Review of Katawa Shoujo

Spoiler alert: I’ve tried to keep this review spoiler-free, although there are a couple of them worth noting. I’ve marked them like this (tada!); you can click on them if you really want to know secrets about the game.

There are a large number of visual novels available on the internet, both free of charge and for sale on platforms like Steam and But I’m getting ahead of myself. What is a visual novel? I like to think of is an adult picture book: a story that unfolds over time, accompanied by illustrations. Many visual novels are interactive: along the way, you, the reader, are given decisions to make, which help to shape the story. For this reason, it is very common to refer to visual novels as “games”, where you “play” as the protagonist, and the goal of the game is to make the story end the way you want. Since the first visual novels arose in Japan, many of the classics are either in Japanese or set somewhere in Japan, incorporate some sort of romantic element into the story, along with some adult content, and are tailored for different audiences. For instance, bishoujo are aimed at male audiences (the protagonist is a boy and the characters are all pretty girls) and bishounen are aimed at female audiences (the situation is flipped). But there are also other varieties of visual novels that don’t follow these formulas. You can find a large list of them at the Visual Novel Database, and there’s a large community of people making and reading and talking about visual novels on Reddit.

Today I’m going to review Katawa Shoujo, a very popular bishoujo and a consistent favorite among visual novel readers. I have a few different factors that I’m going to grade it on. “Visuals” is a measure of how effective the illustrations are in communicating the story and representing the characters and scenes throughout the dialogue, and how well other visual features such as transitions play into the experience. “Text” is a measure of how the language is used in order to craft and convey the story. “Audio” is a measure of how effective the music and sound effects are in placing the reader in a mood to enjoy the story. Finally, “overall experience” is a measure of how well all of these elements work together and acts as a final grade. All scores will be given from 1 to 10, where 1 is the worst and 10 is the best.

This review will be somewhat long because I’m assuming that you don’t know anything about visual novels; in future reviews I will probably skip more of the boilerplate.

With that in mind, let’s begin.


I’m going to talk somewhat about the technical details of the game here, but stick with me. I said that visual novels are like picture books, but from a production perspective, they’re more like the TV show South Park. Imagine that you have a bunch of pieces of cardboard paper. Some pieces are for scenery, some are for dialogue, and the rest are for different characters. And these pieces of paper can be layered on top of one another and changed out as needed to create a certain scene.

That’s mostly how Katawa Shoujo works under the hood. The player is the viewer of the scene, and on the screen there are different versions of each character’s image, where he or she is striking a certain pose or wearing a certain expression. The game then swaps out these images at different points of a conversation to convey an emotion or emphasize the dialogue. It also swaps the background layer as well when a scene changes in order to place characters in a room, a tea shop, hallway, or something else entirely.

Although I am not an expert in visual novels, the art style in the game seems to be fairly typical. Characters are drawn in a classic manga style, where everyone is a cartoon. Generally each person is slender, cute, handsome, or buff, and girls’ eyes are big and shiny. That said, the line work is clean, and aside from a couple of visual glitches – Emi’s eyes and eyebrows appear as mere lines in one variation of her character – it has a professional feel. As for backgrounds, they look different from characters: they seem to be real photos run under some kind of Photoshop filter to make them appear like watercolors. While I understand that this likely saved a lot of time, I wish that the artists had drawn these by hand 1, or perhaps removed some of the detail and left more of the scene to readers’ imaginations. There are certain locations where the text describes something, such as a bench or table, that should be visible on-screen, but is not, because the photo doesn’t capture enough of the space.

Speaking about the characters, in most situations, the poses and expressions that the game’s artists have chosen and drawn for them work well. Besides, there are certain effects that the game uses to get around the static image limitation. For instance, characters are animated left or right to move on-stage or off-stage, or up and down to simulate jumping; or they are enlarged or shrunk to simulate getting closer or farther away from the player-character; or rotated; or even moved behind other characters altogether. This is done well in most cases, but sometimes the illusion of reality is broken. For instance, one scene describes Yuuko, a minor character in the story, bowing rapidly and woodenly, “like an axe being chopped”. Because characters are two-dimensional sprites and can’t be “folded”, the game has no way of showing this, so it simulates it by moving the image of Yuuko up and down rapidly. In my opinion, this just doesn’t work, although at least it’s better than nothing. In other scenes, the text describes characters sitting at a table or lying down, but because there are no “sitting” or “lying down” variations of these characters, they are still shown standing up as they are conversing. This kind of thing bothered me the first few times it happened, but after a while, I found that I was focused on the text itself so much that it didn’t matter a whole lot. After all, I was still able to see who was talking, even if I had to slightly recast the scene in my head.

