New platform, identical nice style
As somebody who spent a lot of the late 2000s deep within the RPG Maker neighborhood, I can’t consider how far the engine has come. RPG Maker is usually related to low-quality Ultimate Fantasy knockoffs, however humorous sufficient, it’s the non-RPGs that grew to become breakout hits. To The Moon set the stage for narrative RPG Maker video games which might be value each money and time, and Laura Shigihara’s Rakuen follows in that proud custom. Given Shigihara’s involvement with the previous challenge, this shouldn’t come as a shock.
After all, that is outdated information by now. Rakuen initially launched in 2017 to important acclaim from followers and critics alike. Sporting an Overwhelmingly Constructive consensus on Steam, phrases like “stunning” and “masterpiece” sometimes describe this title in opinions. Now, practically six years later, Rakuen is receiving a second wind with a Nintendo Swap port. Labeled Deluxe Version, it combines the whole lot of Rakuen with a few animated shorts and the brand-new sport Mr. Saitou. The excellent news is that Rakuen is implausible, and I used to be joyful to lastly expertise this excellent story. As for the brand new options that make this a “Deluxe Version,” properly… they actually exist.
Rakuen Deluxe Version (PC, Nintendo Swap [reviewed])
Developer: Laura Shigihara
Writer: Morizora Studios
Launch: March twenty third, 2023 (Deluxe Version)
Rakuen is an easy journey sport a few boy in a hospital referred to as Boy. Textboxes actually tackle him as Boy, so I’m not being too cheeky right here. The title Rakuen is derived from Boy’s favourite e-book, which his mom (referred to strictly as Mother) incessantly reads to him. Shortly after the introductory sequence, Mother insists that the world within Rakuen is actual, they usually journey from the partitions of the hospital to the fantasy realm for themselves.
It’s right here that the core plot is laid out: Boy has a want that solely the forest guardian contained in the e-book can grant. Nonetheless, to ensure that the guardian to grant this want, Boy should assist the opposite residents of the hospital with their very own private traumas and heartaches. Conveniently, these characters exist in each the actual world and the fantasy land that Boy and Mother discover. This enables the sport to discover gravely severe topics via a childlike perspective that helps soften the chilly actuality on the heart of the story.
Rakuen intentionally blurs the road between creativeness and actuality, and it’s as much as the participant to find out the place one realm ends and the opposite begins. The principle plot takes a backseat for a lot of the journey, with delicate clues scattered beneath the episodic tales that time in direction of how the story will finally finish. This strategy serves Rakuen properly total. It’s not terribly troublesome to determine plot threads properly earlier than they occur, however the main story arcs of the sport are informed properly sufficient to nonetheless hit laborious even when they’re coming. Make no mistake; Rakuen is a tearjerker. This can be a sport finest performed by somebody able to cry all through its period, even when the journey between these huge emotional moments doesn’t at all times hit.
Every part, in all places, not
If I needed to describe the tone of Rakuen in a single phrase, it will be “sure.”
The narrative freely oscillates between quirky humor, heartfelt drama, and even horror when crucial. My greatest misgiving with Rakuen is that its comedy is just okay more often than not. There are such a lot of gags that simply land weakly, typically utilizing Boy’s shocked face as a punchline over an precise joke. Don’t get me unsuitable, I really like quirky humor as a lot as anybody. However lots of Rakuen‘s lighter moments final a number of traces too lengthy and lack route, as if Shigihara is riffing off the highest of her head for filler to interrupt up the drama.
Thankfully, there are bits that genuinely allure me and get fun. There’s a bit involving a tea occasion that has some implausible visible gags, bolstered by sharper writing that spends much less time meandering round its jokes. As a lot as I loved this part, it makes the comedy that got here earlier than it appear all of the extra aimless compared.
Conversely, the dramatic beats on the heart of the episodic story arcs in Rakuen are universally nice. Not solely are the characters lovable and sympathetic, however their conflicts painting real-world trauma with devastating precision. As any person who spent nearly all of the COVID-19 pandemic caring for an individual with a situation mirroring one discovered within the sport, I wanted a minute to get via his story’s ending due to how true to life it was. Each story in Rakuen is handled with respect and impeccable consideration to element, and the filler comedy turns into extra rare because the plot progresses. I solely want the script acquired one other spherical of polish to push it nearer to this degree of high quality all through its period.
