I want to tell you about Rakuen.
I started following Laura Shihigara on Twitter after her phenomenal contribution to To The Moon, which to this day is still the only piece of video game music I love so much that I have a physical representation of it in my home. Given how much I dug To The Moon in general, you won’t be surprised that I was interested in her involvement in/spearheading of Rakuen, a game that from the little news I elected to follow of it seemed very much to be what I promise I’ll never call it again, a To The Moon-like. Same concept, but different context, setting, characters, and way the player inevitably gets their heart broken, that’s what I figured. I was particularly drawn to the recurring visual of the boy in the origami hat, since that’s one of the few origami pieces I can sort-of do myself, and the title, Rakuen. If you’d put me on the spot, I’d guess that it’s Japanese for either peaceful or paradise; I know this, of course, because I phonetically memorized the lyrics to the opening song of the Kirby anime.
Rakuen came out on Steam a little over two weeks ago. I waffled on picking it up for review purposes at first, figuring that I didn’t know how much there’d be to talk about. But I eventually decided ‘you know what, I’ll just play it, it’s bound to be cool, and I’ll see if I get any writing out of it afterwards. So I bought Rakuen, and started playing it, and eventually completed the whole story.
All of this happened yesterday.
Regular readers might remember that I sometimes play fast and loose with the description of my playtimes and -dates, especially if it suits the review story. “I just beat the final boss,” I’ll say at the start of the second page, in actuality having beaten the boss three days ago. I get it, this is my narrative style, I dug this hole for myself. Which is why it’s important for me to reiterate that all of this happened yesterday. I installed Rakuen, and started playing Rakuen, and finished playing Rakuen, all on Sunday March 28th 2017. Yesterday, from the perspective of when this article goes up. Which means that Rakuen gets the unexpected honour of having my fastest-ever review turnaround time: Since I played well into midnight to close out the story, I’ve gone from final play session to written review in less than 24 hours.
And here I was wondering I wasn’t gonna have anything to say.
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, somewhat low. Mechanical, low.)
(Game source: Patreon funds.)
Rakuen, Or: Damnit, I Just Had New Heartstrings Installed
I’m going to start this review by comparing Rakuen to To The Moon. The comparison’s gonna come up at some point, it’s practically inevitable, so I might as well get it out the way early. Is Rakuen similar to its famous spiritual ancestor?
Well. It is and it isn’t.
The two games are most similar in general aesthetic, both audiovisually and ludically. Both games rock a visual style that I would describe as The RPG Maker School Of Design, which may or may not actually be accurate. It doesn’t matter, you get the idea: Especially visually, both Rakuen and To The Moon evoke the 16-bit JRPGs of consoles past. I’m talking about the high-quality pixel art, the clear use of repeated sprites, the fact that the play area is clearly divided into squares that characters move between. Rakuen even uses the ever-popular Talking Head Text Box approach of having characters speak.
Music and consistent audio theming play an important role in both games as well. I, er, can’t say all that much about this aspect of Rakuen without getting into some spoilers, but all you really need to know is that there are no less than six voiced songs in this game.
And finally, there’s the general gameplay comparison. Like To The Moon, Rakuen is primarily a storytelling game. There is gameplay, which is to say that there are elements that are ludically engaging while not necessarily contributing to the story being told. Remember how To The Moon had parts where you’d hunt down coloured memory balls, or whatever that was? And then did a little sliding puzzle to proceed? Rakuen leans on a handful of gameplay ideas: There’s a lot of turning switches on and off (sometimes under some sort of time limit), some secret passages to find, adventure-game style hunts for keys and key items, and (to top it off) a system where you collect crafting ingredients to create tools you need to influence the world.
That said, after a similar-ish starting-off points the two games do diverge sharply. Rakuen as a game has a strong identity beyond ‘it’s kind of like that other game’, which is good, otherwise this’d be a very short review.
Probably the single biggest difference is the general setting, and the way you experience the world. To The Moon, for all its dream-logic weirdness, is a fairly ‘grounded’ sci-fi tale. Everything that happens is established in the scientific rules of the world, and the disconnected nature of the levels and your progress through the story is easily explained: ‘Memories are just weird like that’. There’s a crucial division between what goes on in the old man’s head, and what goes on in the mansion.
Rakuen doesn’t play this way. Rakuen purposefully bleeds the mundane and the magical into one another, quickly and completely and without hesitation. You might convince yourself that this’ll be a similarly grounded magical realism story, but that’s before the boy and his mother travel through a set of magical doors that connect a magical forest to a decidedly non-magical hospital.
Rakuen doesn’t establish any rules on the interplay of the mundane and the magical. It does so because it doesn’t care about the distinction; if anything, it cares much about the opposite. Which means that there can be magical doors hidden in supply closets, or in walled-off sections of the hospital, or even right behind people who don’t seem to notice them. Many characters in the magical realm have the same names and general demeanors as characters in the hospital, but it’s never clear to what lengths that connection goes, or in what direction. Boy and Mom can freely travel between the two places, as can anything they take along, and nobody seems to question why the lounge room is suddenly decorated with a band poster straight out of fantasy land. Or how a little boy managed to get his hands on a lumber axe.
And that’s before you get into the real narrative meat of Rakuen, the character stories, where any semblance of continuity and connection to the preceding experience is dropped like an unfashionable hat. I’m not saying the stories don’t make internal sense, because they do. But they make sense as self-contained entities. You have to be willing that your viewpoint character is a purple cat engineer now, that you’re in a walled-off flooded basement now, that there are ghosts now, that Mom has disappeared without any trace.