One thing I do like about the game is that it makes judicious use of transitions to move from one part of the game to the next. These animations are neither boring nor flashy, neither too slow nor too fast, and break up the game into bite-size pieces effectively. There are even several places where the whole screen is replaced with a single illustration of the scene viewed from a completely different perspective, and at the end of Act 1, a short silent film plays, a sort of montage that foreshadows events that will happen in the remainder of the story. These depictions are drawn more loosely and freely, and I think they are some of the best parts of the game, as they highlight the real creativity of the artists and provide an alternative perspective to the characters in the story.

Score: 7.5/10


Taken as a whole, the writing is fairly good, especially for a free game. The circumstances that place the protagonist in the story, Hisao, in the company of the cast of characters he will ultimately befriend and, in some cases, date – the heart arrhythmia he experiences at the beginning of the game which leads him to attend a school for disabled students – is definitely unconventional. I don’t know that much about bishoujos, but from a writing perspective, this seems like a smart creative restriction. Because Hisao starts out humbled and somewhat apprehensive, he meekly seeks a way forward that will lead him to overcoming his situation and, ultimately, finding happiness. And as the player, you naturally want him to succeed in this.

Hisao is both the narrator as well as a character, so the text is cast in the first person, and the language style is fairly casual. Ordinarily this might be annoying in a traditional book, but I find that it works very well in the game; the text also uses present tense effectively to immerse you into the story as you’re playing. The text also does a nice job of describing scenes or characters as you encounter them for the first time. Again, these descriptions don’t always match what is seen on-screen, so that is a little off-putting, but I believe that is the fault of the visuals, not the text.

That said, the text isn’t without flaws. The game spends a lot of time attempting to place you into the shoes of Hisao, and in the process you are privy to all of his thoughts. While this in itself isn’t bad – it does make him a believable character in a believable world – Hisao tends to have a lot of thoughts. In some cases a character he is talking to asks him a question and he spends three or four slides of dialogue processing how exactly to respond. And each storyline has some kind of soliloquy where he takes a moment to reflect on his life and whichever girl he happens to be interested in at the time. The problem is that by the fourth read-through, you have seen him “grow up” three other times, so it’s difficult to understand why he can’t just move past the problem effortlessly this time. In some places the text is a little too wordy, and two sentences that share similar information will be right next to each other. For instance:

Misha: “So… would you like to join us? Come on, you’ll have a lot more fun than just sitting here with your head on your desk~!”
I guess I won’t be missing anything important; nor will I be missed.
Hisao: “All right, then, I don’t think I’d be missing much. What do you have in mind?”

This could have simply read:

Misha: “So… would you like to join us? Come on, you’ll have a lot more fun than just sitting here with your head on your desk~!”
I guess I won’t be missing anything important; nor will I be missed.
Hisao: “Uh… sure. What do you have in mind?”

The game isn’t just one story; it’s actually a collection of individual storylines. Each storyline (apart from Kenji’s) is divided into four acts, a feature that works wonderfully and helps to break up the length of the storyline into chunks and make Hisao’s upward growth perceptible and therefore believable. The first act is much the same, as the decisions that you make here dictate which path the game will lead you. As a result, on each successive play-through, you will likely end up having to skip through dialogue (and there is a lot of it here) to get to the part of the game you haven’t seen before. This may or may not be the reason why I found that the writing in the first act wasn’t as good as any act after that.

In any case, I thought that all of the storylines were all generally rewarding in their own way. Setting a trajectory for a new path, I was initially skeptical about the plot’s direction in the same way that Hisao was skeptical about his own future, but by the end of the second act, I was hooked and couldn’t stop reading. If I had to talk about each storyline individually, I would say that my favorite was Rin’s, although a close second was Misha and Shizune’s. This is a surprise, because none of the characters are very likable at first, Rin especially. In either case, the writing seemed to have a little more depth – seemed to come more from real experiences – than the other storylines, and although there is plenty of text to read, the themes discussed were complex and interesting.

