Rakuen Review: Calling Home

FYI, due to some screencapping issues with the game, I’m using the images from the game’s Steam page.

Rakuen is an RPG Maker adventure game created by Laura Shigihara. Shigihara is a singer, songwriter, and soundtrack composer who has contributed music to various games, including Melolune, Plants vs Zombies, To The Moon, and Deltarune. Rakuen is the first game created and developed by Shigihara and was released in 2017.

Rakuen follows the story of a child only known as the “boy”. Stuck in a hospital for certain reasons (and wearing a cool paper samurai helmet), his greatest joy comes from his mother’s regular visits, when she reads him his favorite book, Rakuen. The tale of Rakuen described a mystical fantasy forest under the charge of guardian Morizora, who can grant wishes. One day, the book goes missing, and after slipping away to the guarded-off and worn segments of the hospital, the boy confronts a mysterious old man named Uma, who has been stealing various items from the hospital. Uma reveals that Morizora’s forest is real and demonstrates that a magical door between worlds can allow the boy to travel there. The boy and his mother make their way through Morizora’s cave, where they find the guardian of the forest is sleeping and can only be awaken by activating runes tied to various individuals – the forest dwellers who are alternate versions of various hospital denizens. To awaken runes, the boy must learn about the problems these individuals experienced, help guide them along, and obtain their songs.

You’re only in this cave at the beginning of the game, but it sets a strong tone for the rest of the game.

Similar to other story-heavy RPGMaker games, Rakuen excises turn-based RPG gameplay and focuses more on puzzles and general world exploration. The setting of Morizora’s forest is a cross between a Studio Ghiblie-esque colorful fantasy world (appropriate, given that it’s a literal world out of a storybook) and a cutesy JRPG setting inhabited by nonhuman creatures, from sentient mushrooms to the mouse-like Leeble villagers. Most of the puzzles are pretty simplistic (Shigihara even included a walkthrough on the Steam forums to help) and there are collectables that can be found throughout the forest to decorate one of the rooms within the hospital. At worst, there’s a bit of backtracking involved to travel between the hospital and Morizora’s Forest, but thankfully there are multiple access points to get between both locations.

Story-wise, Rakuen is a game that is very emotionally charged, more so as the game progresses. The emotional core is very similar to another RPGMaker game, To The Moon (as mentioned before, Shigihara contributed a vocal track to the game, and Rakuen also has a reference to one of the more iconic scenes in the game), which builds up over time. Rakuen is particularly effective in having this occur with both the hospital patients, who have their own individual stories, but also with the overall contextualization of the plot and the boy’s reason for being in the hospital. To avoid spoilers, I’ll simply say that the game deals with the aftermath of a certain historical disaster event, and subtleties in the game clue the player into the situation. That being sad, things aren’t all doom-n-gloom, and there’s a witty sense of humor present that reminded me of the quirky parts of EarthBound. Events like stomping on bad mushrooms to gain favor with the Radshroom Protection Society or helping out the local bougie onion family with serving tea at a party balance out the later harrowing moments.

The Leebles vaguely remind me of Chu-Chu from Utena.

Going back to the way the hospital patients are involved in the game’s story, I was impressed with how the game integrates their little vignettes with the setting of Morizora’s forest. Admittedly, on paper, having the fantasy versions of these characters act out the fairly serious events happening in these characters’ lives seems a bit silly, but somehow Rakuen makes it work. Again, it helps that Morizora’s forest is supposed to be a setting from a children’s book, and these events are being explained to a literal child. It might be a bit weird to have the two Leebles from different tribes as a stand-in for Japanese/Korean racism, but it works to explain the topic to a young child. Another important element of the game is the involvement the boy has in the grand scheme of things in the other characters’ stories. Ultimately, the boy and his mother do not directly solve the ongoing issues experienced by the other patients (in general, they’re WAY too complicated or serious to be fixed by simple fetch quests), but it’s instead implied the boy provides some simple comforts to these individuals with his actions, which helps the patients come to terms with their lives. I do want to add a warning that if the subject of child death is especially upsetting to you for any reason, approach this game with caution.

The integration of the boy’s mom in the story is something I found very refreshing. She is present throughout the boy’s adventures, and there’s even a button to talk with her. I’m so used to a lot of fantasy settings treating mom characters like an obstacle, a character to be sidelined, or a damsel in distress, so it was genuinely refreshing to have the boy’s mom constantly present. This turns out to be a significant element in the game’s overarching themes of familial love overcoming difficult events, and I was pleased overall with the way the mom is written in the game.

Alt title: RPG Momventures

Special note should be given to the game’s overall graphic design. There’s a really nice contrast between the sterile (and a bit desolate) parts of the hospital versus the vivid greenery within Morizora’s forest. At the beginning of the game, when you must travel through a sizeable cave to reach Morizora, meeting a variety of the game’s friendly and not-so-friendly creatures, there’s a genuine sense of adventure and exploration, which sets the tone for the rest of the game. In contrast, the sequences where you traverse the memories of the hospital patients is effective at creating a sense of stifling dread and sadness. The vignette involving Tony, the grumpy old man who is estranged from his daughter for reasons, is especially effective. At one point, Tony’s mindscape and memories are represented by an empty version of his family’s house, with the objective to travel through the various rooms and complete smaller puzzles. The house is dark, and words echoing his daughter’s thoughts appear scribbled on the walls at some point. It’s unsettling but works well at framing the guilt and sorrow experienced by this old man. The character portraits, by illustrator Emmy Toyonaga, lend a distinctive look to many of the characters, both the humans and the hospital and their otherworldly equivalents in Morizora’s forest. It helps that Toyonaga’s art style sorta reminds me of Ghost Trick, with heavy use of thick outlines and bright, popping colors.

The soundtrack for the game is also something wonderful and dynamic. Shigihara does an excellent job setting the mood for the various locales in the game, with an understated, instrumental track for the hospital, an upbeat, jaunty song for the central area of the Leeble village, and more understated tracks for the harrowing emotional moments. There’s a particular ambient track that plays during the aforementioned empty house stage in Tony’s story, and it is extremely effective at completing the general atmosphere. The vocal tracks that play at the conclusion of each character vignette are a bit cheesy, but heartwarming, which sums up the overall tone of the game well.

Pros: Colorful portraits and vibrant pixel work reminiscent of classic JRPGS. Heartfelt story focused on loss, friendship, familial bonds, and rebuilding relationships. Delightful setting and characters with a strong sense of humor to balance out the more bittersweet moments. Beautiful soundtrack that reflects the varied environments and emotions.

Cons: Impact is tied to the game’s emotional core, so if you aren’t the type who’s moved by storytelling, the game might fall flat. Some parts of the game, like the vocal tracks, skirt a fine line between being cheesy and genuine.

Rakuen is available for PC via Steam. Overall, I enjoyed Rakuen, and appreciated how the game integrates multiple facets to its storytelling. It’s a simple game, but one that makes strong use of its graphical and music design to tell an effective story and explore complex themes. Rakuen is a great example of what can be accomplished with RPGMaker, and I look forward to Shigihara’s future work.

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