A fairy tale adventure grounded in reality.
There’s something beautiful about the hardships and trials we face as people. That even when it seems as though there is nothing but sadness, there is always some light to be found. That sounds corny and melodramatic, but there are very few games that have made me feel the way Rakuen has. For a game that is filled with as much dread and sadness as this one, I found one of the most beautiful and thoughtful uses of a medium I have experienced in a long time. An absolute treat start to finish, Rakuen deserves your time and respect.
A magical world.
In Rakuen you play as a boy who is in the hospital. The reasons for his stay aren’t clear, but your immediate goal is to ease the boredom of being in a hospital ward. As you progress through the beginning of the game you are introduced to a colorful cast of characters who you will see time and time again. The initial plot is that your precious story book, Rakuen, has been stolen. The book means a lot to you and your mother, and you try to find the thief. Through a series of events you find the book, you learn from your wonderful and precious mother that the book is magical. It is a map that leads to Morizora’s Forest, and the powerful entity of Morizora can grant a wish. So our precious boy and precious mother go and try to find him. (Sounds very precious – Deputy Editor)
Before I move forward I truly believe that a discussion of Rakuen cannot be had without talking about the fantastic score. The music was made by the game’s creator Laura Shigihara, and her years of working a video game composer really show with how great everything sounds. I have no problem saying that this is by far her best work she has done. There is a good balance of catchy tracks and softer ambience, and most importantly they all fit the tone of wherever they are in the game. The instrumentation in particular is fantastic, with different instruments and genres all coming into play, with the occasional wonderful vocal performance by Laura Shigihara herself. The music ties all aspects of the game together to create something that while constantly shifting in emotion, remains consistent throughout and never felt jarring. The visuals are very good, but don’t expect astounding animations from this RPG Maker title. The pixel art and character designs are very well done and more than make up for the lack animation flare. It is also worth noting the the UI is very bare bones and fits this style of game very well. There is little to no clutter and everything thematically fits. So while not the most visually flashy game, Rakuen’s visuals are pretty to look at, and the game’s soundtrack just might be some of this year’s best.
The game really opens up when Morizora’s Forest and the magical world are accessible. The opening scenes in the hospital are in a dreary monochrome, and this is really affective juxtaposed against the bright, colorful, and vibrant magical world. The worlds are interwoven and connected, with actions you take in one world affecting the other. There are certain puzzles and quests that are solved by making trips between the two worlds, and it is interesting to see how the real world affects the parallel one (and vice versa). Characters you meet in the real world are present in the magical world, just as more whimsical fairy tale-esque creatures.
Rakuen has no combat system, being fundamentally a puzzle-focused adventure game. You walk around and talk to NPCs and receive side objectives or progress the story. A lot of the puzzles revolve around finding an object, then using said object on something or someone intractable. Puzzles are fairly straight-forward and aren’t too complicated, but this isn’t a bad thing. While the problem solving isn’t difficult, I believe that this enhances rather than inhibits, allowing you to focus more on the story and the experience. And if you ever get stuck, you always have your loving mother. This is absolutely one of my favorite aspects of the game – you have a precious cinnamon roll mother! Whenever you get lost on what to do next or get stuck on a puzzle, your mother is there most of the time to give you a helpful tip with a warm smile. I love you, video game mother!
Story is at the forefront here, and even the puzzles and challenges have a good payoff in terms of story progression and tugging on those heartstrings. While the puzzles aren’t difficult that isn’t to say there aren’t moments that build tension. I won’t lie: the sections where the game takes a borderline horror aesthetic did freak me out a lot, in no small part to the haunting score of these moments. These moments tonally, feel very appropriate given when they occur in the story. The puzzles remain largely the same but the atmosphere is very unsettling. These parts of the game feel far more stressful, with a lot of it attributed to the timed challenges at certain sections. These aren’t bad and do fuel that tension very well, though they did annoy me with how fiddly they are sometimes. However, most of the time the game is a bright and beautiful adventure, with cute and quirky characters that make it even more bright. Well, bright on the surface, at least.
Not all fun and games.
Rakuen, despite being a fairy tale story on the surface, at its core, is a game about loss, humanity, and uncertainty. The game gives you enough time to breathe before tugging at your heartstrings with darker and sadder subjects, and that is the beauty of its execution. The game juxtaposes dark subjects by portraying it in the light of a warm hearted adventure story. Despite the magical cute creatures and exotic setting, the characters feel very much human. Because real human problems are at the forefront, and they hit hard. That is what I believe makes Rakuen something that, while tonally sad at times, a beautiful adventure. It doesn’t shy away from subjects like abandonment and mortality, but rather embraces them and attempts to find the glimmers of hope and humanity in them. My biggest take away from the game is that things that truly make us upset, things that make the world feel like a dark place, only make you feel that way because there was true love and happiness there to begin with. You may feel sad over those you have lost, but that is only because you truly did care for them – and that is beautiful.
If you made it this far, you may have realized that I talked quite a bit more about the story and themes than any other aspect. That is because Rakuen is a game that isn’t designed to mechanically astound you. It was made to talk about real life struggles and present them in a way that is palatable to all people from different walks of life. It does so with an astounding soundtrack, beautiful art, and a story that has more than once made me cry. Even if you aren’t a fan of these type of games, I would and will recommend Rakuen to anyone. Because it is game that has something meaningful to say, and regardless of who you are, you deserve to experience it.
Final Verdict: 5/5
Available on: Steam – PC (Reviewed), Mac, Linux ; Publisher: Laura Shigihara ; Developer: Laura Shigihara; Players: 1 ; Released: May 10, 2017 ; MSRP: $9.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a digital retail copy of Rakuen.