Wot I Think: Rakuen

Composer, performer and now developer Laura Shigihara’s first game, Rakuen [official site], is out now, and it is something truly special. In a To The Moon sort of way. A hilarious and heartbreaking tale of loss and redemption, with songs. Here’s wot I think:

Rakuen is a book, a story regularly read to a young boy by his mother, about a magical land wherein lives the Guardian of the Forest, a creature who grants wishes. After his hospitalisation, the boy’s mother visits him each night to read the book, and eventually reveals to him a secret: the book’s world is real, and together they can visit.

Which might, alone, sound a perhaps twee set-up for a game. However, this is directly contrasted by the cruel reality of the hospital, and mature topics like dementia, disease and death. Following some sort of incident the whole hospital building is in recovery, the staff still shellshocked, areas still being rebuilt. Other patients in nearby wards have complex stories behind their reasons for being there. There’s an abundance of darkness to match that light.

In this combat-free RPG, you explore both realities as they intertwine and overlap, delving into patients’ lives and emotional backstories, and meet a vast, utterly lovely cast of deeply crafted characters.

I think it’s important to get To The Moon comparisons out of the way at the start. Shigihara worked on that splendid game’s music, and was clearly inspired by it in Rakuen’s inception, but beyond this the links are mostly incidental. Both certainly are about exploring people’s pasts on some level, and both are presented in RPGMaker meaning there’s that unavoidable look, but Rakuen is very much its own distinctive thing. If anything, it feels like a more fleshed out, more elaborate game than Ken Gao’s gorgeous tear-jerker.

RPGMaker is a restrictive engine, limited to a weeny 640×480, and only scaling up to fullscreen. Fortunately, Shigihara has ensured the game stands out in so many ways, crafting something really wonderful from its confining limits. The use of lovely close-up character art, and brilliantly bright and cheerful pixel backgrounds, immediately helps it to stand out from the Steam churn. And on top of that, the game is smart with some subtle nods in the design.

At the very start the game is displayed in a green-grey monochrome, echoing the look of early Gameboy RPGs. It’s a hospital ward, you’re playing a young boy (with no given name) who’s lying in bed, visited by a couple of other characters. And then someone switches the lights on and colour fills the room. And colour is so important here.

Character animations and movement are another crucial factor. They are implemented here with a deft hand, outreaching the limitations of the engine via some sublimely fun and daft rushing about. In fact, to pay it quite the compliment, at times I was reminded of the outstanding character movement in the Mario & Luigi RPG games. Lovely extra details are all over, like the moving sunbeams that shine across the land of Rakuen, or the gruesomely grim tones evoked during nightmarish sequences, making the engine far prettier or more adaptable than you might have realised it could be.

The result is the washed out, near-monochrome hospital that is suitably sombre, contrasted with the vivid and explosively colourful world of Rakuen, a huge and sprawling village that gradually opens up to you as you progress, replete with floating islands in the sky, elaborate underground cave networks, and the best tea shop you could ever imagine.

There is so much to celebrate here, and I want to start with what stood out the most: this is the only game I can think of that so prominently features a mum. Boy (as the game only ever refers to him) is accompanied for most of the game by his mother, the two of them exploring both the hospital and the world of Rakuen together. This has two enormous effects – firstly it puts a dynamic relationship at the centre of the story, the two able to chat at any point, Mom able to offer hints, and most importantly, chat to and argue with the game’s characters alongside you. Secondly, it dramatically changes how your approach understanding and interpreting the game’s use of fantasy. A child escaping to a fantasy world because of his internment is hardly original, but sharing that experience with an adult makes the questions you’ll be asking yourself far more interesting.

And questions you’ll ask, because there are equivalents to everyone you meet in the hospital in the fantasy world, sharing allegorical stories, with actions both physical and relational having an impact in both. The core of the game, after a bravely ordinary establishing first hour or so, is trying to understand the circumstances of the other patients on your hospital floor, via both their Earthly reality and their fantastical counterparts. So, for instance, there’s Tony, a grumpy old git in the room next to Boy’s, who rejects all visitors but peculiarly guards a delicate music box. In the other world he’s a miserable bear who regularly attacks the village to destroy things for the sake of it. At a certain point in the game you enter an extensive sequence where you explore Tony’s life, but predominantly as expressed by his bear-version, meeting his bear wife, raising their bear cubs. During these sections, one for each of the four main characters whose lives you investigate, the game so brilliantly intertwines fantasy and reality, jarringly jumping from one to another on occasion to great effect, pulling out the fantastical rug from under you at key moments.

