Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Mac, Linux
Developer/Publisher: Laura Shigihara
Rakuen is a story driven adventure game centering around a young hospitalized boy and his caring mother who one day uncover a door leading to the world of Rakuen. A fantastical place from a storybook the boy’s mother often read to him that houses colorful creatures, locales, and characters aplenty, along with a guardian capable of granting the boy one wish. In order to receive that wish, he must awaken the guardian by completing several challenges that relate to those who live in the same hospital wing as him, and their otherworldly animal counterparts in Rakuen.
As such, the game primarily has the boy and his mother bouncing between the two worlds while engaging in some sort of puzzle solving while uncovering the backstory and history of other central characters and trying to help them out of their unfavorable situations by bringing them some degree of closure. Both these storylines, and especially the overarching story of the boy and his mother, are punctuated with highs of wonderment and joy along with lows that delve into subject matter that, while not necessarily dark, do reflect on a more melancholic side or reality. Subject matter that delves into far more adult and complicated subject matter than I honestly expected from a game such as this.
It is a type of contrast that I regularly praise whenever it comes up in the games I cover, and the specific manner it is employed in Rakuen is quite effective. The real world is grey and dreary looking with a simple structure and many locations that have been left in disrepair. It is clear that something bad happened recently, yet there are efforts being made to make this place as pleasant as it can be for its patients, yet it all has something of a sterile feeling only contrasted by a few colorful characters. Meanwhile, Rakuen is a vibrant world filled with adorable characters, expansive locales, and a lot more areas housing extended exploration. Everyone in this world is endearing on some level amounting to a place fueled by a palpable sense of childlike wonder and is just oh so precious. It is still a world where bad things can happen, including some particularly heartfelt tragedies, yet everything has a sort of optimistic edge that nicely reflects the inner mind of the child protagonist.
It all sounds like a modern classic in the making, and for a while it felt that way. With so many small and endearing details wherein the game’s personality shines radiantly and it manages to channel a sort of charm that feels unique in and of itself. Unfortunately, the more its metaphorical corners seem to be cut, and the more obvious points of possible improvement become. The latter half of the story is notably lacking in extraneous details, feeling as if the developer only had the resources necessary to focus on those things, leaving out much in the way of side quests or narrative capstones that provide a solid conclusion or epilogue to each character. Instead, everything feels a bit open and certain subjects come off as feeling unexplored.
This is, sadly, also evident in the gameplay department, which begins very strongly, featuring mostly intuitive and involved puzzle solving that is primarily condensed into expansive dungeon areas that all have a unique feel and sensibilities. These are broken up by item based exploration across the dual overworlds or Rakuen and the hospital, both of which could really benefit from a proper map, with the boy gaining new items over time and finding crafting materials, extra bits of information, and money for cosmetic items. It all has a very classic Zelda feel to it and while some of the puzzles had me reaching for a walkthrough, which is conveniently included in the game’s manual, I found them to be interesting and stimulating. Especially due to the regular rewards of additional insights to the story and character development.
However, after the third dungeon, these sections largely… stop. The fourth one involves a particularly delightful aside in a posh manor located in the clouds, but after that stint is over with, the game mostly breezes through its latter half with nary a puzzle in sight. Instead, its “dungeons” are just the interactive flashback scenes found during dungeons 2 and 3, but stretched out over a slightly longer period of time. There are actually locales that could have been used to house these dungeons, but likely as a result of dwindling resources, they were left undeveloped.
I think the most upsetting example of this untapped potential to me is the mother character. She is a major part of the game and story, almost always following her son in his journey, being there to talk to him, offering him advice, a funny anecdote, or just some motherly support. Yet despite being a major enough mechanic to warrant a dedicated button, I feel that she is too often forgotten or neglected by the story, not chiming in enough or commenting and contextualizing the situation for her son. What is shown is so good and makes her seem like such a great mom, so it is a bit upsetting that her character is left underutilized.
As for the presentation, while RPG Maker can be a very useful engine, its base leaves a lot to be desired. It requires some reworking, plugins, and creative problem solving to get around its limitation, most notably with regards to resolution. The 640 by 480 resolution is a particular gripe of mine as on a 1080p monitor the game looks, well, bad in full screen, and in windowed mode, it can be hard to make out the details featured.
Meanwhile, Rakuen does feature a lot of appealing character and world designs, yet its approach to sprite work comes off as more than a little basic, with characters not really emoting beyond their portraits, and a lot of animations looking quite basic. It all comes off as slightly stilted and generic, only occasionally rightfully reflecting this game’s personality, and leaving quite a bit to be desired as a result.
Rakuen does everything it really needs to in order to be a charming, delightful, and downright precious little adventure, but has just enough underutilized potential to not resonate as the excellent modern classic it has every right to be. From underutilized story elements and characters, gameplay that becomes minimized during the game’s later half, and an at times underwhelming presentation. However, its precious qualities are so abundant, that I cannot help but admire it.
I would say that I would easily recommend the game, but upon doing some research after beating the game, i discovered that the developer recently posted a piece of concept art showing off a 3D rendition of an environment and characters from Rakuen. It is not clear what this is meant to tease, I like to think that it is a remade/updated version of Rakuen, and, well, I would honestly really like to see that, because if there was ever a gem in need of some polishing and refinement, it’s Rakuen.