure. His life falls apart as he is kept in the hospital for weeks, his classmates soon stop visiting, and he has to come to terms with all the medicine he must take and activities he can never do again. On top of that, his concerned parents have him moved to Yamaku High School for Disabled Students. Hisao… doesn’t like it.
He is a young man fed up with being told he is sick and less-abled, and he hates the idea of moving to a school specializing in catering to such people. After all, he was fine just a few weeks prior, but now they are putting him in the same category as amputees, blind people, the deaf, and who knows what else. Not given much a choice, Hisao goes anyway and soon learns that less-abled people are not as alien or different as he imagined them to be.
The visual novel garnered a lot of positive critique for its optimistic portrayal of a diverse cast of less-abled characters. Rather than being a gimmicky dating sim for degenerates like myself, Katawa Shoujo tells surprising and earnest stories about actual characters.
Rin is a snarky artist without hands who does everything she needs to do with her feet. Shizune and Lilly are two competing class presidents who disagree on everything, but they can never argue about things because one is deaf and the other blind. Hanako is a quiet bookworm with severe burns across her face and a shy nature, which stands in polar opposite to the bouncy and athletic Emi, who is a track & field star even though she no longer has legs. At least, no legs made of meat & bone.
After the introduction, players meet all these girls through various fun encounters. Shizune and her interpreter Misha take Hisao apart for a competitive board game, while on another day he gets lost looking for the library and winds up drinking tea with Lilly. The game does a good job at making each girl appealing; you really want to learn more about them and see what else might happen if you decide to spend more time with them.
It is also in this second chapter that players are given a lot of decisions that build up variables and set flags which eventually determine the girl they end up pursuing, which is a difficult process to track. I went with whatever I felt like in my first run years ago and ended up with Emi, after which I started to use a flowchart that maps out all the decisions and possible paths. It is an interesting process, though. You really alter the progression of the story and end up seeing scenes you didn’t get in previous runs or seeing them from a different perspective, which is very novel. It is possible to make decisions that lead to a bad ending, but then you can always reload the last decision or rewind dialogue and at least end up somewhere. There is no screwing yourself over and ending up in an irreparable situation hours later.
Adding to the replayability of the game is just how darn well it’s written. The characters all have fun personalities and the writing is very light and accessible, with a lot of personality and emotion put into it. I especially took a liking to Rin and Kenji, two of the weirder characters. Especially Kenji had moments that had me legitimately laughing; he is almost completely blind and utterly paranoid. He rambles on about conspiracy theories and the feminist agenda, which is made all the better by Hisao’s exasperated reactions and futile attempts to get him to stop.
Chapter 3 is where player are locked into the path of a specific girl and begin exploring their story in more detail, which usually comes with many interesting developments I would feel bad about spoiling. These are strong, romantic storylines that dig into unseen layers of the characters and, so far, I have enjoyed every single one of them. My most memorable experience with the game was finishing Emi’s storyline and deciding I wanted to do Rin’s too.
Rin’s story is difficult to get and requires the most precise pathing, but I thought it would be worth it. After all, she is such a funny character and I wondered what her romance was going to be all about. I severely regretted that line of thinking. I feel Rin’s story is perhaps the strongest of all the girls, but it’s not a happy-go-lucky one. In fact, none of the romances are straightforward and simple, they all have their hurdles to overcome, which made me appreciate the characters even more.
The girl you end up pursuing also changes Hisao himself in subtle ways, which I find a tad hard to appreciate. Small things are altered, like whether he prefers studying or athletics and how seriously he takes his own health & medication. It’s a nice effort that goes somewhat wasted on such a blank slate of a character. He is a generic anime dude fresh from the background of any slice-of-life show, who doesn’t have any defined hobbies or passions. I didn’t dislike Hisao, but just felt he was a boring counterpart when compared to the girls and Kenji.
Visually, Katawa Shoujo is impressive stuff. Character designs are imaginative and there is a vast amount of different sprites to convey various poses and emotions. Key moments often go accompanied with big art pieces that look particularly nice and there are a few animated scenes in there. Despite being worked on by so many people from different origins and pulling materials and backgrounds from various sources, Katawa Shoujo looks visually coherent and becomes a pleasant whole thanks to its soothing soundtrack and sparing use of sound-effects. With that said, the animated scenes are a bit rough and one picture, in particular, looked really off. Small details, really.
Having replayed it now, I am confident in saying that Katawa Shoujo still holds up 8 years down the line. Even though I have grown up a bunch and my tastes have shifted a lot, I still appreciate its strong writing and enjoyed its cast of characters, even if my preferences towards them changed completely. Whether it’s your first visual novel or your umpteenth one, Katawa Shoujo is a light bit of reading with great subject matter. If you can handle an 8-hour story, it’s very much worth seeking out and completely free to download.