RPG Maker, as an engine, has a bit of a bad reputation among the gaming community. To be fair, a large portion of the projects to come out of it aren’t very good, as is the case with any relatively affordable, open-access development tool. Yet the tools are only as good as the developer, in my opinion, and some really interesting ventures have come out of it over the course of its lifespan. Kokurase is another one to add to the “interesting” list, because despite some flaws, it’s an endearing little game with a price tag you can’t really beat: free.
The basic idea behind Galanti’s hybrid visual novel is that there’s a secret club operating on high school grounds. This club makes a business of other people’s business, which is to say that they fancy themselves as problem-solvers. In this debut episode, a girl named Sakura is chronically shy, and can’t work up the nerve to ask out the very popular, very aloof Yoshimitsu. She enlists the help of the titular Kokurase, an eclectic group of students, to help her build up her courage and get the guy.
This might seem pretty straightforward, but fear not—the delivery of this game is anything but. Plot threads involve framing Yoshimitsu for being a peeping tom and stalking a stalker. Characters can see ghosts and use magical logic powers to solve problems. Bits of dialogue include being attracted to somebody because they look like the family dog. What I’m getting at, then, is that Kokurase is a very, very strange game, memorable in its absurdity and endearing in its weirdness. A cute, yet sort of offputting art style in the spirit of Touch Detective adds to the odd charm.
Most of the gameplay is decidedly less odd, for the most part. Walk a little 2D sprite around, scroll through dialogue, switch characters, rinse and repeat. It’s basically a visual novel with mild interactivity. That mild interactivity, though, is used to an interesting extent sometimes. On the text side of things, players collect “key phrases,” then use them to progress the narrative—taking a very clear page from Ace Attorney’s case file. As far as navigation goes, players will occasionally have to do specific things, such as clean a room, stay hidden in a locker room, or shove a person down hallways to move them. Again—it’s a visual novel with some interaction. Nothing more, nothing less. The visuals are a bit drab and don’t pop very much, though, which makes walking around kind of dull. It’s saved by some really adorable and weird character portraits, at least.
As endearing as I find Kokurase, though, there are flaws that hold it back from actual greatness. For starters, some of the logic outright makes no sense, due to awkward phrasing and weird misdirection. People familiar with presenting random evidence in Ace Attorney and hoping for the best will know what I’m talking about, although it’s much more infuriating here due to how many key phrases you can have at once. The game’s stilted dialogue and strange delivery actively hinders its flow in some cases.
What’s also irritating is the save system, which is infuriatingly sparse—to the point where it’s possible to ruin the save file. Near the end of the game, players are prompted to save often in a particular section, due to possible fail states. I did just that, but I was one line of dialogue behind, and as a result, I completely ruined my save file. There are no checkpoints, or anything like that—hard saves only. I’m a pretty old school as far as gaming goes, and once ruined a Tomb Raider III save file by saving just as Lara Croft fell to her death. But Tomb Raider III came out in 1999—it’s 2016, and no significant checkpointing is a major oversight. At least Kokurase’s first episode is short (it can be finished in a little over an hour) but being able to doom your save and be forced to start over is awful.
Ultimately, though, I do like Kokurase. It’s a quirky, cute little game with a memorable cast of characters, and I’ll probably buy the remaining episodes. It’s far from perfect, or even “great,” but a specific audience will find something charming here. I definitely have, and in spite of some lack of polish, irritating flaws, and occasionally stilted progression, I look forward to a few more adventures with the lovable members of Kokurase.