Genre: Visual Novel
Publisher: Sekai Project
Release Date: 06/27/16
While Nekopara, as a series, isn’t really my favorite VN series on the market, there’s an inherently interesting idea buried under the surface of the wacky sex comedy as presented. There are some legitimately interesting ideas in the narrative, like how the world could be impacted by cat girls suddenly being poofed into existence by science or the ways people would interact with sentient, humanoid cats, that could be mined for neat ideas if the writers weren’t using those concepts as a way to handwave the game’s fetishes. It’s not that doing this thing is a problem; I mean, I like Monster Musume so clearly I’m not in a position to judge, but it’s just frustrating that there’s not more to the story than “here’s you, here’s catgirls, here’s hijinks, NOW KITH.” Well, Japanese VN developers Calme apparently thought the same thing, as Karakara takes the concept of “living with animal/human hybrids” and turns it on its head. That’s not to say that it isn’t something of a sex comedy in its own right (because it has that, believe me), but rather that it actively tells a story that’s more than a comedy romp full of hijinks and boobs. It’s not a perfect VN, even for its inexpensive ten dollar asking price, mind you, but it is a VN that’s a lot easier to recommend to everyone, as while its plot definitely has some hiccups, it’s astonishingly solid for what it is, and it’s hard not to enjoy it by the time the game is finished.
On animal ladies and crapsack futures
The world of Karakara is… surprisingly bleak, when you get right down to it; the game takes place in a dystopian future, where society has mostly died out for unspecified reasons (the game states everyone remembers it happened, but no one remembers how), and humanity is clinging to a thread. Technology still exists, but when it breaks it’s done for good since no one remembers how to maintain it, and much of what is left of humanity is descended from people who went through gene therapy to apply animal components to their genetic makeup to help them survive before the world went to hell. You take on the role of Leon, a young man who runs a restaurant for one of the surviving towns, Sagami Francisco, in this new world, alongside his childhood friend (and catgirl) Lucia. Their lives are turned upside-down one day when, while attempting to find a third employee to take the burden off, they discover Aisia, a somewhat dopey doggirl, laying on her suitcase on the side of the road, and take her in as said third employee. What follows is basically something of a character study, as over the next few weeks, they, alongside friendly police officer (and catgirl) Cullen, learn more about themselves and the world around them, for good and ill.
One of the amazing things about Karakara is how much effort is put into the world the characters inhabit and the whys and wherefores of their existence. The game takes great efforts to explain, for example, why Leon seems to be the only “normal” human around (and why this is, in fact, abnormal), and the ways in which the world has changed post apocalypse, and frankly, it makes discovery in the world feel exciting. To put it another way, every VN worth its salt has a theme behind its narrative; The Fruit of Grisaia focuses a lot on military life, for example, while If My Heart Had Wings is just silly with glider discussions and Steins;Gate talks extensively about time travel. Well, Karakara is super into its world and how different things are, and everything about this, from discussions about why animal people exist to how messed up the environment is to why the town is named Sagami Francisco is treated in a way that makes experiencing it enjoyable. The characters are also really likable in their own ways and mostly surprisingly complex, and following their narrative arcs to the end is interesting in its own way. The only notable downside of the game’s narrative is that the creators don’t really seem like they knew how to end it once they got where they were going. The game gets to a point where it resolves a large plot point, and it feels like there’s a really strong ending coming, and then the game just… ends. It’s clear there’s hope for a sequel here, and the game definitely has a strong starting point for one built in, but after being presented with a generally strong story otherwise, the ending comes across as kind of flat in comparison; it’s not bad, but it’s kind of a shame.
From a visual perspective, Karakara’s visuals are quite well done, mechanically and artistically… if you’re into the art style it uses. The game world itself is well illustrated and the characters are full of life, frequently changing models as the mood of the dialogue changes, to give their words extra weight. The models aren’t as animated as in something like Nekopara, but they do have a lot more life to them than you’d expect, and they bring the story to life nicely. Stylistically, though, the characters skew toward a decidedly “moe” bent, meaning that if that’s not your thing you may be put off; it’s not as much of an issue as you’d expect once you get into the game, but it can be jarring at first if you’re not into the aesthetic. Aurally, the game works with a small set of materials, and as such, what’s here works out pretty well without being too involved or complex. The three core voice actresses put a lot of effort into their parts and generally come across quite well in their tone and delivery, as do the smaller random parts that pop up occasionally as needed. The music is also quite fine; while none of it really stands on its own, it complements the scenes when playing and it fits the tone of the game well enough.
