Long, melodramatic, fluffy and cute and yet depressing as hell.
Yes, I deliberately picked the only poster that wasn't moelicious. That much sugar is bad for your teeth, you know.
Today I'll be learning you about a visual novel called Clannad. It's pretty famous; it was adapted into a two-season anime show, the second of which currently sits at the #2 best anime of all time, according to Anime News Network. So? Does the source material measure up? Read on and find out...and grab a drink or something, this might be a while.
This is not going to be an easy one to write, mostly because it strays way across the line into "your opinion" territory. Either you love it, or you hate it, or you hate that you love it, or you love that you hate it. Clannad is widely considered to be Japanese developer Key's biggest success and crowning achievement; whether you consider this to be a good thing depends entirely on your opinion of Key as a developer.
See, Key makes tearjerker games. They aren't subtle about it in the slightest, either. Generally, if you pick up a Key game, you know what you're getting into. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but a little variety never hurt anyone. And that's the problem with Clannad: it is the pinnacle of all that is Key; tearjerking in its purest and most concentrated format. Whether its execution is up to snuff is the main point of contention.
Clannad follows the story of young Okazaki Tomoya, slacker extraordinaire. He's a third year high school student with little to no thought or motivation towards education, socializing, or even geeking out. He just drifts through life rather aimlessly, killing time with his partner in...not-crime Sunohara Youhei. Naturally, things start to take a turn for the more interesting when "she is the lead heroine" dramatic wind/cherry blossoms combination scenes in recent history, they meet cute. Tomoya finds himself doing things for other people for once in his life, and things are set in motion that will likely end up with him learning some valuable things about himself, and almost definitely landing himself a girlfriend.
Put the newspaper away, son. Nagisa is not a bug.
Incidentally, "Clannad" comes from the
butchering of an Irish word for "family," which is a major theme and driving force behind almost everything that happens in this game.
Clannad is one of those visual novels where finishing all the "normal" routes unlocks a final "true" route. Since there are so many normal routes, each clocking in at a considerable length, this adds up a fair bit. See, one thing you have to know about Clannad is that it's very, very long. A lot of people clock in at around ~100 hours. It took me around a month to finish, and I read fairly quickly and in marathon sessions. The main cause of this length is the boatload of characters and their issues that Tomoya, and by extension you, have to work through.
There's Nagisa, the main girl, with the hair antennae of a cockroach and unfortunately none of its tenacity; Tomoyo, the hypercompetent student council prez in the making, not to be confused with protagonist Tomoya; Kyou, the aggressive purple-haired button-pusher from the next class over, and Ryou, her impossibly shy fortune-telling twin sister in appearance only; Kotomi, the book-loving genius girl and weird loner; Yukine, the peaceful tea-making caretaker (and hive mother) of the abandoned resource library; and Fuuko, the very very weird spacey girl with an obsession with starfish. That's not even everyone, either. There's a whole host of other important side characters ranging from family members to ambiguously androgynous dudes to characters whose very existence is spoileriffic.
Day before yesterday I saw a moeblob, yesterday a tsundere, and today, you.
The routes themselves are generally pretty good, following the Key tradition of first half slice of life comedy, second half drama and crushing despair, followed by (if you're lucky) glorious tears of joy at a moderately happy ending despite the second act. ALL of them. Even the ones you'd think would be played for laughs. Once all the normal routes are completed, Clannad unlocks the After Story route, which picks up from Nagisa's (main girl) non-ending, giving the entire thing a proper fina- wait what's that? You have to finish all the routes in After Story first? Yeah, this is the kind of game where nothing short of 100% completion will give you the proper ending. This is explained and justified in-game; whether you feel the explanation is adequate is entirely up to you.
As for the technical aspects, Clannad is a little iffy. Visuals are so-so, there's a bit of a dry spell of new backgrounds in the main game; since that's where the player will spend the vast majority of their time, they tend to get old pretty quickly. After Story introduces a whole pile of new settings, though, almost as if to make up for it. Character designs are a bit...different. The wide faces, odd proportions, enormous eyes and almost invisible mouths definitely stress the "cute" factor, but they do take a bit of getting used to for people used to more recent anime styles.
Fuuko is not the sharpest crayon in the box. She's like an adorably stupid dog: cute and silly, but sometimes you just gotta stop and stare and it and wonder what the ever-loving fuck is going through her mind right now.
Music is a high point, however. Each girl has a specific theme, all of which are catchy and suit the mood nicely. There's also an entire page in the music replay library devoted to sad music, most of which is very well done at best, and effective at worst. Nagisa's in particular seems scientifically engineered in a lab to tug at the heartstrings as much as humanly possible; those of you who've seen the anime will recognize it as "that dango song." (Warning: for the love of Madoka, don't read the comments on that video, apparently everyone just loves to drop spoilers everywhere. In fact, if you're gonna play this game, just stay away from anything Clannad related on the internet. I managed to get spoiled on a major event just from Google's auto-fill while looking for a song.)
