Rakuen is a unique game who’s strength relies on it’s well crafted story telling and does not rely on combat to get it’s point across. It brings forth tales of heartbreak, regret, loss, neglect, denial and the aftermath that comes in it’s wake. Rakuen more importantly conveys how important hope is, and that there is always a way to overcome and endure such hardships in life and come to terms with past mistakes and misfortunes.
In Rakuen, you play as a ailing boy, who goes by no other name. He lives in a hospital under the care of it’s staff, along with his mother who visits everyday. The boy’s always looks forward to his mother reading him his favourite book, Rakuen. This book speaks of a fantasy world, that tells a tale of a tribal child who one day, finds everyone in his village has disappeared. The child learns to escape danger, they sailed away to a magical paradise called Rakuen. The child sets of to reach the guardian of the forest, Morizora, which legends says, will grant you one wish. After overcoming all the challenges to finally reach him, Morizora grants the child a request to ride on his magical ship. The child sails away, reuniting with his tribe in Rakuen.
Inspired by the story, the boy in the hospital asks his mother if she could take him to the magical world, so he too could go through the series of challenges and be granted one wish. Together, they set out to find the path to Rakuen. Upon arriving in the parallel world, he discovers that Morizora has fallen into a deep slumber, and he must overcome several challenges by helping the patients in the hospital with their internal struggles and secrets.
Rakuen plays as a top down 2D RPG, reminiscent of the RPG’s from the SNES era. The uniqueness of Rakuen is that it is not an action based game. It plays out as a big story puzzle adventure of sorts. You travel through several areas of the hospital and Rakuen talking to all the people and their alter ego’s in the fantasy world. Through your interactions, you learn of all the problems going on with the hospital and within the personal lives of the patients and help them however you can.
As you take on the task of helping the hospitals patients, you learn about their back story through several cut scenes shown while solving puzzles as you relive their memories. You will be taken back to times in their house for example, or other parts of the hospital reading notes, finding clues and continually piece everything together. As you progress, you will get a glimpse of the past events revealing the entire back story until all is brought to light. Although this heavily relies on the story telling, the game play elements serve a role in keeping everything a mystery and that everything is revealed at a comfortable pace. You solve puzzles while reliving these memories, such as finding switches to open a path to some stairs, leading you to another puzzle requiring you to gather materials to craft something. It all plays out almost like a Zelda dungeon with back tracking and opening up ways that were not accessible before, but of course, without the combat and instead features a strong narrative. It helps keep everything very interactive and adds challenges outside of simply interacting with the games many characters.
Through your Journey in Rakuen, you will visit many different locales. This ranges from broken run down parts of the hospital, to dark mysterious caves, to beautiful lush sky worlds. Everything is varied and very vibrant. The pixelated look does the game wonders, and for me, make it feel very homely. There a many creatures you will meet, from the patients in the hospital to all their fun animal counterparts in Rakuen. You’ll meet bears, dogs with wings, mushrooms that rap, and much more. Being styled after a retro styled SNES RPG, there is surprisingly a lot of emotion conveyed through the simplified sprite animations. The game is able to get across characters emotions, feelings and purpose to the player through these sprite animations. Combine it with excellent character avatars displayed during dialogue, the presentation and story telling is stellar.
Each of the characters have so much charm, not only through their sprites, but through the clever writing. Although the game imposes much sadness through it’s story, there is a lot of laughs to be had with some of the characters. Some of the characters are out right ridiculous, but charming, such as the Bad Attitude Onion, who simply has a problem with you from the start. Or better yet, the mushroom that says he saw a mustached plumber that tried to eat him. Wonder who he’s talking about?
In Rakuen, you are rarely alone in this game as the boy is usually never without his mother. His mother serves as a companion on the journey to join conversations for key moments of the quests. You can simply start conversations with her or even ask for hints on what to do next. It is a splendid touch, as support is one of the big themes of this game. There are moments where his mother pulls the boy through some frightening situations for a child. Seeing her love and support for her child is truly touching and inspiring. I can’t think of many games that tread into the realm of depicting a strong maternal figure. Rakuen does this so well, you can’t help but think of the love of your own mother and can easily relate to her situation and have her feelings and fears imposed on you.
What I loved most and that stands out to me is the sound track. Laura Shigihara, who is best known for composing the sound track to Plants vs. Zombies, out does herself. Not only building Rakuen from the ground up with the limited engine of RPG Maker, but does a stellar job of creating some excellent music. Even from a sound design perspective is everything done so well. It’s able to make me feel tense and literally send shivers through my body during frightening moments when stepping into the unknown to making me feel joyful when exploring the beautiful lush environments of the fantasy world. I can’t help to constantly hear the tunes of Rakuen in my head when I’m away from it, as if I’m journeying through my own fantasy world.
When the game starts to take things a bit more seriously, it conveys some heavy topics your way. It deals with problems such as death and abandonment, things that have huge repercussions on peoples lives and families. The way the game reveals such realities to you piece by piece through cryptic messages, and then letting it all loose really hits you hard at times, although is effective in getting it’s point across, and really builds up the tension in the story telling for the big reveal.
It’s not all gloom and sorrow though, there is great balance between the sad moments and cheery moments that it never feels overwhelming even though the game touches on so many difficult situations. All the supporting cast and characters have some charming and witting things to say. It’s very worthwhile to take the time and talk to just about everyone.
Rakuen will make you feel sad though. It’s unavoidable given the premise of the game and the sensitive topics it deals with. There are moments in the game where I couldn’t help crying. But through it’s life lessons of enduring through hardships and how to cope with these situations, although the game is sad, it ends on high points that will make you feel satisfied and never empty.
I adore Rakuen and everything about it. From it’s charming visuals, catchy soundtrack, and brilliant story telling, I loved every second I played through this game. Having practical gaming elements such as basic puzzle solving and exploration make Rakuen a very interactive story telling experience. How it’s able to take you from feeling like there is no worry in the world to bringing sorrow down on you presents a great dynamic to the story telling. Even if you’ve never faced the ordeals depicted in Rakuen, you still feel for everyone who has to go through such trials in life. I think Rakuen should be experienced by anyone. It doesn’t take a huge financial and time investment as it lasts around 10 hours. It is also well suited for casual play making it extremely accessible. I can’t recommend Rakuen enough, just be sure to bring some extra tissue if you do take the plunge.
Disclaimer: This review was done using a Steam copy of Rakuen provided by the games publisher/developer. Please be assured that this did not affect my opinion of the game, and that my criticisms are an honest and true representation of my thoughts on the game.