CLANNAD ~ A Spoiler-Free Review
Now that CLANNAD is out on Steam, some of you must be considering whether or not to pick it up. I'm sure many of our readers here come from various different backgrounds. Some are fans of the game who have played it previously and wish to know how this new port stands up. Some are fans of the anime, may be new to visual novels, and want to know what to expect. And there must also be some who have never experienced CLANNAD in any form, and want to know what all the buzz is about. With this review, I'll be aiming to please all of these groups by providing my own spoiler-free thoughts on the release. To do this, I'll be looking at a few different areas and how CLANNAD fairs in each of them. We'll start by providing some background on the release, then talk about how it functions mechanically as a game and more specifically a visual novel, a brief introduction to and my thoughts on the story, and a look at the audiovisual quality of the game. Hopefully this review has what you're looking for! And if you do end up picking up CLANNAD, I hope you'll consider joining us in reading and discussing it together for the CLANNAD Bookclub!
CLANNAD was originally released 11 years ago in 2004 as the third in developer Key's line of nakige visual novels. Before we jump too far ahead, a visual novel is a 'game' (or perhaps interactive software) which consists of reading through text accompanied by visuals and sound. The only sort of 'gameplay' you'll find is in the ability to make choices which affect the course that the story will take. 'Nakige' is a term used by the Japanese (lit. 'crying game') to describe a sub-genre of visual novels which primarily focus on reaching the reader on an emotional level, and often causing them to cry by the end. This is usually accomplished by starting the reader off in an environment where they can peacefully interact with the characters with some light-hearted comedy scenes, before descending into character-oriented drama which manipulates the reader's attachment to said characters for maximum emotional impact. Key have this down to an artform, and continue to inspire these emotional reactions in readers to this day with each successive visual novel they release.
Key are often credited as the company who set the standard for this genre of visual novels, and continue to be regarded by many as one of the best visual novel developers in the world. Of all of Key's releases, CLANNAD is certainly one which continues to be held in high regard by Japanese readers all these years later. However, until very recently, none of these titles have seen any chance of an official English release. Until now, the only way you could experience CLANNAD in English was through either fan-made translation patches, or for most people, the CLANNAD anime adaptation. The anime was met with significant critical acclaim, generating many thousands of fans for the series all around the world, but many have yet to experience the source material that spawned this media franchise. So, why would you want to experience the CLANNAD visual novel if you've already seen the anime? Read on~
CLANNAD is very much a traditional visual novel, in the sense that the 'gameplay' is entirely made up of reading through text and making choices at different points. This ain't no Fallout 4; almost every choice have an immediate effect on the course the story takes, diverging into different 'routes', each with their own unique endings. As with most visual novels of the genre, the structure of the branching routes revolves around its characters. Most of these characters (though not all) are female, and yes, majority of these routes contain romance subplots, but it's very important to remember that CLANNAD isn't a dating sim. Of all the routes, only a couple heavily focus on the romance aspect, while the rest focus on the personal struggles each character faces in their lives, and how they unfold through the protagonist's interaction. Oh, speaking of the protagonist, the game does give you the option to name the protagonist however you like. That said, the protagonist is very much his own character, rather than a blank-slate protagonist you might see in other similar games. You'll also hear the characters speaking the protagonist's real name through the voice acting, so I would personally recommend against changing your name to anything other than the canonical 'Tomoya Okazaki'.
As for reaching these good endings, this is where the game loses points for me. The choices that need to be made in order to enter a character's route and complete it can be a little bit tricky, to the point of being needlessly cryptic and requiring you to brute force it. You know, saving at every choice and skipping through text to see what does and doesn't work. Not exactly the most fun thing to do, in my experience. Some infamous examples include the entry into Misae's route, where you have to give three specific answers to seemingly inconsequential choices in a specific order to cause Misae to remember something from her past, triggering her route. Or another point where to enter Tomoyo's route, you need to have interacted with another character just enough to stay on Tomoyo's route so said character can help you out of a difficult situation on the way to Tomoyo's good ending. And of course, your seemingly inconsequential choice very early in the game of whether or not to help the construction worker can make the difference between a good or bad ending in some routes. Stuff like this is a headache to figure out on your own, so while exploration of the different branches the story can take is a lot of fun and encouraged, we highly recommend referring to a walkthrough if you plan on reading this visual novel through to its completion. Fortunately, our writer Pepe has prepared a walkthrough for the game right here!
