Katawa Shoujo is the product of an incredible collaboration between dozens of dedicated fans, united via 4chan’s anime board. The whole project was based off of one image; according the Katawa Shoujo site, it was, “an omake page from the doujin Schuppen Harnische by RAITA of doujin circle Zettai Shoujo, detailing character art for a dating sim he dubbed ‘Katawa Shoujo.’” For five years, an international group of amateur developers, artists, musicians, writers, animators, engineers and producers worked on the game as a labor of love. The music for the game was composed and compiled by Blue123 and NicolArmarfi, with contributions by delta, Juno, and CplCrud. While information on them is hard to come by, I suspect it’s not a stretch to say that this would be their video game soundtrack debut.
In a way, it’s difficult to remove the idea that they are amateurs and only have access to free or cheap resources from the judgment of the soundtrack. It would be unfair to compare the Katawa Shoujo OST to professionally-made and well-funded visual novels like Fate/Stay Night, or any other video game on the market created by established and successful studios. Composing music is difficult, especially if your resources are limited – as awesome as it would be to have a song with vocals, you need a vocalist.
With that in mind, I still think that the music in Katawa Shoujo accomplishes what most music in gaming seeks to do: it compliments the story and the characters. The melodies are simple, and instruments are kept to a minimum. Many songs have a music-box quality to them, a quaint, simple melody that repeats itself, as in the song Fripperies. In a way, it reflects the world of the game, which is very slice-of-life. The characters are high schoolers, dealing with high school issues like classes, homework, love and a social life. While things might get intense with emotional roller coasters and tragedy, the game, and by extension the music, remain simple. At times it’s reminiscent of the music of Disgaea, while at others it brings to mind thoughts of Harvest Moon (Cold Iron, the Student Council), another simple and daily-life game.
Piano is the primary instrument used in most songs, though guitars, flutes and percussion make appearances. Most other instruments, like saxophones and clarinets, are imitated via synthesizer. The beat for songs is maintained mostly by a repetitive beat track, not unlike the default tracks you’d find on a keyboard. In tracks like Damage, simulated environmental sounds contribute to the melody in a creative way, especially when the sounds are as profound as the hospital noises as heard by a teenage boy who has just discovered that his life balances on the edge of a dysfunctional heart.
However, while the music might complement the game well, I wouldn’t say it’s something you could listen to on its own. The simplicity borders on boring and tedious, even though the longest song is only 4 minutes. Also, in trying to tailor the music to the situations in the game, the composer overextends himself. The attempts at jazz, as in Ah Eh I Oh You or Parity, fall short. It’s not something you notice really while playing the game, because you get fairly involved and immersed in the story. However, the fact that the Katawa Shoujo site provides a free download for the OST entitled Enigmatic Box of Sound suggests that they intended, or believed, that the songs could stand alone outside of the game. And in some cases, they can – like Everyday Fantasy, Focus, But sometimes they’re just painfully generic, like Friendship and Afternoon.
In general, I think the music of Katawa Shoujo is pleasant, and very well put together for an amateur venture. The melodies, while simple, occasionally have complex intermingling of instruments, which weave about each other. No song stands out as being exceptionally engaging or well done, though maybe songs like Focus and Spin come close. The primary purpose of the songs is to compliment the game, to give the characters and events more depth, and it accomplishes this goal very well. Unfortunately, the only purpose the OST could serve outside of the game is to give you a feeling of nostalgia as you recall which instance of the game the song corresponds to. Whether or not a soundtrack should strive to stand alone is up for debate, or if its primary goal is to work in support of the game and its story.