Mr. Saitou (2023)
Developer: Laura Shigihara
Content Warning: This game contains references to suicide and self-harm. In order to review the game's story I will be touching on some of these topics.
More than four years ago, I stumbled upon a little indie game named Rakuen and fell in love with it. I had such strong feelings about this game that I came up with the idea of Sleepy Toadstool, a place for me to write about beautiful and interesting indie games. It only makes sense that I had to immediately play and review the next game from the developer, also set in the Rakuen universe. Mr. Saitou is a cute and colorful story about a white-collar worker who is whisked away on a fantasy adventure to find joy in life once again. Mr. Saitou is beautifully crafted, telling a very heavy and impactful story that still leaves the player with a feeling of hope and compassion.
Mr. Saitou starts by showing us scenes from the life of the titular character, Mr. Saitou. He rides the train to work at his office job as he stares off into the distance, he works late at the office until the sun has gone down, then he drinks until he passes out. We see him stumbling through the train station to get home, then suddenly, we find ourselves in a hospital with Mr. Saitou resting on a bed. An outgoing little boy named Brandon shows up in Mr. Saitou's hospital room and tries to get to know him. Brandon shows Mr. Saitou his drawings of creatures called "llamaworms", and he decides to name all of them Saitou. Some time later, Mr. Saitou awakens from his sleep and he's suddenly at work, about to give a presentation - except he's not a human, but a llamaworm named Saitou. His life seems to be the same as it was in reality, but all his coworkers are also llamaworms named Saitou and everything seems a little sillier. In this world, Saitou meets Brandon again, who is a little pink flower bud now. Brandon convinces Saitou to take him on an adventure to see the Flooded Gemstone Caverns, his "dream place" to go see.
The art style in Mr. Saitou is a really beautiful, colorful, and fun pixel art style. It seems upgraded from its predecessor in some ways, like the opening scene where we see a beautiful landscape of a Japanese skyline in a pink hue. However, because much of the story takes place inside caves, we miss a lot of the sunny, lush environments we got to experience in Rakuen. I wish there had been a bigger variety of environments, but areas like the Minimori pedestal forest were able to show off the excellent art style. The music, as to be expected from Laura Shigihara, is a solid 10/10. I only wish that the soundtrack had more vocal tracks, especially a heartfelt emotional songs, as that's what she does best. There's a lot of really fun songs though, and it's a cute upbeat listen for sure.
Mr. Saitou had a series of puzzles to solve in order to achieve Brandon's mission. As much as I liked the lore behind why the puzzles were the way that they were, I really wish they'd been a bit more challenging. The same logic applied to all of them, so if you could solve the first one the next ones were pretty much a given. This was surprising to me, as Rakuen actually had some tough puzzles that I actually got stuck on for a while. Your goal is to take the funny little birds creatures (Minimori and Megamori) back to the pedestal area, but most of the time it just felt a little tedious to go back and forth carrying them through the caves. I feel like there could've been a more interesting and challenging way to achieve this purpose. However, I did appreciate that the game had a few additional fun things to look for after I beat it to do in order to get all of the achievements. They were all very attainable and logical, but still required me to go out of my way and play a little while longer after beating the game and pay closer attention to the environment.
The characters in Mr. Saitou were absolutely delightful and put a smile to my face. It's just perfectly goofy that there's so many characters who are all named Saitou. We also get to see a return of familiar characters from Rakuen and therefore get to know a little more about them. Despite the adorable and wholesome world, Mr. Saitou is also a painful and emotional story that players should go into prepared. For the most part, I think the game does a good job of balancing the silly world with the more serious underlying theme. There was a brief moment where the game had a slightly spooky and dark part to get through, but it didn't linger on it as much as I thought it would. I think the game could have been more impactful if we had seen more of Mr. Saitou's "personal demons" to help us get to know him a little better. If you're at all familiar with work culture in Japan, you likely know what it means to be a "salaryman". It's common for them to work until late at the office, drink with coworkers after work, and have little to no social lives. It's a serious problem, with many workers either taking their own life, dying from overwork (karoshi), or choosing to disappear and leave their life behind (johatsu). I think it's great that this game brings attention to it, showing us that many people at Saitou's job also feel crushed under the unrelenting stress.
Mr. Saitou is a short, cute adventure, but even in its short playtime it manages to be impactful and emotional. It's a game you can finish in one sitting, but you should enjoy taking your time with. It hits on a very real issue and can perhaps feel relatable to anyone who feels overwhelmed by the daily grind under capitalism. I think it could have done more with gameplay, but regardless it created a preciously memorable world and story. I would recommend it if you enjoyed Rakuen, as it doesn't explicitly reference the story but it uses a lot of the same characters and world.
Mr. Saitou is available on PC (standalone) and on Switch (through Rakuen Deluxe Edition)
Played on: PC (Steam Deck)
Playtime: 3 hrs