In terms of length, CLANNAD is long. Very long. It has a total of about 100,000 lines; that's in the realm of 80 hours reading time for the average reader. By our estimates, that's about twice as long as the Lord of the Rings trilogy! Such a huge amount of content may seem daunting, but as long as you're able to form an attachment to the cast, the time will go by like nothing. Each individual character route is essentially it's own short novel, and once you get sucked in, you'll find it hard to put down. Compared to something like the 49 episode anime series, you'll find that the CLANNAD visual novel does a much better job of immersing the reader in the world of the story, and provides much more detail than was ever possible in the adapted works. It especially shines through when it comes to the protagonist's internalised thoughts and feelings. As added incentive for the anime viewer, the visual novel also includes a lot of content that was cut from the anime, from entire routes like Kappei and Koumura, to fun extras like laser tag and Jet Saito. There's much more content to be found here!
Also, without spoiling anything, this visual novel does in fact contain a true ending, titled After Story. To access it, you essentially have to read through every single character route, and then After Story will become accessible from the main menu. It's easy for those hearing about it to dismiss it as a bonus for the dedicated completionists, but I don't think it's a stretch to say that the real value to be found in CLANNAD's story comes from After Story. You could almost think of it as a complete sequel and conclusion to the normal game, even if its quite a bit shorter than the rest of the game combined. If you plan on reading CLANNAD, you can't call it done until you've read After Story. Trust us on this one!
The story follows the daily life of our protagonist, high schooler Tomoya Okazaki: a delinquent who is always arriving late to classes or skipping them to nap whenever the opportunity arises. It's quickly revealed to us that this is due to the awkward relationship he has with his father, who, after an incident of domestic violence, Tomoya has actively avoided speaking to, staying up late at night and waking up late in the morning just to avoid seeing his face. One day on the way to school, he meets our female lead, the clumsy girl Nagisa Furukawa who is desperately struggling to find the courage to continue attending school after having been forced to repeat her final year due to chronic illness. On a whim, Tomoya speaks to the girl, and if the reader so chooses becomes her friend, granting her the courage she needs to continue coming to school each day, while Tomoya finally begins to feel something changing in his life. From here, the reader can choose to interact with the large number of characters both in and outside his school: students, townspeople, and even school staff, each with their own story to tell. All the while, a mysterious fantasy story with no immediately apparent relation to the main plot is gradually told between chapters, describing a doll made of junk and a young girl trapped in a strange world where nothing is born and nothing dies. This sub-story adds an element of mystery and intrigue that keeps you reading, wanting to learn more.
The early portion of the story follows a very slow but relaxing pace, as the game follows Tomoya's life day by day, with a calendar in the top left giving you a handy indication of how far you've progressed. Tomoya spends most of his days playing the jokester and messing around with his one friend Youhei Sunohara, the sidekick and butt of every joke in the story. Judging the comedy of the game is a very subjective thing that's hard to evaluate in a review; you either love it or you hate it. For me, some of the repeating gags, like Sunohara getting in fights with Tomoyo and losing each time can get pretty old pretty fast, but there's other moments like this gem below that cause me laugh out loud. It's pretty hit and miss, but if you're anything like me, there will be quite a few scenes that will get a good laugh out of you. The comedy isn't quite on the level of Little Busters! or Rewrite, but it's definitely not terrible either.
In the times you're not messing around with Sunohara, you're probably interacting with one of unique girls around the school. Each of the characters have their own distinct personality, and while some fall into some typical anime stereotypes (the nervous girl who has a crush on you, the quirky and socially awkward girl, the eccentric airheaded genius), the depth of the characters begins to shine through the more you spend time with them. The scenes surrounding each character each have their own unique tone to them, ranging from silly to tranquil to energetic from character to character. These scenes often have their own quirky humour to them, but as you choose to become more involved with a particular character, that's when the drama begins picking up, until eventually culminating in a climax before reaching some kind of resolution. Some of the routes contain supernatural elements to add a bit of fantastical intrigue, while others are much more mundane and relatable. The writing of the drama for each character route varies, since four different writers worked on the game, each writing different character routes. Everyone has their own opinions on which routes they like the most, but the standouts for me as of writing would have to be Yuuichi Suzumoto's Kotomi route, Kai's Kyou route, and Jun Maeda's After Story. I don't feel like any of the routes were particularly bad, and all of them had very memorable scenes, but again, this comes down to taste, so you'll just need to try them out for yourself. At the very least, I can safely say that the most compelling and emotionally impacting route has to be After Story, which provides a huge pay-off for everything that came before. Since each of the routes have their own value, I can't recommend skipping any of them. But if you told me you only wanted to read one route, then I'd ask you to make it After Story. It's something everyone should experience at least once. Anime viewers should be able to back me up on that one.
