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Katawa Shoujo, first run-through
Several months ago one blog or another I read highlighted Katawa Shoujo, a new open-source Japanese-style "dating sim" game, focusing on the disabled, written by a bunch of (mostly) non-Japanese from 4chan. The basic gist of the blog posting was "It's really good, thoughtful, and respectful, not the train-wreck the concept sounds like coming from 4chan". I downloaded it to check it out, got bored quickly/didn't have time/whatever, and kept it around to get back to later.

Now I've had time to play it once. And what do I think?

It took me a while to get used to the game style. I was expecting more agency, more RPG style. Instead, it's very much like a "choose-your-own-adventure" novel of old. Lots of dialog, exposition, and things happening without your direct control, followed by the computer equivalent of "If you want to introduce yourself to the class, turn to page X, if you want the teacher to introduce you, turn to page Y". Once I realized it was essentially that sort of game/story/novel, it didn't bother me so much that I could literally go through a day-in-game without affecting the game-play.

The game is well-constructed; instead of background art, they collected photographs of the sort of things you would find: a school exterior, a classroom, a dorm room, a restaurant, etc. The manga-like drawings of the characters are superimposed on top of that. For the most part, the characters are static, but the game does switch between images to show different moods, etc, even within a scene. The music is continuous, plays to the scene, and is calm and peaceful. It's well done.

An example of the "art" style can be seen at http://dl.katawa-shoujo.com/pr/sample/screen/screen_3.jpg (which, by the way, is also the first choice you get to make in the game).

As to the story, it too is well done. The main thing in the game (so far) that is not thoughtful or respectful of the disabled is the main character (the one you play), but he's learning.

Here's the basic story: Hisao (that's you) is a high-school student, sophomore, never had a girlfriend. He gets an anonymous note to meet someone by the woods behind the school after class. He goes, finds the girl he's been crushing on, and she says she likes him and timidly asks if it's mutual. Hisao promptly has a heart attack and almost dies.

After 6 months in the hospital, he's got no friends left, a congenital incurable cardiac arrhythmia that could kill him if he stresses it too much or doesn't keep taking the twice-daily handful of meds, a reasonable amount of depression, a newly-formed reading habit, and a huge chunk of denial.

His parents transfer him to a "special" school, designed to deal with students like him. Among other things, it's got a 24-hour nursing staff on site, etc. He doesn't want to go, but he has no choice. He's not like the "special" kids at the school.

Once there, he starts meeting his fellow students, most of whom seem perfectly normal, if you don't notice the blindness, or the missing limbs, or whatever. He has to start interacting with them, and that's to some degree where the player comes in.

Nominally, the player is supposed to follow one of 5 tracks which end with him getting one of 5 girls: Emi (double-amputee trackstar), Hanako (severely burned face and ensuing massive social anxiety), Lilly (blind from birth), Rin (armless from birth), Shizune (deaf & mute). Hanako is the only one of the 5 who doesn't interact "normally", and Shizune has a constant companion of Misha (no apparent disability, but interprets for Shizune). The choices the player makes leads to him dating one of them (or two, maybe, in the case of Shizune&Misha, I'm curious how that works out in game).

I've played it once, and I didn't end up taking either of those tracks. In my play, after a week at the school (about 2 hours of real-time), Hisao sits out the spring festival hanging out on the school roof with his crazy next-door-neighbor drinking his whiskey (personally, I think deciding to take a slug whenever your paranoid drinking companion mentions a "feminist conspiracy" is a bad idea myself), lamenting that he could have probably taken a girl to the festival, and finally stumbles backwards into the broken fence at the edge of the school roof and *crunch*. Roll end credits.

I think I might have made some bad choices along the way.

Will I play it again? It's a toss-up. I find it a bit slow, as it follows the typical in game conversation model of a black box at the bottom with a line or two of text streaming in one character at a time, then hit space to continue. You can speed up how it goes, and there is a way to set it so it automatically continues (so you don't have to hit space), but it's still a lot of time to get from decision point to decision point. The detail-oriented geek in me would probably want to map out the whole game tree, but get too bored with going over bits I've already done to want to finish it.

Overall, I found the game interesting, a bit slow, and the main character a bit of a downer. Of course, I probably also found the most depressing ending to the game in the fastest amount of time, so that could probably be influencing the "downer" aspect.

I liked it enough to review it here with a "try it if it seems like the sort of thing you might be into".