The concept of a dating sim has been done to death on a number of different platforms. Particularly popular in an indie (and Eastern) sense, one is likely to find some variety in the genre on sites hosting games developed by independent studios or aspiring game developers such as Newgrounds. The origins of Katawa Shoujo are a tad more spontaneous than most would imagine, beginning as a simple thread on 4chan about a visual novel involving “disabled girls.” Soon enough, the idea became so influential that a studio was formed with the desire to make the game a reality. In early 2012, that single thread, which would likely disappear into obscurity among 4chan’s hive of daily threads, gave birth to one of the most beloved (online) visual novels of my generation.
True to form, Katawa Shoujo is entirely reliant on the story and characters to provide its worth as a game. The level of interactivity is nearly nil, only requiring a steady hand of mouse-clicking and the occasional choice every so often. It would be more appropriate to say that you’re “reading” Katawa Shoujo rather than playing it. Despite this, there’s a sensation of immersion present when playing the game that’s unlike most visual novels. I’d likely attribute this to the casual—and amusingly sarcastic—writing of the game. The down-to-Earth sense of atmosphere, despite the circumstances of the plot, allows an approachable nature compared to other visual novels made by bigger studios. I suppose one could say that the relatable dialogue and accessibility of the “source material” is an advantage against the big-wig, otherworldly standard that bigger studios try to emulate based on what they assume of the general public.
Youthful antagonism against corporatism in check, there’s something to be said about the dialogue of the characters and overall appeal to the setting of Katawa Shoujo. When a game can entrance you alone with the pacing of its set-up, that’s commendable. It clearly establishes the origins of the player, what the conflict becomes, and the transition which occurs because of it. It’s simplistic, but there’s no need to overindulge in a slice-of-life-like scenario. Other than the health concerns, of course. Some would argue that the starting scenario comes across as too long, with the path leading to a specific girl’s route taking longer than it should. While I would agree to some extent, especially after repeated playthroughs, I think it does a well enough job of setting up every scenario to make it desirable. In a visual novel/dating sim, this is probably the most important aspect.
Characters are what drive Katawa Shoujo, as they should. The variety in characters and their distinct quirks shine a bright light across the foundation of the game’s core. Even side characters hold a distinct pleasure of making the game feel more alive in hindsight. With a place like 4chan, which can be off-putting for a lot of people, a lot of assumptions can be made about the way they would treat the girls as characters. One might be surprised at the level of care and love placed into making them seem as realistic (while also sexually aggressive) as possible, with even an underlying moral message attached to every route. The fresh relatability of the story, combined with the vivid flesh and bones of the pursuable girls makes the game all the more enjoyable to experience.
While the game has the pleasure of “variety” to its credit, that doesn’t excuse the overall quality of writing for every story arc. There are some stories that blew me away with their strong structure and comfortable parlay of conflict and tenderness. Others came across as dull, overexcited, or otherwise incomplete. Of the five story arcs present, only three of them are really worth going through, which is a shame considering the impact that has on the rest of the game. To have only 60-65% of the game be of capable quality is not something that can be easily recommendable, as one would have to hype up the good to the point where the bad doesn’t seem entirely repugnant. Some of these are due to the characters, while others are simply subject to the monstrosity of poor writing. One could also argue that the stories are only subject to the character’s disabilities at hand (or foot), and for the most part it’s justifiable. It still doesn’t allow for one to throw every gap or obstacle in the way of getting to the final, inevitable resolution (which may not even mean anything by that point).
Story doesn’t necessarily have to carry a visual novel, as the characters offer a lot of leniency on that ground. Still, it’s hard to find a character enjoyable and/or developed if they don’t change or behave in a realistic or likable manner under extensive conflict. Story goes hand-in-hand with making those characters all the more three-dimensional, and Katawa Shoujo simply doesn’t have the firepower to make all of those characters as inflated as they desire. Again, three of the five story arcs are all I feel are truly worth playing—due both to the story and their characters. There are a few scenarios where characters outshine their story, while others less involved than the main girl end up shining more. Most presently in the case of Shizune’s route, where I found myself more empathetic of Misha’s situation than Shizune, who… didn’t have much of a situation whatsoever. There are times where it seems the story tries to embark on a journey of its own and drags the characters along, while others have the characters outrunning the story at every turn. The most enjoyable scenarios involved are when the story and characters work together in harmony. The side characters pick up after the incessant droppings of the weaker leads, but it isn’t quite enough to get the smell out of the hallway.
A lot of what people find most appealing when going into a visual novel is the way its presented. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been entranced by one of the covers of the “Sakura” series of works. Katawa Shoujo has a structure of artistic quality dependent on the situation. However, there is some debate as to what is and isn’t better than the other. The more “dramatic” artwork that is displayed during tender or harrowing events has the artistic intrigue of the emotions put forth, while the typical sprite work is a lot more clean, structured, and varied overall. I also believe that the artwork of some story arcs outshine others; whether this be because they came out more recently or not is beyond my knowledge. What’s shown in Emi’s route might be better than what’s shown in Rin’s route, or vice-versa. They’re (relatively?) the same style, but they appear different in small details. I almost prefer the ever-changing spritework that expresses a lot of the characters’ quirks and charms, but there are a few high-quality drawn scenes that make my heart aflutter. While it doesn’t have the splendor of top-quality artwork from the best designers in the business, it holds up well enough to make the game both beautiful aesthetically and emotionally.
My experience with Katawa Shoujo began on a whim; a desire to partake in visual novels and another juncture of (typically) Japanese culture. There’s an odd perplexity to “amateur” works I find immensely appealing (see: post on Marble Syrup and Paper Waifu), and discovering the odd origins and development of this game had my interests at peak capacity. Not only am I more than happy that I was able to download and experience this story for myself, but it gave me the hope that many more games like Katawa Shoujo could be born from the desire to create and share a story with the world. While not perfect in the slightest, the attempt is a damn good one, a testament to what’s important in a visual novel-type game and what time and effort can do for a simple project. If not for the game itself, Katawa Shoujo is recommendable to help share the love that was put into the idea that anything is possible if one is willing to go through with it. One just has to make it happen.
Final Score: 7/10
The rating for this title and more can be found on MyVideoGameList.