That said, it's difficult to recommend CLANNAD to people who aren't comfortable with the anime influence in its presentation. While there is tremendous value and meaning to be found in CLANNAD's narrative, it's by no means elegant poetry. It has its rough edges, and if you aren't into the anime visuals, squeaky Japanese voices and slapstick comedy, you may find it difficult to stomach. That said, I got my bookworm mother to watch the CLANNAD anime and she loved it. It's much more stomach-able than majority of the stuff out there, and is especially tasteful compared to the heavy majority of the visual novel market, but when going in, you need to be able to accept its roots in Japanese otaku culture. I can't recommend it to people who hate anime, but if you've already been softened up to the otaku culture, then you shouldn't have any trouble finding enjoyment in it. If you can't justify spending 80 hours reading it, then I can happily recommend the anime adaptation. But for those who want the complete, unabridged experience, the visual novel will welcome you with open arms. And believe me, it's worth your time.
So, how does the steam version of CLANNAD hold up as a port, all these years after the original 2004 release? To answer that, we first need to acknowledge the changes that have been made in the successive releases since then, and how they've lead us to where we are now. The original 2004 release of CLANNAD featured no voice acting, and boasted a miniscule 640x480 resolution. Four years later in 2008, the game was re-released as CLANNAD Full Voice, which added full voice acting for the game's enormous script (excluding the protagonist's lines), and upped the resolution to 800x600. More recently, console ports of the game were released which added achievements, and upgraded all of the graphical assets to high definition. Thanks to the success of the Kickstarter, these achievements and assets were added to the Steam release of CLANNAD, which sits at a much nicer 1280x960 resolution. The higher resolution is very welcome on the much bigger monitors we have today.
The script of the game was completely re-translated from scratch by Sekai Project, and the quality of the writing shines brightly, especially when compared to the previous efforts of fan translators. No more awkward writing. The translators took some liberties when translating lines to maintain the meaning in English, such as translating any English lines to Spanish to capture the meaning of the character acting like a foriegner. That said, there are many instances where the original Japanese was left unaltered, such as references to Japanese folklore like Urashima Tarō or the Nue, or the choice to use Japanese honorifics to illustrate the distance between Tomoya and his father. To compensate for these Japanese references that some westerners may not understand, Sekai Project decided to develop their own unique feature for the game which they've dubbed the 'Dangopedia'. Any time you encounter a Japanese cultural reference, the term will be highlighted in red, and a notification that you've unlocked a new Dangopedia term will appear at the top of the page. From there, you can check the Dangopedia to read up on the reference to understand the context behind what's being said. You can think of it like a codex of translation notes you can read in your own time. I've found it to be quite a welcome addition, as it adds an extra layer of incentive for the completionist to search through the entire game to unlock every single Dangopedia entry. Even if that's not its primary purpose, I can't deny that seeing those notifications pop up while I read is strangely satisfying.
It's also worth mentioning that the UI looks very nice in general. Seeing everything in HD really helps me appreciate how far we've come from the original release. Also included in this release is a more modern backlog, which allows you to scroll back through previously read messages as the text expands to cover the whole screen, and you can even click on voice lines you'd like to hear repeated. It's a welcome change to the old backlog, which only displayed one line in the text box at a time. As per standard, you're welcome to resize the window or play in fullscreen according to your preference. And they even managed to include subtitles that accompany the ending credits songs; a very welcome addition! The game also features Steam Cloud functionality, meaning that your save data will carry over between devices if you play the game on more than one. One small drawback of the release is that the game seems to have problems with the Steam overlay, which only functions in normal gameplay outside of menus, and only on resolutions that aren't 100% windowed. It's weird, and especially becomes a pain when I want to take F12 screenshots of the backlog, but there are workarounds if you're like me and desperately want to upload your specific screenshots to Steam. That aside, there's one more big surprise that came with this release that nobody saw coming. More on that in a moment!
