New platform, same great taste
As someone who spent much of the late 2000s deep in the RPG Maker community, I can’t believe how far the engine has come. RPG Maker is typically associated with low-quality Final Fantasy knockoffs, but funny enough, it’s the non-RPGs that became breakout hits. To The Moon set the stage for narrative RPG Maker games that are worth both time and money, and Laura Shigihara’s Rakuen follows in that proud tradition. Given Shigihara’s involvement with the former project, this shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Of course, this is old news by now. Rakuen originally released in 2017 to critical acclaim from fans and critics alike. Sporting an Overwhelmingly Positive consensus on Steam, words like “beautiful” and “masterpiece” typically describe this title in reviews. Now, nearly six years later, Rakuen is receiving a second wind with a Nintendo Switch port. Labeled Deluxe Edition, it combines the entirety of Rakuen with a couple of animated shorts and the brand-new game Mr. Saitou. The good news is that Rakuen is fantastic, and I was happy to finally experience this wonderful story. As for the new features that make this a “Deluxe Edition,” well… they certainly exist.
Rakuen Deluxe Edition (PC, Nintendo Switch [reviewed])
Developer: Laura Shigihara
Publisher: Morizora Studios
Release: March 23rd, 2023 (Deluxe Edition)
Rakuen is a simple adventure game about a boy in a hospital called Boy. Textboxes literally address him as Boy, so I’m not being too cheeky here. The name Rakuen is derived from Boy’s favorite book, which his mother (referred to strictly as Mom) frequently reads to him. Shortly after the introductory sequence, Mom insists that the world inside of Rakuen is real, and they journey from the walls of the hospital to the fantasy realm for themselves.
It’s here that the core plot is laid out: Boy has a wish that only the forest guardian inside the book can grant. However, in order for the guardian to grant this wish, Boy must help the other residents of the hospital with their own personal traumas and heartaches. Conveniently, these characters exist in both the real world and the fantasy land that Boy and Mom explore. This allows the game to explore gravely serious subjects through a childlike perspective that helps soften the cold reality at the center of the story.
Rakuen deliberately blurs the line between imagination and reality, and it’s up to the player to determine where one realm ends and the other begins. The main plot takes a backseat for most of the adventure, with subtle clues scattered beneath the episodic stories that point towards how the tale will ultimately end. This approach serves Rakuen well overall. It’s not terribly difficult to figure out plot threads well before they happen, but the major story arcs of the game are told well enough to still hit hard even if you know they’re coming. Make no mistake; Rakuen is a tearjerker. This is a game best played by someone ready to cry throughout its duration, even if the journey between those big emotional moments doesn’t always hit.
Everything, everywhere, not all at once
If I had to describe the tone of Rakuen in one word, it would be “yes.”
The narrative freely oscillates between quirky humor, heartfelt drama, and even horror when necessary. My biggest misgiving with Rakuen is that its comedy is only okay most of the time. There are so many gags that just land weakly, often using Boy’s shocked face as a punchline over an actual joke. Don’t get me wrong, I love quirky humor as much as anyone. But many of Rakuen‘s lighter moments last a few lines too long and lack direction, as if Shigihara is riffing off the top of her head for filler to break up the drama.
Fortunately, there are bits that genuinely charm me and get a laugh. There’s a section involving a tea party that has some fantastic visual gags, bolstered by sharper writing that spends less time meandering around its jokes. As much as I enjoyed this section, it makes the comedy that came before it seem all the more aimless in comparison.
Conversely, the dramatic beats at the center of the episodic story arcs in Rakuen are universally great. Not only are the characters lovable and sympathetic, but their conflicts portray real-world trauma with devastating precision. As somebody who spent the majority of the COVID-19 pandemic caring for a person with a condition mirroring one found in the game, I needed a minute to get through his story’s ending because of how true to life it was. Every tale in Rakuen is treated with respect and impeccable attention to detail, and the filler comedy becomes more infrequent as the plot progresses. I only wish the script received another round of polish to push it closer to this level of quality throughout its duration.
Oh right, it’s a game
I’ve focused on writing until now because that’s overwhelmingly the main draw of Rakuen. It’s luckily fun to play too, if not a bit inconsistent.
For the first five hours, Rakuen does an admirable job of breaking up its plot arcs with adventure game elements. There’s a decent amount to explore with light secrets to uncover, which adds a great sense of progression. Boy and Mom will often find themselves in puzzle-based dungeons that are both fun on their own merits and award key items to unlock new areas. If you stretched the comparison paper thin, you might say it’s a bit like a Zelda game.
There are a few obstacles that, for lack of a better term, feel very RPG Maker. These include hostile NPCs with predictable movement patterns and block-pushing puzzles, both of which are easy-to-code conflicts that inevitably pop up in any title made with the engine. This luckily won’t mean anything to the vast majority of players, but anyone who has played many RPG Maker games will find these bits grating.
At its best, Rakuen does a great job weaving its level design into its already strong narrative. There’s one particular area involving a bear family (trust me, it makes sense in the game) that especially stands out. The puzzles are engaging, and the exploration subtly builds up the story like a good mystery. Unfortunately, shortly after this moment, Rakuen just…kind of gives up on gameplay. Puzzles are almost completely dropped as plot threads appear in rapid succession, largely forgoing this cohesion of gameplay and story that was just hitting its stride. I strongly got the impression that Shigihara just wanted the project to be done already after a certain point, though fortunately the significant story moments never drop in quality.
This leads to some bizarre pacing issues. Early plots feel like they drag at times, and the later plots go by too fast. This isn’t a major issue, it’s just jarring to watch how fast the back half of the story resolves.
