Katawa Shoujo is a free Visual Novel by Four Leaf Studios released last January 4, 2012. It drops you in the shoes of Hisao, a guy who falls prey to arrhythmia who then attends a "school" for the disabled. If you'd like to learn more about the history/inspiration behind the VN/story, Kotaku wrote an informative article some time ago about it.
How does it "play"?
A typical screen in Katawa Shoujo. KS employs these convenient check marks so you know the choices you've already played through during past runs.
So, for those unfamiliar with the "Visual Novel" genre, interaction with the VN only occurs through dialogue choices. Think Mass Effect without all the combat. Some VNs incorporate RPG elements such as an open-world and mini-games but you won't find such things in Katawa Shoujo. The story is then told through mostly static images with some dynamic elements and sprites of the characters.
How does it treat the "disability" aspect?
I'm pretty sure this is one of the biggest questions you have regarding the title. This questions serves as a great way not only to clear up the confusion but also to encourage you to go play the VN.
Katawa Shoujo handles the "disability" aspect with great tact and understanding. I have finished 3 of the 5 available routes and so far all of them have handled the subject beautifully. The disabilities serve not as stereotypes but actual effective means of story telling. You'd probably remember the characters because of them but that detail fades away the more you go through the story.
This definitely isn't pity porn. The characters develop and create interesting stories of their own that are quite detached from the fact that they have disabilities. Yes, the disabilities do come up but when they do they come up in interesting ways that help strengthen the characters. It won't focus on how this character doesn't have legs. Instead, it'll ask how she can keep this bubbly attitude despite what she's been through. It tells a story of how these characters try to break through the stereotypes usually given to them without glorifying their own disabilities.
Will I enjoy this? How long will it take for me to play the game?
Do you like hugging your pillow at night? Then yes, you will. Do you like dramas that don't have stupid sinister characters? Did you enjoy Clannad, Angel Beats or other emotionally driven (or drama oriented) anime? Do you want a waifu? If you answer yes to any of that, then I think you should give it a try.
Looking at my game saves, a playthrough usually lasts around 3-4 hours. The first playthrough probably takes up 4-5hrs. because of the intro. It will probably take you around 15-20hrs to finish everything given that there are 5 main routes (Could there be more!? Find out for yourself :P). It will take you even a bit longer if you want to get not just the "good" endings and complete the CG gallery. This actually speaks well of the VN. To go through the route/scenario of another character, you either have to restart from the beginning or choose a relatively early game save. This is good because it means that there is little recycled content between characters besides the first chapter/introduction. What's not good about it is that you have to stick to the character that you choose at the end of the first chapter.
It's a freeware game. Those tend to be on the bad side. How's the polish on the title?
For a free game assembled by a bunch of strangers on the internet, the VN is well-polished. The character sprites are visually attractive and do their job well. The sceneries are pics of real world locations that are run through filters to make them fit a bit better into the game world. They're not the best looking things ever but they suffice. The CGs (the detailed/not in-engine pics used to depict certain usually important scenes) look real good and wouldn't look out of place in a commercial product. The interface is well done and easy to use too.
The opening cinematic of the game.
There are also some animated scenes that play at some points in the story and they look great! It's a shame that we'll most likely never get an animated Katawa Shoujo...If we do, I hope it's KyoAni. They have a knack for creating good dramas with a bunch of female characters while not making it feel like a harem.
How about the sound? Well, the soundtrack is kinda limited but it is of a high quality. You probably wouldn't get much better than this on a free game made by a bunch of passionate people on the internet. The soundtrack sets the atmospheres of scene really well and you'd probably be humming or whistling some of them by the end. The only real problem with the soundtrack is that some songs repeat quite often. This didn't really bother me much but some may find it annoying.
(I was into The Killers' Battle Born album when I played KS and it worked quite well to break the occasional monotony while still preserving the mood.)
I heard there are eroge scenes. How are they? Are they awkward? Should I turn them off?
So, first off, you can turn off eroge scenes in Katawa Shoujo so if you'd rather play without them, you can. Now, the scenes themselves aren't too bad. Some are awkward or funny and not really integral to the plot (Emi) while some help to define a character and feel natural (Rin) and some are really quite integral to the plot/add to the punch (Hanako). I can't say anything about the other two, unfortunately.
I'd recommend leaving them on just to get the full experience. Emi's scenes are more on the funny side than perverse/erotic. Rin is...Rin. Hanako's was the only one that made me cringe a bit but it was all explained really well further on.
So, anything to wrap up this review?
Personal side-story but, Katawa Shoujo is memorable for me because it got me interested in Visual Novels which then got me interested in anime. There's nothing too extraordinary or complicated about the game or the stories it contains but that's a part of what's good about it. It's simple and effective.
Any reason why you shouldn't play it? Post Katawa Shoujo Depression.
So, where can I get this game?
The download link is right here: http://www.katawa-shoujo.com/download.php
Enjoy the game!
I like the soundtrack and the art. Any place where I can get them?
They can be found on the same link above: http://www.katawa-shoujo.com/download.php. They have artbooks, the soundtrack and wallpapers!
If you quite fancied the game and would like to follow developments from the Four Leaf Studios, here's the link to their blog: http://katawashoujo.blogspot.com/. There are links there to other places such as Forums and Twitter and other social stuff!
I wanna post something on TAY! I might even post my own articles or review but I don't know how! I just wanna chill!