Laura Shigihara wants to make you cry with Rakuen

‘Jurassic Bark’ has nothing on Shigi

Generally speaking, hospitals are places that people want to avoid if they can. There’s no denying the necessity of these buildings, but it’s unsettling if you really stop and think about how much disease and death occurs inside them every day. The discomfort everyone experiences when they walk through the doors makes them the perfect setting for horror games, but you don’t often see an exploration of the space in other genres. 

Rakuen, out today, is unusual in that it utilizes a hospital setting as a backdrop for a very different kind of game. It’s clearly a personal story for the developer and publisher, Laura Shigihara, best known as the voice of the Sunflower in Plants Vs. Zombies and for her vocal work in games like To the Moon and Cosmic Star Heroine. Rakuen is relentlessly cute, but there’s always a hidden edge, like a stiletto concealed inside a Hello Kitty doll. It’s like nothing I’ve ever played before, and I’m still trying to decide whether it’s genuinely heartrending or just maudlin and manipulative.

Rakuen (PC, Mac, Linux)
Developer: Laura Shigihara
Publisher: Laura Shigihara 
Release Date: May 10, 2017
MSRP: $9.99

Rakuen is an adventure game with the look of a 2D Japanese role-playing game, albeit one that doesn’t conform to the tropes of the genre. There are no levels, no statistics, no combat of any kind. Instead, you progress by solving simple puzzles and collecting materials and tools to bypass obstacles in two parallel worlds. Early on, the unnamed protagonist discovers that he can travel between the real-world hospital he lives in and a fantasy world described in his favorite storybook. He soon finds that everyone he knows from the hospital has an analog in the fantasy world, and that the connections between the two settings mean that their personalities and problems carry over. Our hero knows from his book that he can ask for a single wish from the forest’s protector, but it must first be awakened by solving problems for other characters who exist in both locations.

One of Rakuen‘s strengths is the diverse cast of people and personas you interact with. Each major character has a unique sprite and portrait for their speaking parts, and it’s interesting to see the boy’s interpretation of his hospital neighbors. A grumpy old man in one world is depicted as a literal talking bear in the other, for example. The X-ray technician with a mechanical bent has the same name as the fantasy town’s blacksmith. It’s a bit like The Wizard of Oz or Neverending Story, and it can be interesting trying to figure out how altering something in one world will affect it in the other.

The story is the main reason to play Rakuen since there’s not much challenge to the gameplay. As I mentioned before, it frequently gets very dark, though the presentation is always cheerful. One section later in the game absolutely wrecked me, when I was exploring the relationship between a woman and her husband, who suffers from a degenerative brain disease. I watched my grandfather succumb to Alzheimer’s disease a few years ago, and the depiction in Rakuen brought it all right back to the surface. Each of the vignette’s conclusions has a bittersweet ending, but there’s no amount of sugarcoating that can disguise the fact that hospitals are where many people go to die.

Rakuen took four years to make, and there are in game ties to some real-world incidents. The 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami were fresh on Shigihara’s mind when development began, and it gradually becomes clear that the hospital and all the people within it were affected by those events. The resultant disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant is likewise explored, as are other real-world issues, such as latent racism that still exists between Japan and Korea.

As you’d probably expect, Rakuen has an excellent soundtrack. The main town theme in the fantasy world reminded me of some of my favorite tracks in Chrono Cross, and the main quest requires you to unlock parts of a song, similar to Ness’s mission in Earthbound. What you might not expect is the quality of the pixel art, much of which was drawn by Shigihara herself. She worked with two other artists, Emmy Toyonaga and Matt Holmberg, to bring the game to completion. There are some neat things done with lighting, and even though everything is tile-based, there’s an awful lot of different environments and individuals that all have unique sprites. Many of the fantasy world’s lesser characters are anthropomorphic plants, possibly a nod to Shigihara’s breakout role as the singing sunflower.

Good as the art is, I was unpleasantly surprised to find that Rakuen doesn’t allow you to set your own resolution. It’s locked to 640×480, so your choices are to play it in a tiny window or fullscreen, stretching it out to whatever dimensions your monitor is set to. I opted to manually change the resolution of my monitor so that the pixels wouldn’t get stretched, but this was a kludgy solution at best. It’s a shame there’s no easy way to play it in fullscreen with blank space on the sides, because the artwork really is lovely.

There are a few other minor issues I ran into. It takes quite a while to leave the hospital setting, so the first forty minutes or so are spent in one of the most drab environments Rakuen has to offer. The main character can only move at one pace, and I found myself wishing frequently for a run button. I also found that in larger areas like the Leeble village, the screen didn’t scroll smoothly, stuttering a bit as I moved past the edge of the rendered environment. The story is quite linear and reliant on fetch quests, and it’s often impossible to progress until you’ve found every single doodad in a specific area. 

I have certain games and series I go to when I want to feel a specific emotion. The God of War series takes me to my angry place, and Burnout‘s always been great for when I want to get my heart rate up. Rakuen is the first game I’ve experienced that genuinely made me feel wistful and sad. I just think it might err by trying a little too hard to jerk out tears. There’s a fine line between pathos and parody, and Rakuen crosses it more than once. It can’t quite seem to decide whether it wants to act as an unflinching look at the end of life, or wants to try to soften the blow. If you want to feel things and cry manly tears, Rakuen might be the game for you. I don’t regret my time with it, but I have no intentions to start a second playthrough anytime soon.

[This impression was based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher. Dale North, former Editor-in-Chief of Destructoid, composed and performed music for Rakuen. The author has never worked directly with Dale. As always, no relationships were factored into this article.]

About The Author
Kevin McClusky
I'm a longtime member of Destructoid, and you may have known me in a prior life as Qalamari. In other words, hi. I've been here a long time. There's a good chance I'm older than you. I write freelance articles for other publications, so you might see my name elsewhere occasionally. Disclosure: I wrote a paid testimonial for the Speedify VPN service in April 2017.
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