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I have finished my second run-through of Katawa Shoujo, the dating-sim game I mentioned a few days ago.

The first run-through my choices led the main character to fall backwards off the school roof in a drunken haze after only a week. Probably not the best way to judge the game.

The second run-through, all the way to a "good" ending, gave me more of a feel for the game.

The story is told in a Prologue and 4 Acts.

The Prologue sets up the situation for the player, and has no choices to be made. Hisao, the main character, is a high-school student, has just received a "confession" (of romantic interest) from the girl he likes, and before he can confess in return, has a heart attack and goes into hospital for 3 months, losing all his friends (and new girlfriend) in the process. He is enrolled in Yamaku Academy, a private school for the disabled, given a daily medication regimen, and has to live with his heart condition for the rest of his life -- now drastically different than it was.

Act 1, "Life Expectancy" deals with his first week in Yamaku Academy, meeting people, getting set up in classes, and starting his new life. From a game-play perspective, Act 1 has a lot of choices, and you end up sorted into one of 6 paths: one for each girl, and one for no girl. The "no girl" path ends quickly, falling off the roof and dying.

The girls seem to come in pairs: Lilly (blind) and Hanako (burned), Rin (armless) and Emi (legless), and Shizune (deaf) and Misha (disability not explained, interprets for Shizune). It felt, in game play, very much like I was expected to befriend a pair and then pick one of them. Although that may have been the practical effect, the story told in game was not that crass in it's coverage.

In this run-through, for instance, after befriending Lilly and Hanako, I was given the choice to either "Go for a walk into town" (where I, as a player, believed Lilly to be) or to "Go visit the library" (where I, as a player, believed Hanako to be). The character, at least as presented in the text, didn't think of it as "Lilly or Hanako", rather it was convenient that Lilly was in town when he got there.

The whole game is like that; the decision points are written in-character, and in the flow of things. While meta-gaming is possible (knowing that going to town is selecting Lilly and to the library is selecting Hanako, for instance), it isn't written that way. My notes, where I wrote down every choice I made (so I can deliberately make different choices next time) are filled with choices like "Take it easy", "Address it", "Yes", "She was cute".

One aspect of the game that should be addressed is the "explicit" scenes -- where the main character an his love interest have sex. In the one path I've been through, I felt they were tastefully done, but could (and can be, via an option) easily left out without hurting the story line. Although the first time was clearly portrayed, later on I got the impression that sex continued to happen between scenes more than was shown. There were three explicit scenes; the first was the "first time", and the third (much later) was used in part to show the limitations of the character. The second scene felt so much like a continuation of the first I didn't feel like mentioning it. I feel it is easy to argue that none were particularly gratuitous, especially in this type of game/story.

The third sex scene brings up two points with the game, one good, one bad.

What I found particularly interesting in the game was how much of the story continued after the sex -- the sex wasn't the goal or end of the story, and it continued quite a ways afterwards. After the last sex scene was heartbreak, reconciliation, and eventually the main couple deciding to live life together, with mutual love, respect, and help, as they head off to the same college, etc. I very much appreciate that this is not a game of "bang a disabled chick", but rather a guided story of realistic characters finding their way through the minefield of young relationships. Of note as well is that the focus wasn't on the primary girl (Lilly, in this case) to the exclusion of the others. The existing relationships among the girls (Lilly best friends with Hanako, cousins with Shizune) continued and were reflected in the story-line. In the end, I cared almost as much about Hanako's future as that of Lilly and Hisao's. This, too, is a good reflection onto the care and respect for the characters the authors intended.

On the other hand, I found the handling of Hisao's disability less well done than I would have liked. Repeatedly throughout the story, Hisao is told to be careful of his activities, to take care of himself, and to talk to the nurse if anything feels wrong (so his condition can be monitored, his meds adjusted, etc). Several times he has "heart flutters" (attacks of arrhythmia which leave him in intense pain and weakness) and every single time he "wills" it away, telling his concerned companions that he'll be fine and they don't need to get the nurse. Only once do we see him going to the nurse afterwards to mention it (this was after the 3rd sex scene, which ended in a "heart flutter"). I felt like yelling at him to let his companions get the nurse several times -- that's what the nurse is there for, after all. And yet he consistently makes the choice to hide the extent of his illness even from his closest friends and lovers. The nature of the game, however, prevents the level of control I'd need to make him take it more seriously.

After Act 1, the game is much more of a visual novel than a game, although I'm sure that the choices made do effect the outcome. But the choices become few and far between. In my run-through of the Lilly story, I made a total of 16 choices, 11 in Act 1, 1 in Act 2, 3 in Act 3, and a final one in Act 4. 16 choices over a course of about 12 hours of play time (That might not be continuous, but probably includes time when I left the game running while doing other things). Most of game is spent reading. Luckily, the writing's pretty good.

According to the official sources, there are 5 possible romantic choices (of the 6 girls, Misha is not a choice), and 3 possible outcomes for each (good, neutral, bad). Counting the one "no girl" route, that's 16 possible main story lines to follow, with perhaps minor variations within them. There's definitely some replay possibility here.

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Sounds rather interesting.

So far, it is interesting. You can get it for Windows, Mac, or Linux at www.katawa-shoujo.com if you wish to try it yourself.

I didn't mention the act names in this review, except for Act I, in part because I wasn't sure if the act names were consistent across story lines.

Now that I'm well into my 3rd play-through, I can say for certain that the act names are different in different story lines.

It appears that the general schedule of external events remains the same between story-lines (school holidays, festivals, birthdays, etc), which gives a certain amount of predictability, but the timing of the acts/chapters are different: in my current run through, I'm in Act 4 at a point where I was in Act 3 in the previous run-through. Either there are more acts in this story-line, or it ends, for good or for bad, earlier.

The walk-throughs I've found indicate that the good/neutral/bad endings per story-line isn't as strict as that. Lilly doesn't have a "bad" ending, just good/neutral, while Hanako has a good/bad/very bad ending (the last has been described as painful, disturbing, etc, without spoiling what it is. I don't know what happens; I suspect suicide). Since so much of the story is between choice-points, the walk-throughs are rather spoiler-free.

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