And yes, bloody hell yes, I cried. I sobbed. And not just once. While my only real criticism of the game is that it’s perhaps a little too morbid at times, the emotional hits are deep and powerful, and only possible because of the phenomenal character work. Despite lasting around ten hours (it’s possible to finish faster, but there are lots of lovely hidden extras and collectable treats to keep you there for much longer), and despite such an enormous cast, characters are intricately woven and relatable, and I’ve come away feeling like I know so much that’s so meaningful about so many.

It is a bit too sad. There’s no getting away from that. The game tries to be about one-too-many sad things at once, just pushing its luck a little far. I can’t say what any of them are, as each is so smartly drip-dripped into the story as you progress, but I did end up thinking, “Hey, ok, come on – give them a break.” It never trips over into misery porn, it’s worth saying, and each topic is sensitively explored, but it’s definitely a lot to take on. Although it’s fair to argue that there are rarely happy reasons for anyone to be enduring a long-term hospital stay, it’s just that on top of that… well, I can’t say.

Shigihara’s being both French-American and Japanese is something that seems really apparent in the nature of the game. Japanese gaming influence is throughout, despite an often ambiguous setting – both Japanese and Western names and characters appear, and the mythology seems to stand with a foot in both regions too, reflecting both Japanese and Germanic folklore. The influence of many Eastern RPGs is very apparent, but so is that of ‘90s American point and click adventures. It’s a really splendid merging of cultures, reminding me of the extremely pleasing peculiarity of the Phoenix Wright games, where the ostensibly Japanese setting is made oblique and more immediately accessible by the Westernised writing and descriptions.

Musically, as you might hope from a game composer, it’s wonderful. Really wonderful. Some of the songs might not be to my particular tastes, but the background music is consistently brilliant and evocative.

The result is something enchanting. I haven’t felt so swept away by a world in so long, and was utterly compelled to explore it as deeply as I could. The game’s brutal sadness is absolutely countered by the infectiously cheerful silliness of so many of its fantasy characters, reminding me (and I realise this is oddly specific) of the lovely humour in Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime. What I’m saying is: it’s very funny. Very often. It’s an emotional rollercoaster.

I adore this. I am so frustrated that it’s very hard to convince people to pick up an RPGMaker game, so I’m also very relieved it has the To The Moon alumni tag that will hopefully convince people to grab it. Grab it you absolutely should. Yes, it’s maudlin in places, and yes, it’s undeniably a bit twee, but it earns the right to be by being just so good.

Rakuen is out now for Windows, Mac and Linux via Steam for £7/$10/€10.

From this site

29 Comments

  1. Erayos says:

    Just picked it up yesterday, going to play through it this very weekend. The fact you found it this good does fills me with the hope that it triggers all the right feelings, like To The Moon did for me, brb going to sweat from the eyes again.

  2. Gargamel330 says:

    I think the most important question is: does this compare favorably to Laura Shigihara’s seminal work, “There’s a Zombie on Your Lawn”?

  3. baseless_drivel says:

    Do people really rally against RPG Maker so strongly? I mean, sure, plenty of turds have been made with it, but the same can be said of Unreal Engine, Unity, or C or assembly language… but it’d be pretty stupid to say something “I don’t play games coded in assembly because Falcon 3.0 burned me so hard with its conventional memory requirements.”

    Likewise, sometimes the same people or game dev companies can turn out a crapper, but subsequently turn out something genius. Or more frequently, the opposite case.

    “Trion did great with their one, single game, Rift. I’ll totally shell out hundreds of dollars for ArcheAge.”

    Wait, I guess I answered my own question.

    • Chaoslord AJ says:

      I know several which are very good despite steam store being flooded with hundreds of cheap maker-garbage. There are even lots of good free ones like Vampires Dawn.
      The engine bothers me though. Games always exit on esc. Controls are unresponsive both on keyboard and gamepad and I simply can’t stand the clumsiness of it. Because of this any Zelda-like game made with RPG-maker automatically fails, only turn-based systems really work.
      Compare this to a similar engine like the stellar “Stardew Valley” one and the differences are night and day.

    • smeaa mario says:

      Back in the day, I played so many of those “turds” that I gradually grew hateful towards RPGMaker. Yeah, deep inside I always knew that the engine isn’t to blame. It was just that every ambitious teen with a fragment of an idea and their mothers had to make one game with it. And there were occasionally those true gems like Laxius Power (the original RPGMaker 2003 one, not those halfassed sequels that came much later), which gave you all the reasons you needed to not complain.

      Still, you can’t help but develop that kind of resentment when so much trash has been spoonfed to you, whereas you were simply excited about getting more and more of those sweet JRPG experiences, but all you got was garbage most of the time.

      Also I don’t see even the tiniest bit of appeal in RPGMaker when the game is a visual novel of sorts. After all this thing only works for a very specific type of game, just like the name itself suggests.

