Updated: Jan 25, 2019
Developer: Laura Shigihara
I had a couple expectations about this game just from the trailer and a bit of the soundtrack: I knew it was going to attempt to pull at my heartstrings and that it was going to be very cute. However, there's a lot I didn't expect. First of all, how haunting and lonesome this game feels at time. There were a couple hours of this game where I was on edge, discovering more and more layers of a very ominous and tragic story. Playing late into the night sometimes got to be too much for me in some areas. I also didn't expect I'd come upon really intriguing and challenging puzzles. This game really encourages deep exploration of every square inch, which I absolutely love when I'm given the freedom to, and encouraged to, do so. And, if you fail to inspect and read closely - you not only may not be able to move on, but you'll miss a big part of the story. I was pleasantly surprised with how much it challenged me and at some point kept notes of what I was coming across, with the intrigue of not knowing what would be important to remember and what wouldn't.
But most of all, this game emotionally wrecked me, in an amazing way. I'd heard about this game and I thought it would have a sad ending, sure. But I didn't know I'd spend the last hour and a half playing through tears. I couldn't stop playing at that point nor could I stop crying, the culmination of events made me want to keep searching for all the answers. However, it's not all "painful tragedy" - it's emotional because it tells such authentic stories and in a way, shows a lot of beauty even in the most difficult parts of life and of relationships to one another.
I am a huge sucker for storytelling through music, but I think I can say without my bias that the soundtrack is one of the best I've ever heard in a game. If you are familiar with Laura Shigihara's musical work (Plants vs. Zombies, To the Moon), you know she's a genius with a magical voice. This whole game, not just the music, is her creation. However, the soundtrack was clearly a priority - and it really pays off. I was floored by every song, especially the lyrical ones.
Lastly, the personality of this game was so perfectly cute and quirky and had me laughing at several points. It's innocent, but it's also got some surprising twists in the relationships you encounter within the characters. It's the kind of NPCs you want to go back to and talk to again.
I haven't covered every part of it that I loved, but all in all, I highly recommend this game. I can easily call it one of my favorite games of all time, and perhaps my favorite indie game so far. Even if you think games that are "emotional" are not for you, the journey it takes you is full of puzzles, exploration, and an exciting, colorful world.
Rakuen is available for PC.
Played on: PC (Steam)
Playtime: 10 hrs
How I heard about this game: Spotify recommended a song from the Rakuen soundtrack and I loved it so much I had to find the game
WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW THIS LINE
For those of you who have already played the game (or don't mind spoiling it), I'll talk about some specific parts of the game that really stood out to me.
During your journey to the magical world of Morizora, you help 4 different hospital residents to restore their broken relationships. You dive into memories and often even play as the characters themselves to overcome challenges. Each one is unique and heartwarming in its own way, but I have to say my favorite is Sue's. Sue references her best friend who she misses dearly, even before you get to her story. You spend most of the time wondering who this friend is, if they are alive, and if they are even real. When I learned it was Puchi, the most precious dog ever (okay, to me), it all clicked. I love that this dog was the friend and the support that Sue had come to count on, and this game didn't separate that friendship from the other powerful relationships that you help restore.
What makes it even better if when you get to explore the world as Puchi. You realize she was a stray, mistreated by most people and making friendships with other animals in the city. Despite all of the amazing interactions and stories you get to dive into, this takes the cake for my favorite part of the game. You literally gather up in a back alley with all the other street animals and have a feast together. Just so pure.
I'd say the most difficult part of this game is the puzzles that lie in the back of the hospital. Not only because they involve paying close attention to all the text and making some notes, but because, in my opinion, the dark and creepy mood in that area can almost be off-putting. I believe it did have to be this way for you to understand the darkness and tragedy that led to the current situations in this game, but it did manage to make me antsy. It's especially scary when you encounter Envoys, who likely represent a fear of death. As this is a game with no combat, there's no defending yourself from them, despite the fact that touching them does harm you, or at least make you start that room back over.