Rakuen is a top-down 2D role-playing adventure that takes its visual cues from the 16-bit era. It's a sprite-based exploration game, in which text boxes serve as the primary conduit for communication.
Despite such deep drafts from the past, it's a surprisingly modern game, one that alchemizes the most basic gameplay into joyful stories that fizz with unexpected emotional power.
In Rakuen (the title translates from Japanese as "pleasure garden"), a lonely, bored boy is laid up in a hospital ward. He finds a way to escape his humdrum existence by investigating the troubles of other patients, both adults and children. The hospital has recently been damaged by a severe natural disaster, the details of which emerge over the game's 12 or so hours of running time.
The boy's main task is to collect the songs that mean so much to his new friends, placing music at the center of the story. It's worth noting that Rakuen's creator, Laura Shigihara, is a highly regarded composer who's worked on many video games, including Plants vs. Zombies, World of Warcraft, Minecraft and To the Moon.
As the boy explores his surroundings, he finds an entrance to a parallel fantasy world, one that is intimately connected to the real world. The strange creatures in this magical universe are connected to the sad patients back in real life. This Wizard of Oz-esque trick plays out in puzzles which, once solved, affect both worlds in unexpected ways. The alternate world is a riot of color and wonder, another Oz-like play that contrasts with the drab hospital interior.
Rakuen's tales present a multitude of strange characters met along the way, from a grumpy onion to a pretentious rose. There are dragons, bears, mushrooms and unknowable creatures whose only role is to express contentment with the taste of cabbage. This is Alice in Wonderland stuff, but it's admirable how much personality is wrought from the simplest of sprites, and how the collective culture somehow coheres.
The unnamed boy undertakes quests on behalf of the patients and their fantasy-world avatars. He searches for lost things, collects needful items, figures out logic puzzles and follows basic instructions. Rakuen's workmanlike gameplay engaged me by closely tying likable quest-givers to genuinely desirable rewards. Instead of selfish upgrades and geegaws, my reward is the happiness of my new friends. These characters need my help and I am happy to oblige, because I feel rewarded by the end of their distress. This is the mark of great storytelling.
The world is varied and cleverly gated, which encourages progress. I travel through the broken nethers of a hospital basement to sky islands and magical tea rooms. I explore dank caves and the Tokyo of stray animals. I'm sometimes dropped into the memories and the minds of the people I'm trying to help.
There is no combat in Rakuen, no sense of violence except for the shadow of fear and undoing as represented by ghostly sprites, floating at the margins. Peril is rare, mostly little more than a time-limit device on specific puzzles.
But this absence of bloodletting ought not be mistaken for bland niceness. Rakuen's narrative threads curl around the most thorny issues, including addiction, loneliness, exclusion, bullying, remorse and grief. This is not a life-and-death story in the sense that you try to kill people and you try to stay alive. It's a life-and-death story in the sense that it's about living and dying. It's about the cruelty of fortune.
The boy and his patients try to make sense of a world of cancer diagnoses, of children killed in accidents and adults robbed of their reason. These weighty topics are given their due within both the environment of a hospital ward and the juxtaposition of a candy-cane world.
On his journeys, the boy is accompanied by his mother. Her role in gameplay terms in minimal; she's mostly just on hand to offer conversational foils and puzzle clues. But as Rakuen turns toward its final act, her presence increases to the point where she personifies the message this game has to offer.
As she says, late in the game, a kind heart and a gentle spirit are the most valuable of individual qualities. In Rakuen, they serve to alleviate the distresses of the patients in the ward, to help them make sense of their misfortune and to aid them in atoning for their mistakes.
But it also turns out that kindness and gentleness serve as valuable internal resources when times are hard. How we react to misfortune really matters.
Rakuen gives full range to the power of its truth. It’s thoughtful, beautiful, sad and funny. It presents itself as a childlike narrative game, but it offers unsettling and affirming truths about the way we live. I feel privileged to have spent time with its characters, with their weaknesses and their strengths. This is an extraordinary game.
Rakuen was reviewed using a pre-release Steam key provided by the developers. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.