Oh proper, it’s a sport
I’ve centered on writing till now as a result of that’s overwhelmingly the principle draw of Rakuen. It’s fortunately enjoyable to play too, if not a bit inconsistent.
For the primary 5 hours, Rakuen does an admirable job of breaking apart its plot arcs with journey sport components. There’s a good quantity to discover with mild secrets and techniques to uncover, which provides an important sense of development. Boy and Mother will typically discover themselves in puzzle-based dungeons which might be each enjoyable on their very own deserves and award key objects to unlock new areas. In the event you stretched the comparability paper skinny, you would possibly say it’s a bit like a Zelda sport.
There are a number of obstacles that, for lack of a greater time period, really feel very RPG Maker. These embrace hostile NPCs with predictable motion patterns and block-pushing puzzles, each of that are easy-to-code conflicts that inevitably pop up in any title made with the engine. This fortunately gained’t imply something to the overwhelming majority of gamers, however anybody who has performed many RPG Maker video games will discover these bits grating.
At its finest, Rakuen does an important job weaving its degree design into its already sturdy narrative. There’s one specific space involving a bear household (belief me, it is smart within the sport) that particularly stands out. The puzzles are participating, and the exploration subtly builds up the story like a great thriller. Sadly, shortly after this second, Rakuen simply…type of offers up on gameplay. Puzzles are virtually utterly dropped as plot threads seem in fast succession, largely forgoing this cohesion of gameplay and story that was simply hitting its stride. I strongly obtained the impression that Shigihara simply needed the challenge to be finished already after a sure level, although fortuitously the numerous story moments by no means drop in high quality.
This results in some weird pacing points. Early plots really feel like they drag at instances, and the later plots go by too quick. This isn’t a serious concern, it’s simply jarring to observe how briskly the again half of the story resolves.
Hey, wanna hearken to some tunes?
If there’s one aspect of Rakuen that is constantly wonderful, it’s the music.
You possibly can inform Laura Shigihara put all her coronary heart and soul into the soundtrack. There aren’t any energetic bangers essentially, however every observe seamlessly enhances Rakuen’s ambiance. The songs within the fantasy world evoke basic SNES RPGs, driving house emotions of caprice to encourage exploration. When the sport needs to be tense, the music places in extra time to create extra unease than the comparatively fundamental 2D graphics ever might. Rakuen’s a number of vocal tracks particularly deserve accolades, as they’re universally poignant and result in among the sport’s strongest moments. I might frankly summarize the sport by saying when Shigihara and associates begin singing, I begin crying.
Shigihara has generously uploaded the whole soundtrack to YouTube, however I like to recommend experiencing these tracks in context as a lot as doable. The music is tied deeply to the story, just like “The Ballad of the Wind Fish” in Hyperlink’s Awakening. I don’t imply to downplay the clear effort put into the visible presentation, as there may be some genuinely good eye sweet right here. However to expertise the perfect elements of this sport, I extremely suggest taking part in this one with headphones.
And now, a Mr. Saitou evaluate
From the surface wanting in, Rakuen could solely seem like a chunk of the content material out there in Rakuen Deluxe Version. The bundle additionally consists of Mr. Saitou, which Shigihara herself calls “The following installment within the Rakuen universe.” I wrote some early impressions on Mr. Saitou throughout the February 2023 Steam Subsequent Fest, so test these out right here in the event you’d like a extra detailed overview of the sport. Sadly, for anybody who anticipated Mr. Saitou as a correct sequel to Rakuen, I hate to say you’re going to be disenchanted.
To kick off with a constructive, I really like how Mr. Saitou focuses on its core characters. Boy and Mother spend most of Rakuen as passive observers and have little improvement outdoors of the sport’s starting and finish. Conversely, the titular Mr. Saitou and his eventual companion Brandon take heart stage of their respective journey. The dynamic between the 2 is extremely healthful and matches the ambiance of Rakuen to a tee.
