"Clannad doesn't break any new ground, but it's an excellent example of how great the genre can be."
When I write reviews for different visual novels, I often feel like I'm covering the same ground. I write about the same sort of characters in the same sort of settings that feature completely identical gameplay. In these respects, Clannad doesn't break any new ground, but it's still an excellent example of how great the genre can be.
The story puts you in the role of high-school student Tomoya Okazaki, allowing you to experience his ordinary, everyday life. As you would expect from a visual novel, the game is focused on reading text, making choices, and ultimately developing a relationship with one of the main female characters. There are five heroines, though other minor characters have their own stories and paths to go down as well.
There's a ton of content, and the game will likely take you a minimum of 30-40 hours to read if you plan to see it through. Each path has dozens of dialogue choices, which is fantastic for replay value and lets you feel involved in how the tale plays out. Unlike many visual novels, each path is distinctly different, and on some I didn't even encounter other main characters. And, of course, you can skip through any text you've read previously (though the Skip button uses colours that makes it hard to tell when it can or cannot be used). It's well-written too, and rarely did I feel bogged down in tiring and unnecessary exposition — something most games in the genre struggle with.
The lead female cast are all likeable and manage to avoid relying on genre stereotypes. While they do have characteristics that match well-known clichés, such as the tsundere
or sickly girl in need of protection, they develop beyond that and their true personalities emerge as you spend more time with them. Tomoyo, a tough young woman who is known for physically putting delinquents and bullies in their place, is perhaps the most interesting.
The girls' paths all have emotionally touching stories, as you'd expect from the romance/slice-of-life genre. If you've played visual novels in this sub-genre extensively, then there's little that you won't have seen before. Fortunately, Clannad executes this style of story superbly, and it's a continually enjoyable/heart-wrenching read. On the other hand, paths that deal with secondary characters, such as Tomoya's best friend Sunohara and his younger sister Mei, are full of laughs, but struggle to remain compelling.
But, as you would hope, the game's main heroine, Nagisa, steals the spotlight. The shy, insecure young girl is simply adorable. Whether it's her love of the horribly outdated Dango Family mascots or her desire to eat sweet bean bread, you can't help but love her. Her family is just as endearing: her bad-mouthed but doting father and her sensitive mother make an awesome team as a married couple, and as you may have guessed from the game's name (Clannad is the Gaelic word for family), every path in the game focuses on familial relationships. I was hooked once the story got going.
And Clannad does take some time to really get into the main story. Expect to spend a good 5-10 hours reading before anything really happens. While most of the game takes place in the "School Arc," a final addition to the tale called the "After Story" can be unlocked once you see enough paths through. The After Story is exclusively focused on Nagisa, and takes place across the next stage of her and Tomoya's lives together. Though the rest of the game is certainly enjoyable, it's this part of the story where Clannad truly excels.
If you have even one sensitive bone in your body, you will cry your way through Nagisa and Tomoya's final story. It's horribly heartbreaking, but you won't be able to look away. It's a pity you have to play through School Arc endings other than Nagisa's to reach it, but if you're patient, it's worth it. Its emotionally-charged end will wipe away any boredom you encountered earlier on.
Visually, it's evident that Clannad is a decade old. The character art and backgrounds are passable, but starting to show their age. The character portraits are quite large too, and I felt like they were constantly in my face during dialogue. There weren't enough visuals, either. Often, minor characters would speak with no portrait, or I found myself wishing I could see what was being described in action.
The delicate music blends are lovely, though somewhat overused, and the voice acting is generally solid. I played the more recently released Full Voice version, which includes voiceovers for every line of spoken dialogue, excluding Tomoya. You can turn off particular voices without muting others through the options, too, if you wish.
If you're looking for an all-ages visual novel to import and are a fan of the romance genre, then Clannad's a safe bet. It doesn't do anything new, but its cast of appealing characters and heart-wrenching stories make it a mostly enjoyable play. For lovers of romance, it's a good entry point to the genre too; there's no raunchy stuff, and innuendo is minimal. It's actually a bit too
long though, and some of the less interesting side-paths could have been cut, but if you can make it through to the After Story, then you're in for a treat. We can only hope it might see official translation one day.