Audio & Visuals
The visuals of CLANNAD are definitely a matter of taste. The anime-style designs of the characters are by Key's famed artist Hinoue Itaru, who continues to work with Key to this day. Personally, I still think the character sprites look very nice, and it's worth noting that they were a huge step up from AIR's character sprites from the year before, but it's easy to see how they differ from Hinoue's more modern art. I don't claim to be an expert, but I can say that the character portraits of CLANNAD depict the characters as a bit more mature aged than in some of Key's later works, where everyone looks more childlike. The background art in particular looks especially nice in this updated version; much easier to get lost in than before. And the game seems to employ a light colour palette that conveys a sort of, gentle feeling that none of Key's games since have been able to encapsulate.
The voice acting is top notch. Standout performances for me were Mai Nakahara as Nagisa, Daisuke Sakaguchi as Sunohara, Akemi Kanda as Ryou, Ryotaro Okiayu as Akio, Satsuki Yukino as Misae, and the one and only Hikaru Midorikawa as Yoshino. I won't say I have as much of a personal attachment to the character voices as I do with Key's later works, but that's not to say any of the performances are bad. The performance in the more emotional scenes can really help convey the characters feelings better than text alone could ever accomplish. Hearing Ryou awkwardly stumble through sentences is very endearing, and you can really feel Nagisa battling with her anxiety through Nakahara's outstanding performance.
But of course, I have to save a word for the soundtrack of CLANNAD. The music behind this game has to be one of the most remarkable aspects of it. I remember travelling to Japan on holiday and looking in a video game store to find a shelf of "best video game soundtracks of all time", and CLANNAD was right up there together with the likes of Final Fantasy and Donkey Kong Country. The phenomenal soundtrack employs a diverse range of sounds to communicate the different moods of each scene, and every single track sticks in your head like glue. Listening to them alone always brings to mind the memorable scenes which accompany them in the game. Opening the game to the tranquil piano solo of 'Ushio' sets the tone for the rest of the game to follow. 'Fantasy' is a very new-age piece of music which perfectly encapsulates the mysterious and sorrowful atmosphere of the illusionary world, and causes you to feel like you're drifting off to another world. 'Town, Flow of Time, People' plays whenever Tomoya experiences melancholy over his life in the town, and instils this deep feeling of longing for something better, something extraordinary, and despair over the mundane state of every day life. And then there's 'Nagisa' which captures Nagisa's innocent naivety, while also conveying her feelings of sorrow and anxiety, before the track picks up into a more upbeat, hopeful melody, resembling her unyielding will to smile and keep fighting on no matter what. Listening to it now brings back very powerful emotions as I remember all the times it played during the game, and the meaning it held there. I could go on for much longer, but it can't be understated how much CLANNAD's soundtrack helped facilitate the emotional impact of the story. Without the amazing music, CLANNAD might not've gained as much of a following as it has today. That said, while the content of the soundtrack was unforgettable, to some the quality of the audio from 11 years ago may occasionally leave a little to be desired, as some of the samples used can be a little bit rough on the ears.
Then, you may be pleased to know that the Steam release of CLANNAD features an all-new updated soundtrack! While not all of the tracks have changed, many have been remastered, rerecorded and rearranged to sound much better than ever before. This wasn't advertised anywhere prior to release, so it turned out to be a massive surprise for me when I first heard it! And let me tell you, it's good! 'Ushio' has never sounded better than it does in this release, 'Town, Flow of Time, People' sounds much cleaner than before, and 'Return to Ashes' has received an amazing remix that really gets you pumped up. People may have a thing or two to say about the new remix of 'Dumb', affectionately called 'Sunohara Dubstep' by the QA team, but you can't deny that it fits well when you imagine Sunohara listening to it as part of his morning routine. Some of the tracks, like 'Fantasy', have no noticeable changes, but considering how amazing the soundtrack still is, I can't fault them on that. Go take a listen for yourself! I assure you you'll be very impressed.
In summary if you're still on the fence about whether or not to purchase CLANNAD, you can rest assured that you'll be buying the most definitive version of one of the most amazing visual novels ever made. If emotionally compelling stories with a rich and vibrant cast sounds like your kind of jam, then you won't be disappointed. Boil a cup of tea or coffee and sit down to it before bed each night, and before long you'll get drawn into the world and characters, and you won't want to let go. That's when you'll begin to understand what Key is all about.
So, yeah, CLANNAD is kinda cool. Changed my life / 10.