So, just to sum it up, Clannad is a reasonably well-written character drama about the importance of family and friends, coming of age, and accepting and living up to responsibilities. It features truckloads of cute girls doing cute things, great music, and if you're looking for something to weep like a child at, this game is infamous for giving you reason to.
Now, if that convinced you to play it,
STOP READING RIGHT NOW.
Go out and buy it or otherwise acquire it, and play it. Alternatively, if you played it and you absolutely loved it, you might want to stop reading now as well.
Here, have a Tomoyo being perfect and wonderful.
If you're still here, I'm going to talk about what I thought about it.
Honestly? Mixed feelings. While I was playing, I thought it was fantastic. The first couple routes were glorious, emotions were running as fast and free as the bitch-tears on my face, and life was good. And then it just kept going on, and on, and on, and on. Listen, Key. There is drama, and then there is contrived coincidence. I can accept some things as acts of god and whatnot, but after a certain point of crying and being sad and feeling awful over bad things happening to cute girls (who obviously don't deserve such things; I mean come on, they're cute) I just could not bring myself to care anymore.
See how I condensed all the heroines into the space of a sentence or less in one of the paragraphs near the beginning? I hope you liked that characterization, cause for the most part that's all you're gonna get. Don't get me wrong, there's a decent amount of spoiler-related drama that fleshes them out a little, but apart from that they tend to suffer from a little thing informally called "single-issue psychology." Everything about their personality stems from one particular experience, and everything about them revolves around one particular personality quirk.
Put as simply and bluntly as physically possible, every single one of the characters are blatant pandering. Yes, I realize this is a visual novel/dating sim; yes I realize all the hypocrisy and inherent silliness in the above statement, but sweet zombie Jesus is it ever painfully obvious. The girls are as inoffensive, immature and essentially as stereotypically "moe" as they could get away with. Kyou was the only one I believed for the barest of moments that could actually pass for someone in their last year of high school, the rest I'd put on the mental levels of 5-10 year olds. Sure, Kotomi has a bit of an explanation for the way she acts around the protagonist, but that doesn't excuse how far overboard her single-issue psychology gets. And Fuuko? If I were a more cynical, bitter man I would've thought she was mentally retarded. There are immature high school students, and then there's her impossibly childish behaviour. All of this is supposed to incite that wonderful protective feeling in the player all so that Key can gleefully do terrible things to the girls, thus getting that sought-after emotional reaction from the players.
90% OF THE GAME IS THIS.
All this is well and good, I suppose. Some people might like that sort of thing, other people might not find it as unsettling as I did. It's just that the combination of certain things - the ultra-serious tone of the game, the blatant cute-pandering, the forced drama and contrived plot twists in EVERY route - just killed it for me by the time I got to After Story. Drama is a very fine line to walk between believable and contrived, and one that relies very much on the audience's individual tolerances. By the time I got to the first fake ending of After Story, when
It was just so...clinical. Like the designers sat down and decided that this point right here, right after this line, we're gonna make them cry. Cue music, sad picture, cute girl says depressing line. Yes, I'm sure that's how every drama works, but never was it more obvious than in Clannad.
Another thing to pick at is the structure of the game itself. The choices range from stunningly obvious to completely impenetrable, and bad ends are everywhere. They're also generally pretty long and heartbreaking, and they go from depressing to just frustrating after the fourth or fifth time. The game itself is nigh-impossible to navigate without a walkthrough, as certain endings require a specific route play order or navigating a maze of choices to get to.
Hmph. It'll take a lot more than that t- OH GOD MY HEART IT'S SO CUTE
And finally, Nagisa. Normally, I don't pick apart characters, but for you dear, I'll make an exception. No spoilers in here, but if you loved her, you might wanna skip this paragraph.
So overall, my thoughts on Clannad? Disappointing, but only because I had such high expectations. It was still a decent read at times, and some routes (Kotomi's, Kyou's, any part of After Story that didn't have Nagisa) were great, bordering on fantastic. The good parts were unfortunately overshadowed by contrived plot twists, staggering length, and poor characterization. Tomoya himself steals the show, I cared far more about his development than any of the others. So, not all was bad, and most of the parts that were bad were purely subjective.
This is very much a divisive piece of work; quickest way to find out if you like it is to either watch the first couple episodes of the show, or if you've ever seen or played anything Key has done. It's worth noting that I really wanted to love it. Chances are, you will. It just wasn't the kind of thing I could suspend my disbelief for, and I'm legitimately disappointed I couldn't enjoy it as much as other did. Whatever you decide, bring tissues. All the cynicism in the world can't hold a candle to this mechanically-engineered soul-crushing machine.
This has been Deskimus Prime signing off with yet another review. Feel free to leave your rage and your comments below. See you next time, same Bat-forum, some other Bat-time.
If you liked that visual novel review, why not try some more?