It doesn’t take much for a game to make me cry. Heartfelt goodbyes, declarations of love, poignant scenes with dogs—if a game has any of these, pass the Kleenex. It goes without saying that if a beloved character dies, I’ll be a wreck. Frankly, I like it that way. The more tears I shed, the more I like the game… usually.
Strictly judging by number of Kleenex used, Rakuen should be my pick for game of the year. And it’s not only a tearjerker—this fantasy adventure from first-time developer Laura Shigihara also made me smile a lot. Rakuen is a lovingly crafted indie game with a touching premise and great music, but aspects of it left me dissatisfied. When I try to articulate what I didn’t like about it, though, I feel like a horrible person. How can you criticize a game about a boy dying in the hospital?! Buckle your seatbelts, we’re about to find out.
In Rakuen, you play as a curious, unnamed Boy suffering from a serious illness that’s hinted at but never outright stated. He’s sharing a hospital floor with a comatose woman whose husband won’t leave her side, an angry old man who never has visitors, a man suffering from dementia, and a bedridden girl who desperately misses her best friend. During his hospital stay, the Boy’s mother has been reading to him from "Rakuen", a fantasy book about a young warrior who returns home to Morizora Forest to find his entire tribe has disappeared. The warrior goes to the spirit Morizora to ask for a wish: to ride Morizora’s enchanted boat to the paradise world of Rakuen, so he can rejoin his people.
As it turns out, this is more than a comforting bedtime story. Morizora Forest is a real place populated by cat-like creatures called Leebles, and there happens to be a portal to this fantasy world inside the hospital. Once the Boy finds the portal, he’s able to travel between the bleak hospital and cheerful fantasyland of Morizora Forest, where his fellow patients all have doppelgangers among the Leebles. By helping these fantasy people, he provides closure for their human counterparts and helps them find peace. The idea that he’d help them “just because” is consistent with the Boy’s optimistic and friendly personality, but this altruism isn’t totally selfless—ultimately, he hopes to wake up the sleeping spirit Morizora so he’ll be granted a wish for his trouble.
Rakuen has a lot of surface similarities to another pass-the-Kleenex game, To the Moon. Both were made with the RPG Maker engine, with an aesthetic reminiscent of a 16-bit Japanese role-playing game (JRPG). Both stories require uncovering past regrets to resolve present conflicts, with lives hanging in the balance. Music also plays a central role in both games—in fact, as the composer and singer of To the Moon’s main theme, Laura Shigihara’s contribution was one of that game’s strengths. So comparisons between the two are inevitable, and as much as I’ve tried to approach Rakuen objectively, I can’t dispute that one of my disappointments is that I didn’t like it as much as To the Moon. That’s certainly a bias on my part, but I can’t separate it from my impressions.
One major difference between the two games is that while To the Moon is primarily story-driven, Rakuen is full of real, adventure game-style puzzles. My initial playthrough took almost eight hours, and the puzzles had a lot to do with this. The problem is, the bulk of Rakuen’s puzzles just aren’t very interesting. There are an awful lot of fetch quests, crate pushing to get into blocked-off areas, and flipping of switches to drain or fill waterways preventing access to an item you need. I’d expect such bare-bones puzzles in a JRPG’s side quests, but in a role-playing game those side quests would take a backseat to combat. Here the puzzles make up most of the gameplay. They pad the game length’s rather than move the story forward, and much of the time I was anxious to get them over with. I gladly would have sacrificed 50% of Rakuen’s playtime for a tighter, more story-focused experience.
My impatience likely stems from the fact that Rakuen’s puzzles stand in the way of narrative progression—you need to get past a locked door to reach whatever’s behind it or ingratiate yourself to another character before they’ll give you the time of day, but the puzzles themselves rarely relate to the main story thread. For example, in one long sequence early in the game, you enter a cave with the goal of asking the spirit Morizora to grant you a wish. This goal is soon thwarted when, in the cave’s first room, you learn that the Leeble blacksmith has been separated from his tools. The tools are in a locked chest on the very same screen where you find him—you can see them from where you’re standing—but they’re unreachable due to water that has flooded the room. The blacksmith tells you that if you drain the water to reunite him with his tools, he’ll make you something you need to get through a blocked door to reach Morizora. Draining the water requires flipping two switches that are relatively nearby to the starting point, but you can only bypass the obstacles preventing you from reaching them by exploring the (rather large) cave and solving numerous little puzzles inside it.
In a sense, this setup is very adventure gamey. Traveling down a large puzzle chain only to open a locked door is something I’ve done in more adventures than I can count. But in Rakuen this sort of puzzle logic really frustrated me—possibly because I went into the game with the wrong expectations. I was eager to move on with the story and instead had to do a lot of arbitrary puzzle-solving to reach something I could plainly see all along. And then, frustratingly, during important story moments you often sit back and watch as things happen on their own. In other words, solving puzzles unblocks the path so you can proceed to watch something happen, rather than the puzzle solution causing the something to happen. Being blocked by puzzles feels different than solving puzzles to unlock story progression, especially in a game of this length. Cumulatively, they wore me down.Continued on the next page...