Original and traditional in equal measure
Katawa Shoujo is a strange piece of software. Diving blind into this free (on the subject of reviewing a free product, this is a significant time committment for a player, and the game frankly deserves the praise), anime-inspired visual novel, oblivious to the circumstances of its development (which involve a decade-old piece of concept art, lengthy discussions on 4chan's /a/ board circa 2007, and a furth half-decade of actual creation), not much stands out as especially unique - the art style is completely traditional, the backgrounds mere stock photographs layered with a blur effect, and the narration average, at best. But in the opening minutes, as the protagonist is confronted by his true love, and his heart flutters into arrythmic cardiac arrest, you know you've come upon something special.
After a grueling stint in the hospital following the violent revelation of his illness, Hisao Nakai is enrolled in Yamaku High School, a private educational institution for teenagers with disabilities ranging from blindness and deafness to missing limbs and body-covering burns. It is in the characters that populate this very special private school, and its deft, thoughtful, and compassionate treatment of their disabilities, that KS shines.
The inevitable story of a VN is that of romance, and Katawa Shoujo is no different. With five female love interests (mutually exclusive, Charlie Tunoku) and a smattering of bizzare side characters to populate the world of Yamaku High, the game is nothing if not replayable. If that sounds mundane, it's because it's true; I've only played through a single successful 'path' so far (culminating in a pointless, though optional, graphic sex scene - more on this later), and it took me eight full hours of leisurely paced reading. Significant, considering the game is, again, free, and the five story paths diverge after basically an hour of introductory scenes.
That path alone, with the incredibly shy, anxious Hanako Ikezawa, was eight hours well spent, and it was surprisingly well-handled considering the typical VN criticism of fantasticial, insincere, or otherwise false romances. But that's the thing: for the first seven hours of my experience, I didn't even have a romance, just a touching friendship with a scared, scarred human being, replete with breakdowns, gradual healing processes, and plenty of honest psychological torment. The effort that goes into developing these characters as more than fanservice-y melon carts adds heft to the eventual climaxes - figurative, not literal - of their relationships.
This wonderful journey, however, is not without occasional stumbling blocks. The characters are expressive, but in such a portrait-driven experience, some of the art - especially with parapalegic track star Emi Ibarazaki - looks a little unfinished, and the culmination of each successful playthrough is, as mentioned, rather bad pornography that doesn't work for anything but jarring you out of your suspension of disbelief. Turn that shit off in the options menu, seriously. The game also features periodic story choices which influence the course of your story and the fate of the characters - except for the fact that you can always save as soon as noticing one, so picking the obvious 'bad' path is merely a frustrating annoyance. Either forcing a committment to story choices or eliminating them altogether would've served Katawa Shoujo immensely, but then again, that wouldn't make it a 'true' visual novel.
Still, it's hard to otherwise find fault in this game, if you can get past the staunch anime influece (this is actually an international, English-focused game, strangely enough) and the pandering nature of the sex scenes. Katawa Shoujo is an experience that's absolutely worth your time, and your bandwidth.