I recently finished all routes of Katawa Shoujo and, given the amount of time and emotional investment I put into it, I feel like I owe the game and its talented creators a thoughtful review. I'll talk about my experience chronologically, covering each girl's story, and the game as a whole. This will be the first time I've put my thoughts on it into words.
Katawa Shoujo was released some time before I was active on the Internet, and flew under my radar for even longer. I didn't really take notice of the game until I stumbled across it just a couple weeks ago. I started playing it almost immediately, reading nothing about the plot beforehand. I'm not a frequent player of visual novels, let alone a fan of them; Katawa Shoujo is the only one besides Doki Doki Literature Club! that I've completed. I've played very few others, which I haven't finished at the time of writing for loss of interest more than anything else. What drew me to Katawa Shoujo was its novel subject: disability seems to be under-explored in both visual novels and anime in general - particularly in romantic settings. I read that the game handled it in a tasteful manner - a merit on which it didn't disappoint, as I'll talk about in more detail.
I realised as I was writing this that it's been 10 years since the full version of the game was released. I feel somewhat left out that I discovered it so late, unable to participate in the discussions and activity that it undoubtedly generated during its development and around its release; but I'm also happy that I was able to avoid all information about the game until I played it, getting a fresh experience as if I'd done so in 2012. It's rare to be able to do that with such an old game. I'm also grateful to have a place to talk about it; it's good to see this forum open and still receiving posts.
It will help to establish some context first:
- I went into the game blind, knowing only the premise
- I didn't consult the Act 1 flow chart until after my first few playthroughs, minimally, to get the routes I hadn't done yet
- I didn't look at any flow charts past Act 1, until I got all good endings (to get the remaining scenes for 100% completion)
For my first playthrough of Act 1 - and the rest of the game when I wasn't trying to get a different girl's route - I answered in the way that felt the most natural to me. I got Emi's route; I hadn't been trying for any particular girl at that point, but Emi wouldn't have been my first choice. Regardless, I kept playing and got her good ending.
This one was ok. The character who needs help but won't admit/accept it feels played out to me, but it was executed well enough. It was nice to see Hisao find motivation in Emi and want to be the same thing for her.
I'm not sure if we're supposed to figure out that as early as I did, but this harmed my experience a bit as the drawn-out reveal lacked any mystery or suspense. It's hard to empathise with Hisao when he's failing to put together something that I did two acts ago. But I might be thinking about this the wrong way and missing the point.
Emi is the least interesting character to me, and had one of my least favourite stories. That's not to say it was bad though, and I think it has more to do with me than the game.
After Emi, I loaded one of my latest Act 1 saves and chose differently, which got me to the bad ending. I thought it was funny to chastise the player for failing to get a date for the festival or make any friends and going as far as to really get the feeling of despair across.
Again, I loaded a recent Act 1 save and got Rin's route. I was happy to get her's next as she was one of the more interesting characters to me, owing to the nature of her disability and how she overcomes that, as well as her personality.
Fitting a story about her, I found the meaning of this one hard to penetrate. I must've missed the point, as I got her bad ending ( ) once before I got the good one. To be honest, the writing was a bit esoteric and repetitive for me and I found myself losing interest during some of the longer runs of dialogue, which didn't really resonate with me. Again though I think it's just not my thing.
Not getting to know Rin as much as I wanted to was disappointing, but that seems intentional and integral to her story; I think the point being made there makes up for it at least a little. This one wasn't as satisfying to me as I'm sure it was for others.
At this point I started glancing at the Act 1 flow chart as I didn't want to spend much time trying to get a different route. I specifically chose Lilly for my next playthrough; I was drawn to her character from what I'd seen of her so far. Like Rin, the significance of her disability was a factor, but her personality played off of it in a way that made her more interesting. Of course though, she's also endearing on her own merit.
I got her good ending on my first try. Having just answered naturally at first, I noticed a theme with the choices and guessed what I should be choosing, which turned out to be right. As AdamL touched on in his review, the part of her story at felt a bit rushed, but I think it was executed well enough for that to not matter too much - and, let's be honest, it's not as if the progression of any of the routes is particularly realistic.
I'm very happy with the thoughtful and respectful portrayal of her blindness: we see the challenges it presents to Lilly and those around her, but are never made to feel sorry or bad for her. Lilly herself is comfortable and doesn't want to be pitied, making this clear in her own words. Getting this message across through the lens of an initially awkward and less-understanding Hisao that the player can empathise and learn with was clever.
