It might be dark inside, but there are still stars shining in the sky
I first learned about artist Laura Shigihara through her work on the song Everything's Alright in To the Moon, one of my favorite games of all time. So obviously when I learned she was releasing a game of her own in 2017 I had no hesitation in jumping on it immediately. That game, Rakuen, has since become very close to my heart, and I have been eagerly awaiting the Switch release ever since it was announced last year. That release has finally come in the form of Rakuen: Deluxe Edition, which not only includes the original game but also its smaller sequel Mr. Saitou as well. Are these two games worth your time as they arrive on Nintendo's platform? Just to get the answer out of the way quickly: absolutely.
In Rakuen you play as a young boy who has been hospitalized for an indefinite amount of time. His condition has at least improved enough that he is able to wander the wing he's residing in, meeting the other patients and hospital staff working there. In order to pass the time his mother reads him a story taking place in a magical forest where the guardian Morizora resides, granting one wish to those he deems worthy. The two discover a mysterious door, which leads them into the world of the storybook, and the boy decides he wants to ask Morizora for a wish. There's just one problem: Morizora is asleep, and the only way to wake him is by finding the five parts of Mori no Kokoro, the song that will wake him up. To find the different parts of the song the boy and his mother begin exploring and interacting with the forest counterparts of the patients back in the hospital, hearing about their stories and helping them through their current traumas. The result is a story that looks and feels cute and fun, but every once and awhile surprises you with a masterfully done attack directly on your heart strings.
Rakuen is another game made largely in the RPG Maker engine, meaning gameplay is as simple as can be. You wander around the world, can interact with objects or people with A, look through your inventory and journal with X, and ask mom for hints with Y. Areas in Rakuen tend to be very puzzle based, whether it's a puzzle based on pressing switches in the right order, pushing blocks, or finding the right combination of actions to trigger the way forward. These puzzles are all well put together, though none of them are admittedly all that hard. One minor complaint I have with the gameplay is that, while I understand that this is meant to be a game you take your time with, I do wish there was an option to move at least slightly faster, as the boy's default walk speed can start to feel a bit slow at times. This is especially true during some sections that have you walking through areas you've already visited multiple times.
This package also includes Rakuen's newly released mini-sequel Mr. Saitou, which plays essentially the same as its predecessor. In Mr. Saitou you play as the titular Saitou, a llamaworm salaryman who feels unfulfilled in life. When a young bud named Brandon breaks into his house, Saitou finds himself escorting Brandon on an adventure to visit the Flooded Gemstone Caverns, a place he's always dreamed of going. This story of a man developing a new outlook on life may not be as emotionally powerful as Rakuen but still maintains the levels of charm and heart that make the first game so memorable in the first place. It is also much shorter than Rakuen, clocking in at just under two hours in comparison to Rakuen's six to eight hour runtime.
More than anything Rakuen and Mr. Saitou both deliver a delightfully charming experience in a magical world, but one that has the potential to leave you an emotional wreck by the end. The colorful art design and memorable characters are sure to keep the game in your mind for a long time, and Laura Shigihara's background as a musician is clear to see with the game's soundtrack, juggling fun bouncy pieces and somber tunes alongside multiple well done vocal tracks. It is not a soundtrack you will forget any time soon. Rakuen is a story about grief and life, one that is told well and that people should absolutely experience if given the opportunity. Just make sure you have a box of tissues at the ready, just in case.