Rakuen [Review]

Rakuen, simply put, is an interesting game. It’s been a big year, so I’m not surprised it got smothered under the current crop of AAA games. I reviewed To the Moon a while ago, and to summarise was a little disappointed. Whilst it had a good story, the gameplay left a lot to be desired. So I went into Rakuen hoping that creator Laura Shigihara (known for doing work on To the Moon) would push the little “RPG-style Walking Simulator” genre forward.

Rakuen is a bit of a picture book fable. I know I shouldn’t compare it as such, but Rakuen reminds me a lot of Legend of Zelda, in particular, The Minish Cap.

The story follows a boy in hospital, who goes on adventures with his mother, respectively referred to as “Boy” and “Mother”. This is where I’d joke, “What’s his father called? Dad?” but yeah they kind of do that. Anyway, the lonely child loves being told the fantastical story of Rakuen. Returning from a hunt, a young warrior returns to find his tribe vanished, fleeing to the floating island of Rakuen. He seeks the help of Morizora, the forest guardian, who upon completing his trials, grants him passage on his flying ship. Just like the warrior, Boy and Mother must quest to Morizora’s forest, in pursuit of his wish. But things are not well in the forest, and the boy must confront his demons, and the demons of his fellow patients to get his wish.

Purely, looking at the narrative, Rakuen is pretty much a slam dunk. Each character has some kind of relationship issues that lay at their centre. But relationships can come in all forms, and as such, I want to commend the creators on laying out quite a diverse set of stories here. Unfortunately, this game is not purely narrative, and with that let’s dive into the gameplay.

In a general sense, Rakuen has taken some lessons from To the Moon. The latter game, simply put spent a large chunk of its plot saturated by fetch quests. Plot reasons for needing repetitive similar fetch quests were garbage and ultimately made a great narrative game into a shamble. So, Rakuen definitely is an improvement. Generally speaking, the game will do the standard inventory puzzle gameplay, and yes this means there are fetch quests. I’d argue, however, the Rakuen earns its right to use it, simply by virtue of its variety. Finding materials for a blacksmith, colourful characters to help with missions and searching for codes is done in the upbeat fashion thanks to the framing narrative. The highlight for me is, and this is not an exaggeration, the mission where you, a child in a bowtie, serve tea to formally dressed anthropomorphic flower buds, to gain information regarding a food stolen from a kitchen. No, seriously you are a fancy child tea-serving detective in a fantasy land I mean it’s hard to say too many bad things about that.

And yet, let’s say some bad things about Rakuen. The most obvious criticism to level at Rakuen is the conflict between gameplay and story. A recurring sequence is flashback scenes, intercut with escape room style puzzles. Now, the academic in me will give some credit, for the juxtaposition of a happy past, stained by tragedy, and grim present. It highlights how far characters have diverged from their once happy past. In practice, the discrepancy is rather jarring, an almost audible clunk between story and game scenes. This also leaves the tone oscillating between creepy and cute which stops working in the game’s favour rather quickly. Sure these are somewhat brief, but they show up about seven times in a three-hour game. Furthermore, when you lose your puzzle solving momentum, you get the issues plus the mild frustration from following a train of logic.

The presentation here also does wonders. There is a diverse cast of characters creepy and cute, formal and punk kids, good stuff. But really I want to talk about the audio on offer. I would do a disservice to not mention the fantastic music from Rakuen’s creator, the great Laura Shigihara. If she sounds familiar, Laura has composed music for Plants VS Zombies, Minecraft, World of Warcraft, and, the previously mentioned, To the Moon. Great theme tunes are one thing, but Shigihara places music front and centre. Each individual story is punctuated with a song, from one (or more!) characters, a lovely treat to sum up the melancholic struggles faced by characters. Sorry for the pun, but the songs truly hit a crescendo in the game's later stages. In all honesty, I may buy the soundtrack, something I have only done with one other game. It’s just that spot-on, cute and emotional, but produced simply but effectively to great effect.

Let’s get something straight Rakuen is not a perfect game. It learned some lessons from To the Moon. It really improved this whole indie RPG Maker-style of game, but I hope the envelope can be pushed even further. As it stands Rakuen, still deserves my admiration. It isn’t the biggest game, and it may not be picked up by many, but that makes its successes all the more impressive.

4 out of 5

+ Lovely Storybook-like Tale
+ Generally Good Simple Puzzles
+ Amazing Music
- Conflicting Gameplay with Story, at Times