This was definitely the most touching route for me. Lilly is an endearing character whose story inspires an idyllic vision of friendship and young romance. A minor element of the story (which comes up in other routes as well) that resonated with me is Hisao's newfound appreciation of quiet, picturesque country life. I live in a fairly rural area myself and, while I'm not a former city dweller like him, it's made me appreciate the natural surroundings and relative peace that I'm able to enjoy.
I find it interesting that Lilly's is the only route with . I think the developers had a favourite
Hanako's was the next route I did, being easy to reach from one of the later Act 1 saves from my Lilly playthrough. I wasn't that interested in her initially - the shy girl character is done to death at this point and I already had an idea of how her story would go - but she'd grown on me as I'd seen more of her in the other routes, particularly Lilly's in which she was more prominent. So by the time I started this playthrough, I was looking forward to seeing more of her.
I got her good ending. Like Lilly's, Hanako's story was touching, but I enjoyed it for different reasons. Whereas Lilly is enjoyable from the start and doesn't change much (although we do learn more about her), the joy of Hanako's route for me came from seeing her develop as a character. Noticing this helped me make at least one decision: I rightly suspected when choosing whether to that would be the right choice. The decision was less obvious to me, but again I think I was nudged towards the right choice by that theme.
On that note, I think the main message of Hanako's story was the most effective and well-done of the five. was to me a great lesson, and it was satisfying to realise that as I played and be rewarded for implementing it. The writing in her story was the best in my opinion, and I was glad that it avoided a lot of the annoying tropes that often come with her type of character, treating it with the appropriate seriousness.
As AdamL also mentioned, .
Hanako's was definitely my second, if not outright, favourite story, after Lilly.
The last route I played through was Shizune's. Like with Rin and Lilly, Shizune's disability posed significant challenges for the characters to navigate - perhaps the most out of all of the girls due to the significant communication barrier - and this made me interested in seeing how that would be dealt with and overcome.
As with every girl except Rin, my first try ended in success. This was a weird one - maybe the most different of all of the girls' stories - and I'm not quite sure how I feel about it. It felt repetitive at times, especially in the earlier scenes. Shizune's father was a little over-the-top and the first character besides Kenji to shift the game into absurdity for me (although I found it less distracting with Kenji as the comic relief with little plot relevance). As for positives, Shizune's being deaf and mute made for interesting situations and dialog, and it was touching to see Hisao learn a language just to be able to talk to her.
I knew Misha was a main character from the website and her prominence in the game, but I was unsure of what her role would be in Shizune's story, although . wasn't too surprising for those reasons ( ), but was a complete curveball. At that point I had been starting to lose interest, so it was a welcome surprise. This story also . I suppose it would've been a bit much, but what they did was effective and sensitively done.
Apart from that, I didn't find this story particularly compelling or enjoyable otherwise. It wasn't bad, but whatever it was saying went over my head or just didn't resonate with me, and while Shizune is an engaging character in her own right, as a romantic interest she wasn't one of my favourites.
I've been writing this post on and off for a few days now, the chances that anyone will read the whole thing rapidly diminishing, so I'm going to summarise my thoughts on the game as a whole quite succinctly and wrap this up.
- The character art was good, although on a more technical level some characters seemed to be drawn with slightly different brush strokes and/or at different resolutions (particularly noticeable with Emi and Rin) which was a little distracting.
- The artwork for scenes was especially well done, and the sex scenes were tasteful and appropriate, without overindulging or getting weird.
- Mike Inel's movies were characteristically excellent and a nice addition.
- I enjoyed the soundtrack, and some of the emotional tracks in particular had some real emotional weight behind them that helped the game a lot.
There's probably more I could say, but I've covered all I can think of for now and this post is long enough already. I'd like to talk more about the game with you guys, and I'm definitely not done enjoying what the developers and the community have to offer. After achieving 100% completion ( ), I was delighted to see how much more Katawa Shoujo content is available in the form of development and art books, which I'm looking forward to reading. I'm sure there's also plenty of quality fan content to discover and enjoy.
This game was a special experience that I thoroughly enjoyed. I want to express my appreciation for the developers; from what I read, this was a real passion project that was conceptualised and organised on 4chan, inspired by a single image. It's awesome that I got to play the result of all of the hard work and dedication that came out of that.
Thanks for reading.