Rakuen is the 2017 RPG by indie developer Laura Shigihara (シギハラ ローラ—Shigihara Rōra), who’s a composer, games dev, singer, and Twitch streamer. Busy (talented) lady!
Shigihara created the critically-acclaimed title using the tool RPG Maker XP. And it’s a fantastical, warm, funny, and moving experience of it all.
Rakuen and a Trip to the Woods
Rakuen is another indie game homage to the many RPG masterpieces on the SNES.
Rakuen styles itself along those classic lines with its looks and gameplay. However, there’s no combat in the game (which is unusual for an RPG… and video game in general, to be fair). And
You take control of a young boy who’s in hospital. His mother talks to him and they share their love for the family heirloom—a book called Rakuen. It’s about a magical land filled with unusual creatures, one of which grants wishes. It’s the Guardian of the Forest.
She reveals to him the book’s world… is real! And you journey into it together and meeting its inhabitants (such as Pungent Onion and a pompous rose).
Text boxes are, arguably, the main aspect of the game. You need to read these properly and get a good understanding of the plot unfolding. Here’s the first 12 minutes of Rakuen in action.
After the opening in the hospital, you soon enter a parallel fantasy world, quite the opposite to the drab and grey hospital where you stay. It’s all lush, vibrant colours.
The way it plays is like a Studio Ghibli film in RPG form, certainly with along the lines of the fantasy spirit world in Spirited Away (2001). The themes are all there.
And games like the enchanting Spiritfarer (2020) channel the same intelligent take on difficult topics (i.e. death).
As that’s what Rakuen is about.
Some gamers we come across online are confused about titles like this, equating cartoony graphics as “for kids”. All whilst they go off and play incredibly juvenile games like Call of Duty, thinking they’re being all grown up.
Rakuen is a classic example of an indie game using its imaginative breadth to cover difficult topics. It’s about a cancer diagnosis, with the boy (in his cute origami hat) grappling with other young patients over the nature of their misfortune.
The fantasy world of escapism is the outlet his mother uses to take his mind off things.
Rakuen is about generosity of spirit. Kindness. Imagination. And over its 10 hour play time, you’ll find its charm and intelligence very impressive indeed.
But it is, ultimately, an emotional game and one that has left many who’ve played it with a stark, moving finale. If you look at the Steam reviews, it’s packed full of people acknowledging Rakuen left them in floods of tears.
For any non-gamers who think gaming is childish and a waste of time, Rakuen is a shining example as to the effectiveness of its most ambitious titles.
Oh Yes, There’s the Rakuen Soundtrack
In classic RPG fashion, you need to have a good soundtrack. And Rakuen delivers with a catchy and enchanting batch of compositions.
Shigihara composed all of the pieces, of course, which typically take the form of short pieces. Although some have singing.
We mean, it’s bloody excellent. The whole thing. A great deal of creativity and depth, primarily consisting of electronic symphonies.
There were a couple of guest composers. Dale North for Aoboshi Matsuri and Shane Wegner on Laura’s Minuet. Otherwise, it’s all down to Shigihara!
There are 52 tracks in total across the soundtrack.
And it’s genuinely one of the most consistently excellent works we’ve come across (and there’s some seriously stiff competition out there in video game music land).
Well, there you go! Yet another example as to why we love indie games so much. Modern tech allows these creative souls to go off and create these wondrous things.
Full credit to Shigihara, who confirmed in May 2022 that Rakuen will enjoy a port to Nintendo Switch and smartphones later this year. Huzzah!