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Rakuen Review

A heartwarming and tearful adventure game that moves between a whimsical fantasy and a harsh reality of a young boy living in a hospital. Together with his mother, the two help out the other hospital patients with their personal struggles by learning about their pasts in the boy's magical storybook.

Rakuen Review
Rakuen is a fantasy adventure game that tells the story of a young boy living in a hospital and, with the help of this mother, is transported to a wonderful land. Its a story of two different worlds, the escapism of the fantasy world and the realities of the hospital and how they both intertwine. Being in development for over four years, the creator Laura Shigihara has been creating Rakuen's fantastical story, gameplay and music all on her own. This game is the conclusion of her efforts and its a mini masterpiece, a thoughtful and heartwarming adventure of a journey made by a young boy and his mother.

Rakuen is out now and available on Steam for £6.99

Rakuen Review - Forrest Lands

Story

The story begins when the hospitalised boy asks his mother to read his favourite book 'Rakuen' to him. In the story there are many creatures and spirits that live in an enchanted land under the protection of the forest guardian named Morizora. The boy wishes to be transported into his book to ask Morizora to grant him a wish, just like Morizora granted the young warrior a wish in the story. The boy's mother then tells him a secret that her grandmother had told her: the storybook world and its inhabitants are real and that they can go there and meet the forest spirit.

With the help of his mother the two are transported into the colourful and vibrant world in the storybook. However when the they arrive at Morizora's forest grove, the giant spirit is asleep and can only be awoken when five magical songs are collected. To wake Morizora and ask for a wish the Boy must help his neighbours in the hospital by completing tasks for their alter-egos in the fantasy world. The real world hospital and magical storybook kingdom are connected through mystical doors for the boy and his mother to travel through, allowing them to help its residents in both worlds.

When condensing the story, it does sound a little soppy but Rakuen is so much more than a child easily solving everyone's problems. The game doesn't hold back from dealing with heavy topics such as mental illness, loneliness, loss and death. The patients have their own secrets and struggles and hearing the back stories of the characters is an emotional roller coaster. Whilst its comforting to know that behind the walls of the hospital there is a colourful an magical land for the Boy and the Mother to visit its all the more emotional when you realise that for the other patients, there is no escape and that the hospital is their only reality. Even so, as the boy helps each of the residents with their problems there is a powerful feeling of joy and hope and an understanding of a character beyond their illness. Its this balancing of childish joy and deep melancholy that make Rakuen an emotional journey.

Rakuen Review - Evil Spirits

Gameplay

The gameplay of Rakuen is mainly focused around searching for items and solving environmental puzzles, its pretty straightforward gameplay with rewards for exploration and returning to old areas with new tools. The Boy and his Mother move back and forth between the hospital and the fantasy world learning of the patent's problems in the real world and then finding their alter-ego in the fantasy world. The majority of the patients problems involve you having to find a missing object of theirs or fixing something that is broken. The mechanics of finding an objects fits with the idea that the characters are all looking for something and that finding a lost wedding band or fixing an old man's music box is helping them in more ways than just returning that item to them.

Knowing where to go is sometimes a little confusing being that there are essentially two of each character to help out. Rakuen helps the story move more smoothly with the option to 'ask mom' if you don't know where to go next and she replies with little hints and reminders. This small idea adds to the feelings of trust and reliance between the boy and his mother. She making this journey with him and has an role in the story instead of just following the boy around. Its the mother's character and her active role within the story that makes this game special as not many games explore the topic of motherhood with as much depth as Rakuen.

The game takes around six hours to play through the main story but there are a lot of hidden objects and areas in the game. If you take your time and truly immerse yourself by speaking to every character, exploring hidden areas and collecting extra items then it takes around ten hours to complete. One side quest involves collecting items and pets to make the hospital's children's lounge a more pleasant place to be. Instead of a dull grey room you can transform it into a small colourful haven. The puzzles have been carefully intertwined more the majority of the game and then towards the end the story takes over in a powerful and moving conclusion.

Rakuen Review - Helping Characters

Graphics and Audio

Rakuen was made using RPGMaker so that's why its style might be recognisable to other games such as To The Moon and Mad Father. The style might be limited to the look of RPGMaker but the colour scheme and detail in Rakuen make it unique. The dark purples of Morizora's cave, the dreamy pink for the Skylands and the bright greens for the forests all emphasise just how magical and imaginative Rakuen's world is in comparison to the blocky and saturated look of the hospital.

 However, the backgrounds, as beautiful as they are, can look a bit static. There is a missed opportunity to include the movements of trees and plants to bring another level of magic and beauty to the world such as the swaying of the reeds and rustling of the trees. Movement could have been another juxtaposition between the hospital and the fantasy world, the hospital static and rigid and the storybook world moving and alive but I'm honestly not sure the limits of RPGMaker or if its even possible to create background movement within the program. Laura does try and combat the static backgrounds with characters moving around, waterfalls slowly moving and leaves drifting down in more dreamy areas so it doesn't look completely fixed.

Rakuen Review - The Skylands

Considering that Laura composed the main tear-jerker title song in 'To The Moon' its no surprise that the music in Rakuen holds up to the same standard. The soundtrack captures the game's atmosphere completely and the one track in particular, 'Kami Kabuto Hero', is Rakuen's finest piece. Its a tender song that brings a feeling of sadness but also a feeling of hope which completely encapsulate Rakuen's overall themes. The other astounding fifty two tracks are also handled with delicacy and care, really showing off Laura's compositional skills.

She also has composed several songs which feature lyrics and several singers, herself included, to be the powerful songs that will wake the Morizora up from his slumber. These lyrical songs at first can come across as a little soppy and completely unexpected but when they keep cropping up you can't help but be swept away by them. They just manage to be tender and emotional without crossing the line into sugary-sweet territory. Overall, having a game as short as Rakuen feature fifty two individual tracks, some with lyrical accompaniment, all composed by one person is an astounding feat.     

Rakuen Review - Morizroa the Forest Spirit

Conclusion

Rakuen is passion project long in the making, its story, characters and music are delicately crafted with depth and imagination. The world of Rakuen makes you want to explore every enchanted corner and find every secret. Its balance of childlike wonder and harsh realities really make the story unforgettable. Don't be too quick to dismiss that the storybook world is used just as escapism for the boy. With the mother accompanying him and her taking part in the action opens up new questions and gives the game more narrative depth. Its heartbreaking and compassionate story sheds light on illness and hope and is a prefect example of why motherhood should be explored more in video games. Its a journey of both the son and the mother confronting their own struggles and the mother's will to protect her son.

Its clear how much love and effort Laura put into this gem and its worth buying to support these kinds of games. Rakuen is a short game for a small price and its definitely one to play.

PROSCONS
 + Emotional story blending fantasy and reality – Enviroments look static
 + Great visuals and world creation – Ocassionally too sugary-sweet
 + A beautiful OST
8
Great

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