Hey, wanna listen to some tunes?
If there’s one element of Rakuen that is consistently excellent, it’s the music.
You can tell Laura Shigihara put all her heart and soul into the soundtrack. There aren’t any energetic bangers necessarily, but each track seamlessly enhances Rakuen’s atmosphere. The songs in the fantasy world evoke classic SNES RPGs, driving home feelings of whimsy to encourage exploration. When the game wants to be tense, the music puts in overtime to create more unease than the relatively basic 2D graphics ever could. Rakuen’s several vocal tracks especially deserve accolades, as they’re universally poignant and lead to some of the game’s most powerful moments. I could frankly summarize the game by saying when Shigihara and friends start singing, I start crying.
Shigihara has generously uploaded the entire soundtrack to YouTube, but I recommend experiencing these tracks in context as much as possible. The music is tied deeply to the story, similar to “The Ballad of the Wind Fish” in Link’s Awakening. I don’t mean to downplay the clear effort put into the visual presentation, as there is some genuinely nice eye candy here. But to experience the best parts of this game, I highly recommend playing this one with headphones.
And now, a Mr. Saitou review
From the outside looking in, Rakuen may only look like a piece of the content available in Rakuen Deluxe Edition. The package also includes Mr. Saitou, which Shigihara herself calls “The next installment in the Rakuen universe.” I wrote some early impressions on Mr. Saitou during the February 2023 Steam Next Fest, so check those out here if you’d like a more detailed overview of the game. Unfortunately, for anyone who anticipated Mr. Saitou as a proper sequel to Rakuen, I hate to say you’re going to be disappointed.
To kick off with a positive, I love how Mr. Saitou focuses on its core characters. Boy and Mom spend most of Rakuen as passive observers and feature little development outside of the game’s beginning and end. Conversely, the titular Mr. Saitou and his eventual companion Brandon take center stage in their respective adventure. The dynamic between the two is incredibly wholesome and fits the atmosphere of Rakuen to a tee.
Unfortunately, Mr. Saitou otherwise forgoes the strengths of Rakuen and instead doubles down on quirky humor. Credit where credit’s due, there are more visual gags here that land better than the average Rakuen joke. There are also punchlines that veer into painfully unfunny territory. Look, I can shrug off a bad joke or a terribly out-of-date reference. Lord knows I’ve made plenty of those myself. The problem is that Mr. Saitou never hits any heartfelt highs that made Rakuen so special. You’ll find an emotional hook buried here, but it’s almost treated like an afterthought by the game’s conclusion. I’m okay with Mr. Saitou going in a different direction than Rakuen, it just doesn’t stick the landing.
New game nonplussed
Exacerbating Mr. Saitou’s issues is its rudimentary gameplay. Rakuen didn’t have a consistent stream of winners in its puzzle design, but there was at least a mix of decent brainteasers and basic challenges. Mr. Saitou, on the other hand, is only basic challenges. You got your standard RPG Maker block-pushing puzzles, and you have a running gimmick of math puzzles that Mr. Saitou absolutely runs into the ground. Also, there’s weirdly a lot of mandatory backtracking throughout the game. The slow walking speed in Rakuen was already problematic, but the sections in Mr. Saitou that literally consist of carrying things from point A to point B exacerbate the issue.
To be clear, I don’t think Mr. Saitou is unpleasant to play. It just doesn’t live up to the tone set by its predecessor or its own trailer. Even after searching every nook and cranny, Mr. Saitou took me less than two hours to finish. It’s not underwhelming because it’s short, it’s underwhelming because there’s so little to it. While I did enjoy seeing the quirky fantasy characters of Rakuen appear again, these were never the main draw of the original. That said, if Rakuen was your favorite game of the past six years, I suppose Mr. Saitou is good enough as a novelty.
I will say that Mr. Saitou works okay as a supplemental experience. There are genuine visual spectacles here, including one very fun sequence that I imagine will get a ton of hits on YouTube. With how heavy and heart-wrenching Rakuen is, Mr. Saitou offers a wholesome story to cool down with after your journey’s end. Its presence doesn’t make Rakuen Deluxe Edition worse, but you aren’t missing much by skipping it.
Racking up features
Eagle-eyed fans may take umbrage with Rakuen referred to as an RPG Maker game. One of the major changes in this release is the new engine that allows the game to even run on the Switch. Since this is my first time with Rakuen, I can’t tell you specifically what has or hasn’t changed. However, having had experience with RPG Maker XP, I can say Deluxe Edition still feels like an RPG Maker game. The menus and performance all perfectly mirror the engine, for better or for worse. I’m sure this change is significant for the game’s development, but it doesn’t notably impact the end product.
The only other major addition to cover in Deluxe Edition are a few animated shorts called Farmer in the Sky. Much like Mr. Saitou, these are merely fine. I can appreciate the novelty of seeing the characters rendered in 3D, but the shorts themselves feel like pilots for something that never took off. They’re decently cute, and I’d imagine a young child could really enjoy these. Not that I’d want to devastate a young child with a heavy game like Rakuen, but I wouldn’t take parenting advice from a game review.
Fortunately, Rakuen on its own justifies the Deluxe Edition. Though a bit uneven, its best moments are spectacular enough to warrant a recommendation for anyone in need of a good cry or two. I do wish Mr. Saitou reached the same emotional heights, but it’s serviceable if viewed strictly as a bonus. That said, if you wanted to save money and get vanilla Rakuen on PC, I wouldn’t stop 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.]