The last thing to mention about the writing is that I did have one issue with the content itself. Personally, I didn’t find the sex scenes to be completely necessary. I can understand that the characters in this story are all teenagers and that bishoujos wouldn’t be proper bishoujos without some kind of sexual gratification. But there was no story (aside from Kenji’s) where Hisao didn’t wind up in bed with a girl, whether of his own free will or not. Emi’s story, actually, is the only one where sex seems appropriate, as it actually exacerbates the division she has in her head between accepting Hisao’s love for her or rejecting it altogether. But in the stories featuring other characters, the sex doesn’t matter, as the decisions they make later, I think, would have been made regardless of the act. Hence, because sex is featured so heavily in the game, it – or the act of getting it – becomes the game itself in short order. I think this is a shame, because the stories are so much more than that.

Score: 7.5/10


While I was generally pleased with the way the visual novel looked and read, I had less than favorable thoughts about the audio.

Let’s start with the music. When the game starts, it is enjoyable. When Hisao is at school, it is positive, upbeat, and light-hearted, and when he is by himself, it is quieter, wistful, perhaps even somewhat reflective. This makes sense, as at first, Hisao is not sure what to think about this new environment in which he’s found himself; but when he attends classes or walks around campus, he discovers that everyone is friendly and wants to help him.

After a while, though, the music becomes rather annoying. Since it is synthesized, its realism doesn’t match the realism that the text is trying to create. Sometimes it felt like I was reading some kind of Victorian-era novel, playing a fishing game, watching a Hallmark movie, or some odd combination of all three. These aren’t things you want associated with a serious story about a boy who has a life-threatening heart condition and who is going through situations that will change the rest of his life. Not every song works with every scene, either. For instance, when Hisao walks into the nurse’s office, some kind of funky track begins playing. This might be appropriate for a game featuring Mr. T, but it is completely out of place here.

There’s a wide variety of songs to listen to, but because each scene has music associated with it to some extent, that means the game is dominated by music. While the game wisely fades in and out the music as you progress from one scene to the next, if you’re a fast reader like me, then the music is constantly changing, and the transitions between songs are sped up unrealistically. Furthermore, each song is designed to repeat after it is finished. This isn’t unusual, but there are two problems with this: first, no song is very long; and second, some songs don’t repeat seamlessly. This is especially noticeable if you are a slower reader or you decide to pause in the middle of the game.

Even if every song fit the scene perfectly and repeated itself inconspicuously, I think I would still take issue with the music. At the end of the day, it is simply too distracting. I wanted to get lost in the text, but some flourish in the melody or some dueling combination of instruments would catch my ear and draw me out of the moment. Because of its repeating nature, each song is inevitably an earworm, staying in your brain long after you close the game. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, but I would think that in a visual novel, the music should take a back seat to the text.

Besides the music, the sound effects are also off-putting as well. I wouldn’t be surprised if the authors used free sound files: they are noticeably of sub-par quality. Besides this, the text does a good enough job of describing sounds – “just then, there was a knock at the door”; “I heard footsteps in the hall”; “the schoolyard was bustling with students” – that it is unnecessary to actually hear anything at all. Rather than simply copy what is written, sound should provide information that the reader wouldn’t ordinarily glean from the text, and that isn’t the case here.

Despite their involvement in the game, the music and sound effects, unfortunately, end up detracting from the potency of the story. After the nurse scene, I actually turned off the audio completely and kept it that way for the remainder of my play-through. That vastly improved the experience for me, as I was able to solely focus on the text.

Score: 4/10

Overall experience

As a free game, Katawa Shoujo is impressive. Although the backstory and setting are different from a typical romantic novel, they at least are believable, and the comfortable writing style and pleasant graphics makes it easy to associate with the protagonist as he moves past his issues and builds meaningful relationships to carry him into the future. Since there are five main storylines, the game is really five games in one, so the value in replayability is considerable. The developers should be commended for the enormous amount of text that they had to write in order to flesh out each pathway. Regrettably, the audio in the game doesn’t hold up nearly as well as everything else, but the game is still perfectly enjoyable without it.

Final score: 7/10


There’s a certain amateurish quality to Katawa Shoujo, but don’t get me wrong: I have a lot of respect for the team who developed the game. It took five years to make it, none of the people earned any money for it, and what’s more, none of the people had made a visual novel before. Different writers and artists were in charge of each character’s storyline and visuals, and they all had to collaborate in order to make something that meshes well. This is amazing to me, and I think it’s clear that they succeeded.

If you’re interested in the process behind the game, then make sure to read the blog.

  1. I later learned that the artists did consider this, but realized that they would have to draw over a hundred backgrounds, and that just wasn’t feasible. A lot of work did go into selecting backgrounds and modifying them to suit the game. So I can’t fault the art team too much.