Again, I want to stress that this strange continuity isn’t a result of Rakuen not caring, but the result of Rakuen very much caring about creating exactly that feeling. It blurs the boundaries between what’s real and what isn’t, what has happened and what will happen, and who exactly is the storyteller at any given moment. I suppose all that makes it all the more effective when… But we’ll get to that later, maybe.
So, about those character stories. What I would consider the core of Rakuen consists of exploring the histories, narratives, and psyches of a number of characters in the hospital and in the Forest. Sort of a To The Moon microcosm, except without the horrible lies at the end. The more mechanically inclined might think of these sections as levels, or dungeons, since they’re reached by adventuring over an overworld and they each form a separate, complete experience once you step through the door. Yes, these are the places where you can expect to get your heart broken… the first several times.
It’s in the story sections that Rakuen really finds it feet. Not all of them worked equally well for me, I’ll admit. My favourite one was the bear’s story, which masterfully blends the forest’s metaphoric storytelling with real-world memories to tell you exactly what happened and why, without ever spelling any of it out directly. The boatswain’s story was good too, though I’m still not sure why so much of it involved running around flooded sewer pipes… or maybe I do, and I just don’t want to admit it to myself. In contrast, the invisible girl’s story is a little short, and linear, with very player involvement. And the fish-man’s story… I want to say it’s weird, and disconnected from itself, but the more I reflect on things the more I think that might actually be the point here. As you can tell, all of them give me plenty of food for thought… And those are only the stories I’m letting myself talk about here.
The gameplay connecting the narrative bits, particularly the ‘overworld’ stuff, is… less stellar, to be honest. It’s serviceable, but I have to wonder how much the experience is served by having walk around picking up Ten (10) Sticks. The fact that Boy and Mom walk somewhat slowly particularly aggravates the later sections, where you sometimes have to walk from one figurative end of the world to another. It’s a beautiful world, and the environment is worth taking in, but all the same maybe Get A Move On Already. That said, I do understand why this level of gameplay exists. On a particular surface level read, Rakuen is an adventure story, after all: A brave Boy and his faithful companions challenge unknown dangers to earn the favor of the forest guardian Morizuma. It wouldn’t be much of an adventure if you just walked from highlight to highlight, then. But blazing unknown paths, and discovering hidden treasures, and helping out the needy? Now we’re talking. I still don’t know if the exact quantity and quality makes for the greatest fun time, but one thing I can definitely say about the Rakuen adventure experience is that it’s real good at making you forget your character is a sick little boy mostly confined to a hospital bed.
Which is, of course, the point.
I can’t predict how much the end sequence of Rakuen will land with and resonate with different people. It depends on who you are, and how much you read into things, I think. All I can say for sure is that in my case, I think I figured out the important clues and pieced together what the game was trying to tell me right around the time when it started assuming I did. Again, without ever being very explicit about things. But just as the tone got darkest, I had a series of revelations about ‘oh, so that’s why…’ and ‘oh, so that’s what…’ and ‘oh, so that’s where…’ that hit me like successive emotional thunderclaps. It was like… looking back on this series of fun adventures in friend-helping I thought I’d been having, and for the first time seeing the series of dominoes that I unwittingly put into place just as the first one started tipping over. I’m not going to say I cried, because I don’t think it’s that sort of experience… But picture me sitting in unmoving silence for a good minute, occasionally tabbing out to Google some term or some time to confirm was I was slowly starting to suspect.
It’s good storytelling, is what I’m trying to convey.
Rakuen isn’t really a game I can do a meaningful mechanical review of. I can tell you that my play time was a little over six hours, counting in some backtracking and a lot of poking at the same objects and characters to get to the jokes (of which there are plenty). I can tell you that while the overworld gameplay isn’t greatly involved, the more adventure-type puzzles in the story sections can> be quite difficult, and often almost require you to take in the world and the underlying narratives. I can tell you that the cheerful tone of the larger game is often subsumed in highly effective low-intensity horror, where you know something isn’t right but you’re not sure what, and that you’re going to be running in vain towards ringing phones more than once. Hell, I can even tell you with absolute certainty that there is no section in this game where you nonsensically evade zombie clones of your heel-turned colleague — even though that would probably work better here than it did in that other game.
But at the end of the day, you’re not going to get into Rakuen for the gameplay. The gameplay is sufficient, and important, but if you’re here for Rakuen, you’re here because it’s an excellent example of the things games can do with storytelling. We’ve had echoes recently of the old chestnut that video games should focus on mechanics and ludic engagement over stories, that video games aren’t ‘good’ at storytelling. Rakuen is here to demonstrate that, no, video games can be good at storytelling. They just have to stop racing like a car.
If what you need in your life right now is a touching story about courage, and friendship, and bravery and acceptance in the face of terror and loss, that also exemplifies how games can tell stories in accordance with their intrinsic nature instead of in opposition of it, then do yourself a favor and pick up Rakuen. You don’t ‘have’ to play it in a single sitting; there’s a handful of good narrative stopping points. But I’d still recommend playing it in some sort of short succession. And maybe keep some chocolate on hand, or a stuffed animal. Just in case.
Jarenth isn’t usually happy to be sad, but sometimes it’s just the appropriate feeling. Share bittersweet stories on Twitter or on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?