      • LessThanNothing says:

        Agreed – played so many “turds” that’s it’s hard to get excited about a game like this.

        It only takes one screenshot to tell where it came from. I doubt you can say that for another engine

    • malkav11 says:

      1) It’s a very limiting engine that produces often frustrating interaction so that even good games made with it are annoying to engage with. (I haven’t been able to bring myself to finish To The Moon, despite strong writing, because of RPG Maker’s annoyances.)
      2) There are a huge number of games made with it and it is nearly impossible to tell the vast majority of them apart at a glance, much less distinguish which are actually good, which seems to be a pretty small number.
      3) I don’t actually have any nostalgia for the style of JRPG that it makes.

  4. mgardner says:

    Sounds interesting, thanks for the recommendation. I find it humorous that you call it a “combat-free RPG” – it sounds like this has more in common with adventure games? I felt the same about To The Moon.

  5. clockworkrat says:

    Why is there an IV drip hooked up to an empty bed?

    • mgardner says:

      Homage to Theme Hospital Invisible Man?

    • Bent Wooden Spoon says:

      It’s plugged in to the phone.

      • clockworkrat says:

        That was going to be my next question. Bedside phone?

        • Saarlaender39 says:

          clockworkrat says:
          That was going to be my next question. Bedside phone?
          ———————–
          Erm,..yes?
          Totally normal.
          (Well, here in Germany, at least)

          And to answer your initial question: the tube hangs over the bed’s railing.
          Maybe the patient has died (or just moved to another room for examination), and the IV drip has not been removed yet.

          The fact, that there is an IV drip doesn’t mean, it is still in use.

          After the bag is emptied, the thing can stand there for quite some time, before a nurse finds the time to take it away.

  6. Kefren says:

    To The Moon was a game I bought against my better wishes because it was praised so much here. I have no doubt it’s a good game that satisfies many people. That’s why I love computer games – something for everyone, enjoyment is subjective. But I gritted my teeth for an hour or so then uninstalled and decided to trust my feelings more in future before pressing buy. I’m really glad it had an effect on others though. And I’m not against games that tell a story with no monsters or shooting (I really liked Gone Home).

    • Nickburger says:

      I am in the same boat: Loved gone home and felt like I had wasted my time with To The Moon… but why?
      I wonder if it has something to do with the way the stories progress.
      In Gone Home you could more or less bluster through the house and “win” the game. You choose your level of engagement with the story.
      In To The Moon on the other hand, all your progress is gated by cutscenes intended to pull your heartstrings. For me, that the emotional connections feel forced.

  7. lancelot says:

    I was even somewhat vexed upon noticing how many of my favorite games live in the RPG Maker folder: OneShot (story-wise, the Solstice update simply blows Thimbleweed Park out of the water), Space Pilgrim, To the Moon, A Bird Story, and now perhaps Rakuen. Also Wanda: A Beautiful Apocalypse. And The Amber Throne is an RPG Maker game, even though I would have never guessed that.

    Re Rakuen, I’m having some worries about the amount of backtracking, the “Collect N items of type X” tasks, and the way it handles some interactions: Open the cabinet? Yes. Examine the shelves? Yes. You found a box, open it? Yes. Take what’s inside the box? FFS, YES. I hope those will remain just minor annoyances.

    And I’m going to be that guy and say that you forgot Yuki’s mom from Grandia III.

  8. ephesus64 says:

    I think I remember seeing an older project along with some of her independent compositions a long time ago. (Pause for google search) Yup, she has some music on bandcamp.com and I saw her personal website once while Melolune was being developed. I’m excited to see what she put together, the theme sounds interesting.

  9. YogSo says:

    this is the only game I can think of that so prominently features a mum

    I take you didn’t play Through the Woods, then?

  10. BTA says:

    You sold me, and then you mentioned Rocket Slime (which… has been on my mind a lot lately, particularly as I have a copy of the Japanese GBA game I want to try at some point), and now it’s rocketed up the list of things I want to play soon.

    • malkav11 says:

      I love that game unconditionally and am so sad there haven’t been any more translated into English. (At least, not officially. I don’t have my finger on the pulse of translation patches so I dunno about those.)

  11. Darth Gangrel says:

    Another “RPS Recommends” review in a short while and twice in a row by John Walker? What is the world coming to?

  12. Rath says:

    I googled the drugs listed in the treatment plan in The Boys’ room. Oh hell, why did I have to do that. I know he’s only a fictional sprite, but damn, that poor kid.

  13. BlankedyBlank says:

    Ey up John, it’s actually £6.99 – so £7 – on Steam.

  14. sonofsanta says:

    As well as an RPS Recommended badge, you should have a “Made John Cry” badge, because then I could buy these games without needing to know any more.

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