To Tell a New Tale
Visual novels have seen a relatively surprising surge in popularity here in the West over the past couple of years. A branch of the adventure game genre, visual novels really only gained popularity in their home country of Japan, and until recently, rarely made the leap across the Pacific. It’s hard to point out exactly where sentiments toward these games changed in the West, but demand for them has risen enough for us to start seeing more and more titles localized for English-speaking audiences.
Most of the popularity remains in the niche anime fandom, but there seems to be solid awareness of the genre now in the general gaming public. Enough so that the “bigger name” Japanese visual novel companies are beginning to take notice. Take, for instance, the company Key.
Formed in 1998, Key is a visual novel studio operating under the publisher VisualArt’s. The studio rose to prominence in Japan with the release of their first title, Kanon, which was a game-changing title in the genre at the time of its release in 1999. Up until then, the visual novel genre really focused on two things: cute girls to interact with, and sex scenes. While Kanon included both of these things, it also dialed down the adult content and placed more focus on story, character development, and music. Key set out to prove that visual novels could provide entertainment beyond mere titillation and still be successful, and ended up crafting what many consider a classic of the genre.
What followed were a string of hits that cemented Key’s place as a pillar of the visual novel genre in Japan. Their follow-up release, Air, acted as a kind of companion to Kanon while experimenting more with storytelling styles. With their third release, Clannad, Key forewent including adult content (which is a bold move in a genre inundated with pornographic games) and ended up releasing what many consider (arguably) the company’s greatest work.
Key has released many more titles since, receiving varying levels of acclaim in their home country, but we shall stop here with the game we are looking at today. Up until recently, Key had resisted releasing its games outside of Japan, even going so far as to block computers running non-Japanese Windows software from booting their games. However, it seems they have changed their tune with the rise of awareness and popularity of the visual novel genre here in the West. After testing the waters with iOS and Steam releases of their title Planetarian, Key teamed up with the company Sekai Project to bring one of their most popular titles to the English-speaking world.
Developed by Key, originally released in 2004 in Japan, and published in the West by Sekai Project, Clannad was released on Steam on November 23rd, 2015.
Back to School
The story of Clannad focuses on high school student Tomoya Okazaki. Tomoya is seen as a “delinquent” within his class, which he barely attends anyways. He also tends to avoid his home due to a strained relationship with his alcoholic father, choosing to spend most of his time in the dorm room of his only real friend/punching bag Youhei Sunohara. Holding a hatred of the town he lives in and no real hopes or aspirations for the future, Tomoya spends day after day going through the same motions over and over.
That is, until the first day of his final year in high school. While walking to school (arriving late, with nobody else around), he encounters a girl standing outside of the school gates talking to herself. This girl, Nagisa Furukawa, is currently repeating her final year of high school, having missed most of her previous year due to illness, and is worried about attending a school where all of her friends have already graduated. Both being social outcasts in their own ways, Tomoya and Nagisa begin to spend more time together, and Tomoya decides to help Nagisa with her goal: to join the school drama club.
While the story of Tomoya and Nagisa form the foundation of Clannad, with this being a visual novel, there are a number of other stories to pursue. You can choose to have Tomoya ignore Nagisa altogether, hang out with other characters, and end up on the path toward a new story. The main portion of the game contains five main scenarios and about five smaller side-stories, all of varying quality. All of these are connected through an overarching story pertaining to Tomoya’s day-to-day life, during which the decisions you make will lead you on the path to each of the individual routes.
Much of this portion of Clannad falls firmly into the slice-of-life genre, where the entertainment comes from seeing a group of characters just living their life day to day. It can be a hit-or-miss story genre, and many people I’ve spoken to about it tell me it sounds straight up boring. However, the character interactions and the comedic moments keep Clannad from having too many dull moments, even during its long runtime (a typical first read-through taking around 40-50 hours).
The characters themselves, for the most part, are quite well written. It definitely helps, though, that most members of the game’s cast are strictly relegated to certain story routes. Aside from Tomoya’s best friend Youhei and a couple of other classmates, each of the main characters really only appear in their own storylines, where they are given the focus of the game. These routes usually move the genre more toward drama and romance and bring the focus to the background and exploits of a single character or set of characters. While the smaller side-story paths can feel a bit shallow (especially, in my opinion, the path for Misae, the RA of Youhei’s dorm), the main scenarios really go in depth with their characters, their histories, and their interactions with Tomoya. The downside to locking each of these characters to their own routes, though, means that you don’t get to see these well-developed characters interact amongst each other often.
