Review: Rakuen: Deluxe Edition (Nintendo Switch)
Rakuen: Deluxe Edition is the latest “grief” game to appear on the Nintendo Switch. For whatever reason, recent years have seen a flood of these types of games. Rakuen does not make this obvious early on, instead painting a cryptic but optimistic picture. But by the end, it just piles on misery. “Heartwarming” story? More like a gut-wrenching tale.
This is a composite title whose genre is tough to pin down. It has the look of an RPG (made in RPG Maker) but is so text-heavy it plays more like a visual novel in long stretches. Add in the puzzles, and I’d say Rakuen is of an indeterminate genre, unless the aforementioned “grief” characterization counts.
You control various characters throughout the game, but the main protagonist is an unnamed, hospitalized young boy. Joining him is his mother, who is reading him his favorite storybook, the titular Rakuen. The game blurs the lines between the hospital setting and the fantasy world found within the pages of the tome. It reminds me of Calvin & Hobbes in that way.
You’ll meet characters in your ward and their fantasy counterparts in the forest. Some are undeveloped (or forgotten), but these are generally well-written, and I feel like I got to know my neighbors. The personalities and problems felt realistic, and it was rewarding as I seemingly helped them.
The following two paragraphs have mild spoilers, so skip them if you’ve never played this game (it first came out six years ago) and want to be completely surprised. Most of the “grief” games I’m familiar with are balanced. They might deal with just a character or two, be spliced with subtle humor, and offer some better-case scenarios. In Rakuen’s case, it’s mostly one sad result after another, and they drop like dominoes in a line. I felt like I didn’t have time to register one disappointment before another appeared.
Worst of all, even at the end, it was disingenuously painting a picture of hope. But by that point, the final scenes were some I saw coming a mile away. The game seemed determined to kick you while you were down, and it was a shame to see such a polished, well-made title go the whole hog into misery. I felt like the Biblical Job at the end.
Visually, Rakuen fares well, despite the stigma that some attach to the RPG Maker engine. The bland interiors of the hospital setting contrast nicely with the colorful forest. The character portraits portray an emotional range and assist with the vast amount of story text. Plenty of little details and touches augment. This looks like a classic SNES title, and that’s a good thing.
Musically, there is quite a mix of tracks, which makes sense given the two distinct game locales. The tunes evoke different emotions, and the variety keeps even the most text-heavy or backtracking sessions moving. The instrumentals fare best for me, but a key component is the various vocal tracks, male and female. They are well done, despite adding to the gut-wrenching nature of the game.
My gaming acumen recognizes Rakuen: Deluxe Edition as a high-quality release that checks most of the right boxes. At the same time, this is a title I simply never want to play again and am anxious to forget. Its heavy-handed final act is unpleasantly predictable, making a game that felt fresh feel paradoxically clichéd. People grieve differently, and many will meld with this finished product. But I’m left saying it’s a good game that’s not for me: too bitter without enough sweetness to offset it.