Hospitals are emotionally complicated places, especially if you have to stay longer than a trip to the emergency room. It might be nosy, but when you're surrounded by other patients, bored in curtained-off rooms, it's natural to wonder about your neighbors–and worry about them, too. It's not always easy to tell who's on the mend or the decline, but you feel connected to them through the shared environment, often filling in the gaps of their story with your imagination to pass the time.
It's this feeling, this sense of a web of individual stories connected by pristine white hallways and the persistent smell of hand sanitizer, that Rakuen chooses as its stage. You take on the role of an ill boy confined to a hospital and kept company by his mother. Unlike nearly every other character introduced, their names and backgrounds are withheld. In their minds, their story isn’t the most interesting one in the building. Not compared to the man down the hall who can't remember where he is, or the little girl with the sullen face and a big jar of marbles at her bedside.
The tales of every other patient, not to mention the hospital itself, are woven into a fabled, storybook world, the titular Rakuen. Forged in the minds of the mother and her son during bedtime stories, the bright, pastel-hued setting is populated with a variety of creatures. The most important one, a slumbering forest spirit who can grant the boy a wish, compels you to search for the missing verses of a rousing melody. The boy and his mother explore Rakuen in search of this song and solve problems for a cast of characters that are based on other patients in the hospital. There's no combat to speak of–just a map opened up, bit by bit, through straightforward puzzle-solving and story progression.
The real world and magical realm interact with each other in a way that makes it difficult to discern how much of it is really intended as metaphor, and Rakuen doesn't exactly strain to define that boundary. The question of whether or not this magic is real, whether or not the boy and his mother are stepping into another world, whether or not the problems resolved for the catlike creatures on the other side actually bear out in real life is left more or less unanswered.
Video games have a lot of good examples of dads taking the spotlight, but moms are still a little harder to come by in the medium. Even if that weren’t the case, the mother in Rakuen would still undoubtedly stand out. She’s so much more than an accessory to her son's story–and so much more than a passive companion to the player. Some of the game's most exceptional moments are her moments, and they take what might have been a trite, predictable set of story twists and render them impactful and important again. Without her presence, Rakuen wouldn't be half the story it is.
Rakuen–the place–is sweet and idyllic, full of clever details and locations that are cozy and comforting, and it matches the hopeful tone of the story well. But unavoidable shades of sadness and fear are present, too, and a stripe of a haunting, uneasy, not-quite-horror-but-damn-close aesthetic runs through the game to drive that aspect home. It strikes a good balance, offering well-timed reminders that no one can hide from reality between the pages of a book forever.
As appealing as meandering through a fantastical pastel landscape can be, an inordinate amount of backtracking and the lack of a sprint button combine to make it a bit tiresome.
The beauty of the artwork only makes the limited resolution options in the game all the more disappointing. Your can either play Rakuen fullscreen with the artwork stretched and looking rough, or you can opt for a very small window at the game's native resolution. Given that Rakuen was made in RPG Maker, this is an issue that isn't surprising given the outdated nature of the engine, but that doesn't make it any less unsatisfying.
As appealing as meandering through a fantastical pastel landscape can be, an inordinate amount of backtracking and the lack of a sprint button combine to make it a bit tiresome. Much of the world is gated behind the gradual acquisition of new tools and abilities, so the tedious movement will likely stifle your curiosity and dissuade you from poring over every part of the environment.
Unfortunately, there are also occasions when the rules for interacting with the world become lax without warning, creating undue confusion in the process. You might get stuck early on if you fail to realize that you can walk through a barrier made of caution tape. It doesn't break, and you don't need to duck or otherwise interact with it–you just walk through it somehow. Moments like this aren't uncommon, and while far from game-breaking, they blur conceptions of rules and logic that normally go hand in hand with puzzle solving.
For the first hour, nuisances like the one described above rise to the top, even so far as to overpower Rakuen's striking aesthetic. But shortly thereafter, when music becomes central to the story, your grievances begin to fade and you settle back into the world's charms. Rakuen's soundtrack (particularly the vocal tracks, many of which developer Laura Shigihara performs herself) will catch you off guard. Individual tracks act as stirring, truly endearing rewards for completing sections of the story. And when the game's theme music swells, and you finally to piece together the song you've been working towards all along, waking up the forest spirit feels like a genuine resolution.
There's no denying that Rakuen has some incredibly strong components. At the same time, it's hard to shake its more basic shortcomings, be it the technical limits of its engine or the plodding exploration. Its most brilliant and glowing scenes stand out and stick with you, but Rakuen remains just a dose or two short of healthy.