Sadly, Mr. Saitou in any other case forgoes the strengths of Rakuen and as an alternative doubles down on quirky humor. Credit score the place credit score’s due, there are extra visible gags right here that land higher than the typical Rakuen joke. There are additionally punchlines that veer into painfully unfunny territory. Look, I can shrug off a nasty joke or a very out-of-date reference. Lord is aware of I’ve made loads of these myself. The issue is that Mr. Saitou by no means hits any heartfelt highs that made Rakuen so particular. You’ll discover an emotional hook buried right here, but it surely’s virtually handled like an afterthought by the sport’s conclusion. I’m okay with Mr. Saitou getting into a special route than Rakuen, it simply doesn’t stick the touchdown.
New sport nonplussed
Exacerbating Mr. Saitou’s points is its rudimentary gameplay. Rakuen didn’t have a constant stream of winners in its puzzle design, however there was not less than a mixture of respectable brainteasers and fundamental challenges. Mr. Saitou, then again, is solely fundamental challenges. You bought your normal RPG Maker block-pushing puzzles, and you’ve got a operating gimmick of math puzzles that Mr. Saitou completely runs into the bottom. Additionally, there’s weirdly loads of necessary backtracking all through the sport. The gradual strolling pace in Rakuen was already problematic, however the sections in Mr. Saitou that actually include carrying issues from level A to level B exacerbate the problem.
To be clear, I don’t suppose Mr. Saitou is disagreeable to play. It simply doesn’t dwell as much as the tone set by its predecessor or its personal trailer. Even after looking each nook and cranny, Mr. Saitou took me lower than two hours to complete. It’s not underwhelming as a result of it’s brief, it’s underwhelming as a result of there’s so little to it. Whereas I did take pleasure in seeing the quirky fantasy characters of Rakuen seem once more, these had been by no means the principle draw of the unique. That mentioned, if Rakuen was your favourite sport of the previous six years, I suppose Mr. Saitou is nice sufficient as a novelty.
I’ll say that Mr. Saitou works okay as a supplemental expertise. There are real visible spectacles right here, together with one very enjoyable sequence that I think about will get a ton of hits on YouTube. With how heavy and heart-wrenching Rakuen is, Mr. Saitou presents a healthful story to chill down with after your journey’s finish. Its presence doesn’t make Rakuen Deluxe Version worse, however you aren’t lacking a lot by skipping it.
Racking up options
Eagle-eyed followers could take umbrage with Rakuen known as an RPG Maker sport. One of many main adjustments on this launch is the brand new engine that enables the sport to even run on the Swap. Since that is my first time with Rakuen, I can’t let you know particularly what has or hasn’t modified. Nonetheless, having had expertise with RPG Maker XP, I can say Deluxe Version nonetheless seems like an RPG Maker sport. The menus and efficiency all completely mirror the engine, for higher or for worse. I’m positive this alteration is important for the sport’s improvement, but it surely doesn’t notably affect the top product.
The one different main addition to cowl in Deluxe Version are a number of animated shorts referred to as Farmer within the Sky. Very like Mr. Saitou, these are merely superb. I can admire the novelty of seeing the characters rendered in 3D, however the shorts themselves really feel like pilots for one thing that by no means took off. They’re decently cute, and I’d think about a younger youngster might actually take pleasure in these. Not that I’d wish to devastate a younger youngster with a heavy sport like Rakuen, however I wouldn’t take parenting recommendation from a sport evaluate.
Thankfully, Rakuen by itself justifies the Deluxe Version. Although a bit uneven, its finest moments are spectacular sufficient to warrant a suggestion for anybody in want of a great cry or two. I do want Mr. Saitou reached the identical emotional heights, but it surely’s serviceable if considered strictly as a bonus. That mentioned, in the event you needed to save cash and get vanilla Rakuen on PC, I wouldn’t cease you.
[This review was based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher. Dale North, former Editor-in-Chief of Destructoid, was involved in the creation of Rakuen. The author has never worked directly with Dale. As always, no relationships were factored into this article.]