Upon completion of Nagisa’s story route, a second segment of Clannad unlocks, known as After Story. This portion of the game follows Tomoya and Nagisa in their life after high school, and firmly moves the genre into drama. This portion is the highlight of the game: we get to move beyond the generic “anime high school” setting and see how a pair of adults works to create their new life together. It is also during this portion where the overall theme of the game comes to light. Throughout all of the character routes in the first half of the game, through Tomoya’s individual story, and following into After Story, each portion ties into an overall theme of family and the bonds between people.
Stepping out of the story itself, the game engine presented works well, but it does have a few annoying quirks brought about from the translation to English. There are occasions here and there where a line break will occur in the middle of a word, especially in character’s names. If you are playing the game on Windows 10, the intended English font for the game is not preinstalled on the system, and the game will default to a strangely-spaced font. Luckily, there exist options to change the font in the game’s configuration. As I played the game on Windows 10, the screenshots I took for this article do not present the intended font, but rather the font I chose to play in.
The last thing to note is a new addition that Sekai Project added to the game for Western audiences, the “Dangopedia.” Clannad contains a number of references to Japanese culture, along with some untranslated Japanese terms. When one of these appears in the text, an option will appear at the top of the screen to open the “Dangopedia,” which gives definitions for these terms. While this is definitely a welcome addition, some of the references feel…unnecessary. For example, it contains a definition for “cassette tape,” which is definitely not a Japanese term, and the need to provide a definition seems to only exist to make me feel old.
The art of Key has always seemed to be a point of contention amongst fans of the genre, especially in facial structure. The artist for Clannad, Itaru Hinoue, has a quite distinctive style, with very large eyes (even for an anime style) and small noses and mouths, all kind of compressed together, leaving a lot of blank area on the face. The style definitely comes across in this game, and some of the character designs and expressions can be a bit unusual, or even off-putting at times. It’s not to say that the art is bad; the characters all have a consistent style, but still have very distinct designs. A number of the CG artwork scenes are excellent as well, providing much more detail than the normal character sprites you see throughout the game.
I’ve never personally been much of a fan of Hinoue’s artstyle, though. As I said, the designs can be off-putting to some, and in this case, that “some” includes me.
Ballads and Tearjerkers
Key’s games have come to be quite well known for their soundtracks, and Clannad is definitely no slouch in this department. The soundtrack was composed by three people: Magome Togoshi, Shinji Orito, and (the name most associated with Key, seen as one of the faces of the company) Jun Maeda. Together, these three created an incredibly memorable soundtrack that compliments nearly every scene of the novel excellently. This also includes a number of particularly emotional tracks which, when played during key points of the story, really help to enforce the impact behind certain scenes. Each of the main characters receives a theme track that captures their personalities perfectly, and even the day-to-day filler tracks fit the feel of the general novel to a ‘T’.
This release of Clannad includes full voice acting in the original Japanese. It’s hard to comment on the voice acting in a language I do not speak, but the vocal inflections and emotion behind the performances are done well. The voice actor for Youhei is of note, particularly for how well he handles being the comic relief punching bag of the story; the actor doesn’t appear to overact, which seems to happen often in roles like these, but still adds greatly to the occasionally absurd situations the character can be found in.
One thing I did notice thanks to the voice acting is that there have definitely been some liberties taken with the English translation. As I said, I don’t speak Japanese, but it is obvious to notice these kinds of changes when the text for a character is 10-15 words long, while the voice track is only one or two words. Also, there is the interesting choice of changing a character’s occasional English words in the voice track (e.g. “Thank you!”) to Spanish words in the text (e.g. “Gracias!”).
Feels Good to Cry
Overall, Clannad is a visual novel that presents an excellent story and great, albeit unusually-designed, characters. The story covers everything from comedy to drama and romance, with an occasional air of mystery, although it does lean heavily on the drama side of the spectrum. If you have played mostly more recent visual novels, this game will show its age to you a bit. Although, with this release, Sekai Project did work with Key to upscale the original graphics to high-definition. Playing the game in widescreen resolutions, though, slightly stretches out all of the art.
If you are looking for a heartwarming and occasionally tragic story, Clannad couldn’t come any more highly recommended. I would say to be prepared for a bit of a slow burn, though…this is quite a long game with a strong focus on slice-of-life antics.
~ Final Score: 8/10 ~
Review copy provided by Sekai Project for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.