John: I honestly wasn’t sure which way it was going to go. A first-time developer, even if that developer was Laura Shigihara, she behind many great gaming songs and soundtracks. An RPG Maker game in a gaming world drowning in RPG Maker games, despite stunning names like OneShot. And a game that, despite not having any meaningful overlap, felt like it was being released in the shadow of Kan Gao’s To The Moon.
But Rakuen was better than anything I was hoping for. A wonderfully beautiful and emotional tale of a young boy (mostly known as “Boy”) and his mother, who escapes the fear and sadness of his extended hospital stay by escaping into a magical world. A game exploring life and death, fear and love, and in a way that no other game has ever come close to, the relationship between a child and his mother.
It’s also about an awful lot of things that it doesn’t make clear for a good long while – things I therefore won’t reveal either. But weighty subjects that you’d not be expecting, approached in gentle, intelligent ways. The game is metaphor laid upon metaphor, its central conceit of switching between a hospital and a magical fantasy land much more complicated than that fairly standard fare suggests. It’s not nearly so simple as one being real, the other imaginary.
As you journey, you solve puzzles and perform deeds in both realities to explore the lives of the other patients on your character’s floor of the hospital. If anything, it’s here that the game slightly overlaps with To The Moon, where it’s mature enough to understand that people’s lives are messy and complex. That someone isn’t grumpy because of a sad thing in their past, or whatever else your standard game plot might use as a pretense at depth. There’s more to it, people are multifaceted. And throughout, through every moment, is the fear, the question, the nagging, niggling, incessant worry in your mind, that you just don’t know why the boy you’re playing is in hospital, and you just can’t bear to think about it too much, not now, not for this bit, maybe later.
It’s the relationship with Boy’s mother, Mom, where the game is at its very best. It’s a portrayal of real, unhyperbolic maternal love that feels so honest and raw and huge and ordinary. And it’s not incidental, either. Mom accompanies Boy for most of the adventure, there to provide colour commentary, and sometimes hints, but most of all, to – you know – be this little boy’s mummy. A dynamic relationship at the heart of a game is so ludicrously rare, and Rakuen is a template for everyone else to follow.
This is a game that features no combat, but packs so many punches. Will you cry? Bloody hell, yes, you will cry. Through tears I found myself, out loud, begging the screen not to let the plot go in one particular direction. In fact, my only criticism was that it perhaps pushes toward sadness a little too often. I was emotionally exhausted by the end, and I think a little more light could have shone in some places. But saying that, it’s often very funny too, and there are some absolutely hilarious characters. When I reviewed it, I made the obscurest of references, comparing its humour to that of Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime. I repeat it now.
And because it’s a Shigihara game, of course there are songs. Lovely songs, and even lovelier background compositions. The whole thing is something exceptional, and unlike anything else you played in 2017. There are so many layers, so much more going on than you might guess, and characters you’ll feel like you actually know by the end. It’s completely marvellous, and you’ll thank me once you’ve played it.