As anyone reading this almost certainly already knows, Katawa Shoujo (aka KS or the ultra-classy Cripple Girls) was released in the first few days of the year by Four Leaf Studios. This marked the fifth anniversary of the VN's conception, with the idea being born on /a/ in 2007, inspired by a sketch by Raita showing the characters in a hypothetical game about disabled girls.
The most remarkable thing about the history of the project, aside from the sheer unlikeliness of /a/ actually banding together and accomplishing anything worth mentioning, is the amount of time it's taken. Five years is a damn long time spent in development, even for a small independent project arising from 4chan. The main problem here is that the longer something takes, the more people expect from it at the end. After five years and a rather impressive demo I think it's fair to say that people had very high expectations for the finished product.
I do not believe KS lived up to these standards.
But that's not to say that I thought it was bad. Some parts of the game were done very well, and I'm going to start with them.
Technical details were done very well. It's not a subject that lends itself to a whole lot of discussion but the game came across as very polished. There was a lot of attention to detail in the menus, and the CG gallery and event library were done nicely. The save menu perhaps sacrificed a bit of function for style and I'd have preferred to be able to see more saves without scrolling but that's neither here nor there. The rollback functionality of Ren'Py is another nice touch, although I think normal scrollback is probably more useful.
Sound was another area I thought KS did very well in. The tracks used were good quality and were well fitted to the scenes they were used in. Several of the tracks got stuck in my head after I'd finished with the game as well, which is always a good sign. The game wasn't voiced, but I certainly wasn't expecting it to be and didn't hold this against the game at all.
The graphics are the first area where I've got some mixed feelings. Although I thought the CGs were generally quite pretty, they weren't all on the same level of quality. One of Emi's sex scenes in particular had much more of a comic effect than was probably intended. The game could have used a few more positions for each of the character sprites in general, and Emi's sprites looked quite rough around the edges. I understand she was redesigned significantly after the demo, but the result is a sprite that doesn't quite fit the same style as the other characters.
The animations used at the start of each girl's route and at the start of the game were a nice touch. I wouldn't rave about the quality but it's certainly above and beyond what I was expecting from a game like this.
The story is something else altogether though. The other parts are nice but a VN is nothing without a well done and compelling story. I'll go over the separate routes briefly, but I have three main criticisms of the story in general:
- Consistency. The five routes have different writers and it shows. The writing style shifts completely between routes, and the characterisation moves along with it. This really breaks the narrative as you might expect, it's hard to feel attachment and immersion when you're given a constantly shifting style of writing to work with. It's particularly jarring going from the common route to the first stages of the various routes: early on in Emi's route Hisao comes across as a guy who's really trying to get over his disability and move on with life. Early in Rin's route he's suddenly an emo kid who can't see the point in anything. What lifechanging decisions set these two apart? Uh, whether he tried his hardest one morning track session or not, plus one or two other minor decisions. I can see how you could argue that this reflects his personality and his thoughts about his disability but that's not how the question was presented and it's not something that could believably manifest so quickly.
- Length. As I said before, after five years I was expecting something pretty substantial. The routes weren't very uniform in length (with Hanako's route being especially short) but none of them seemed to go for a very long time (except Shizune's, which seemed to drag even though I don't think it was actually any longer than the others). I feel that the short length got in the way a bit, and that I didn't connect to the characters as much as I should have because of this. Generally, I think that every girl could have had another major problem/conflict show up in their route that has to be resolved. This would extend the length and provide more chances for characterisation and connection.
- Time. This is a relatively minor one, but I felt quite disoriented at times during the story. The transitions between days are marked, but you don't know how much time has passed. A day? A week? A month? Sometimes the writing suggests that it's been a while since the previous 'day' but I never quite knew how long. This is a bigger deal than it seems, as developments can seem plausible or ridiculous depending on how fast they happen.
I'll take a brief look at the routes in the order that I did them.
In contrast to what I've just said, I quite liked Lilly's route. Her blindness was an integral part of the story yet she wasn't defined by it - she could work around it but it was still present and affected her interactions with Hisao. The major conflict about her proposed move back to Scotland was definitely on the melodramatic side, but I don't mind a bit of melodrama now and then. Probably my favourite route.
Despite the amount of 'feels' she apparently induces on /v/, I didn't really feel much of a connection to Hanako. I think the pacing is to blame here, it seems to take a while to get anywhere then suddenly everything happens and it's over. And it's over very quickly. There was so much more that had to be resolved; her route should have been twice as long, or had a substantial epilogue at the very least. This route had potential but it really needed more substance.
I thought Emi's route had the best writing style. None of the writers had written VNs before to my knowledge, but the writing in Emi's route was the best fit to the VN medium. The content, however, was a bit lacking. Her having trouble opening up to others is certainly realistic, but it unfolded fairly predictably, and it hardly related specifically to her disability. Change a few details in her backstory, give her her legs back, and no one would even notice.
The writing style bogged the route down. There was rarely a noun without an adjective, and the heavy monologue style (which was also a problem in most other routes) didn't do much for me. Rin is a very odd girl and you start the route really not knowing much about her. The problem is that by the end of the route you still don't know much about her. The choices you make are also very arcane and often I didn't want to pick either.
This route took a long time to get nowhere. It didn't help that the only choice (yes, the only choice) is whether you want to fuck Misha or not. And you'd need to be a bit slow in the head not to understand that one of the options was obviously going to lead to a bad end. I also found it completely ridiculous how quickly Hisao became fluent in sign language.
In conclusion, I thought it was fairly mediocre. It could have been worse, sure, but it could have been a lot better, and I was expecting it to be better. It's still the best OELVN I've read, but that's not a bar that's set very high at all. I would recommend it to anyone who hasn't read VNs before since it's very accessible (well, depending on the route), but for people who are already familiar with the medium I would suggest that you play a route or two if any of the characters particularly grab your attention, but that'd be about it.
It's far from being terrible, but it's even further from being great.
As a postscript: I'm not sure whether or not to be grateful about it being a hit with newcomers to the medium. I like the prospect of more and better OELVNs, but I'm not convinced it'll happen. Besides, western fandoms have a habit of being all sorts of stupid, especially when they become a little bit less obscure. Tangentially related, there's been some rather amusing drama surrounding http://www.fuwanovel.com/ lately if that sort of thing interests you.