On the kinetic flow of post-apocalyptic catgirl stories
Karakara is a visual novel in thought and deed, so if you’ve read my reviews for games like Fruit of Grisaia or Nekopara, you know what you’re getting here. The characters talk one section of dialogue at a time, and you either click the left mouse button or press Space or Enter to advance the dialogue forward as needed, which advances the plot of the story each time you do so. Karakara is another game in the VN category called Kinetic Novels, meaning that, like Nekopara 2 before it, it’s a VN where there are no choices to be made through the entirety of the game. In other words, you’re only here for the story being told from start to finish, and there are no branches or varied content paths, so you can see the whole story in one run through. Given that the story being told here is pretty solid, that’s not a bad thing, especially since the game is only ten bucks, but as has been mentioned before, if you’re the sort of person who prefers your VNs to have multiple branches and lots of alternate options, that’s not what you’re getting here.
On the other side of things, even though the game is a straightforward affair story-wise, there’s some robust functionality to the game mechanically that makes it, as you’d hope, easy to navigate and play. The game has your standard Automatic and Skip functions for easy progression, as well as Quick Save and Quick Load in addition to normal saving and loading, so picking the game up and putting it down is a snap. There’s also two different Skip types, so you can customize one to skip previously read text and the other to skip everything if you want to go back to a point to re-read something you missed. There are also some of the more granular settings you don’t always see here, like individual character volume controls, window transparency options, and even some greyed out options for “continuing to skip after selections,” meaning that later Karakara games (or other games using this engine) might be more dynamic, even if this game isn’t. Perhaps the most interesting option, though, is the ability to utilize “Bilingual Display,” which displays both English and Japanese text on-screen at one time, which is great for the aspiring Japanese speaker if they want to learn the language. It’s not the most obvious feature one would expect, but it’s cute, even if you’re never planning to learn kanji at any point.
On long term play and bang for the buck
Karakara, as a Kinetic VN, is the sort of game that’s a “one and done” affair; once you’ve completed the plot (which is about three hours, all told) there’s nothing to vary that experience up for later playthroughs. The game does feature the standard CG and Sound galleries to peruse at your leisure, of course, and honestly, for the cost, what you’re getting here isn’t bad. The game even has a small compliment of Achievements to unlock, and may well feature Trading Cards at some point in the future, for those who find such things interesting. More importantly, though, is the fact that, as a ten dollar VN, what you’re given here is mostly pretty solid all in all. Outside of the flat ending and the fact that this is a Kinetic Novel, there’s actually a lot here to make the investment worthwhile; it’s mechanically sound and artistically interesting even if you’re not a fan of Moe style, and more importantly, the majority of the story on offer is worth seeing. There are some really good ideas here that make the game pretty easy to recommend if you’re into VNs and cute characters, and personally, of all the VNs I’ve played so far this year, this is the one I’ve enjoyed the most.
In other words, frankly, I recommend Karakara to anyone who likes VNs and isn’t opposed to Moe style or anthropomorphic characters, because if you’re fine with its aesthetic, it’ll reward you with an engaging world and cast, and a plot that’s pretty fun and interesting… mostly. The plot does a good job of fleshing out its characters and world without droning endlessly on one topic, the story as presented is mostly a joy to see through, the artwork just looks great in action and the aural presentation is generally as good as anything else you’d see in the genre. The game, as expected, is a Visual Novel in every respect, and offers most of the features one would expect from such a thing, as well as some neat extras (like dual language subtitles) that help it stand out. The ending comes across as a little flat in comparison to the engaging story that precedes it, unfortunately, and the fact that the game uses a Moe art style and Kinetic VN structure could also be a bit of a downer for those who don’t care for those specific elements in their VNs. Frankly, though, for the price those are really things that mostly shouldn’t be an issue, and Karakara on the whole is, so far, one of the better VNs to come out this year; it’s a little silly, and might not be for everyone, but for most, it should be worth a look.
Short Attention Span Summary:
Karakara is the sort of game that is more than the sum of its parts, such that it’s a surprisingly solid Visual Novel that’s well worth the investment; while its aesthetic and design might not be for everyone, if you’re willing to give it a chance, it might surprise you. The narrative is quite engaging and shows it’s more invested in its world and characters than advancing a gimmick, and the visuals and audio are well composed and presented throughout the game. The game is mechanically standard as VNs go, but offers all of the standard options you’d expect from such a product, and even some novelties (such as dual English and Japanese subtitles) to make it feel unique in its own special ways. The game is a Kinetic Novel, so it doesn’t offer any branches or options to bring you back outside of seeing the story again, and between a somewhat flat ending and the Moe presentation of the characters, it’s understandable that the game isn’t for everyone. If you’re fine with the aesthetic and nature of the VN, though, Karakara is worth a look, because it might surprise you; it’s aesthetically cute and straightforward, but a strong story and engaging characters make it a VN that’s just right for the price.