Reviewing and attaching a score to something like Rakuen feels strange — almost wrong. The argument for video games as art continues, with supporters and dissenters pointing to this game or that. Few can dispute, though, that Rakuen will be a standard-bearer for the “games are art” camp. While I stand firm that everything can be quantified and distilled into some measurement if done correctly, measuring the worth of Rakuen by numbers remains uncomfortable. I hope that the review that follows serves as a more meaningful recommendation than what the score to the right reflects.
Rakuen is about a young boy with stylish headgear who is part of a hospital community as a patient. Everyone on his floor seems to know each other and has mostly positive opinions of one another. His mom frequently visits and reads his favorite book to him — Rakuen. What ensues is a Ghibli-esque tale of wonder, imagination, and grit.
Our nameless protagonist is both endearing and a model of character for what we might hope to aspire toward. With few flaws, Boy — as he’s referred to in-game — is a problem solver who views the world idealistically and exudes positivity. As one might expect, his mother, who serves as a kind of chaperone, complements his hopeful perspective with a tinge of maternal guidance.
The story can be saccharine at times, which may not be to everyone’s liking, and has a fascinating approach to serious, dense themes. Rakuen grapples with illness, dementia, loss, and other unpleasant events that sometimes happen to people, but it does so with hope. Laura Shigihara, the game’s creator, could have tackled these problems by twisting the knife as moments of sadness and tears begin to well up, though just as tragedy began to dawn on me, the scene or song was over and I moved on to the next chapter of the game.
Which is another interesting avenue this nine-hour adventure takes: Rakuen is not necessarily one tale, but many that feed into one. As the Boy gets to know the stories of his friends, he celebrates the closure, though doesn’t seem to reflect much on the negative parts of the experience. One might view loss as an opportunity for growth and an inevitability that doesn’t have to be viewed negatively by nature, but Rakuen can’t seem to decide if it wants to offer a chance to view its difficult themes in a more positive light or make you cry. Perhaps both. This complexity and the unique perspective are welcome; however, the execution sometimes left me confused and wondering how I felt. This is personal to my experience, but as a critical reviewer, I have to admit that I was not sure in which direction Shigihara is trying to take us. At several points, I had wondered if the brief excursion into different stories watered down the potential depth of characterization and themes, especially without obvious reflection from our core protagonists.
In this way, Rakuen stands apart from similar games, such as To The Moon. To The Moon, while half the game in terms of length, dives deeply into the core story, with each new element gracefully woven into the central narrative. Rakuen’s ambition seems to lie in addressing different kinds of challenges people face in their dying days or other kinds of illnesses with a light and subtle touch. This style of storytelling could be more affecting to other gamers, so I want to make it quite clear that this criticism and preference is unique to my expectation and experience with Rakuen; others may find this a preferable or even better approach.
Expectation is another important element to consider. Expectations can often mire an excellent game with standards no one has any business imposing on a title. While Rakuen is clearly inspired by To The Moon, Shigihara has crafted her own story to tell. And it’s beautiful. Rich in vibe, personality, charm, and beauty, Rakuen feels like something Hayao Miyazaki could have dreamed up, and that might be the greatest praise I have ever given a game I’ve reviewed. I want to visit this world, speak to its inhabitants, and share in the fascinating lore that Shigihara just briefly introduces to us. What’s left is up to our imagination, and what a tremendous gift that is. Those in the know might understandably jump into this game expecting To The Moon, but the wisest person will approach it as its own unique world.
Created using RPGMaker, Rakuen certainly has its design limitations, but Shigihara uses the engine effectively so that one soon forgets that they’re playing an RPGMaker game. The art style, sprites, music, and puzzles deliver an experience beyond what most expect from RPGMaker. What Shigihara has put together here, with the vibrant look matched with tastefully gray and brown parts of the game, offers an (albeit obvious) clashing that still works. Rakuen controls seamlessly with some odd lining up of the Boy and the environment, but this borders on nitpicking.
Of course, the prodigious Shigihara graces us with her musical talents not just in song, but in each area explored. While simple in execution, each area’s theme, upbeat or otherwise, adds character that words could hardly match. Instead, the writing gracefully accentuates what the music tells us about each locale and event. Admittedly, I tend more toward the somber songs, but even the fun, bopping tunes got me excited to talk to each denizen. Every chapter in the story ends with a song with some guest appearances. While some may be disappointed that Shigihara doesn’t dominate the tracklist, the other performers capably sing the songs she has created.
Rakuen is the kind of game that makes me want to be a better person. It reminds us that we are all part of a community in some form, and each person in that community has their tale to tell, challenges they struggle to overcome, and a need for some form of companionship. Deeply human, Rakuen visits all sorts of worlds that give insight into what it means to be alive, face loss, and take advantage of the now. I won’t soon forget the gift Shigihara has given us, and I have enough here to think about and reflect on for years to come. Thank you.