Publisher: Sekai Project
Release Date: November 23, 2015
ESRB: N/A (Teen recommended)
Clannad is something of a classic amongst visual novels. This presides even outside of Japan with the help of the well-received anime adaptation of Key's original 2004 PC game under the same name. With its memorable characters, incredibly poignant themes, and forever changing one's outlook on a certain Japanese food with the song "Dango Daikazoku," it has certainly earned its passionate fanbase across the world.
However, publisher Sekai Project decided to put such fandom to the test for English speakers by proposing an official localization of the PC visual novel through the use of Kickstarter in early 2015. Thankfully for all those involved, the Kickstarter was more than successful and was followed up with a finalized release at the very end of that same year. Was the official translation of this classic visual novel worth the wait or does it not quite get the passing grade?
Starting the visual novel of Clannad after being many years removed from my first exposure with the anime adaptation was quite surreal. Verbatim quotes, characters I thought I had long forgot, and plenty more all came back hitting my memory in quick succession. The anime was so faithful, in fact, that it almost made me feel like the early goings of the visual novel were sorta redundant. Which, well, it is more of my fault for having watched watched the anime than anything else, but something that bears mentioning if you have that frame of reference. Still, Clannad is a massive visual novel and it is telling that nearly fifty episodes of the anime primarily only covered one narrative route within it (albeit, easily the biggest one.).
The starting story will likely not seem particularly special with its high school setting and the lead who feels pretty detached from his school life. It also certainly has some crazy high school antics that one can easily shrug off as "Oh, anime." But, what makes Clannad special is how it carries its characters and interactions between them, going from genuinely humorous one moment to downright blindsiding players with its very heavy-hitting emotional themes in other instances.
One intriguing aspect is that despite giving you the ability to name the faceless, and voiceless, male lead (named by default "Tomoya"), he is very much his own individual. He's a delinquent, very mischievous (to his "best friend" Sunohara specifically), and has plenty of his own internal baggage that he doesn't make apparent (uncovered more so within certain narrative routes). That said, he grows and matures a lot in very different ways despite not being entirely respectable at times. Even as a grown adult I was surprised at how much I could relate Tomoya. Not because of his high school life but because Tomoya's character very much looks beyond it into adulthood, which is especially apparent in the "After Story" arc.
However, a good chunk of the narrative, and most character routes, takes place during Tomoya's high school life. As a visual novel, its story branches based on the decisions you make from seemingly mundane actions early in. Whether you ditch class or not, pay heed to random events, or even simply listen to what people have to say all help shape Tomoya as a character. These choices can also lead to potential romances with the various heroines (and a couple that also don't) or delve into entire subplots that are surprisingly not covered in the anime adaptation at all (granted, for one of them I could see why... considering it is not great).
Like most visual novels, there will certainly be a division which fans deem to be the best ones. Generally speaking, it becomes clear that the longer routes (and those that lead to romances) tend be easily be the most thoughtfully written of the 10+ routes. Outside of what is essentially the poster child heroine of Clannad, Nagisa, whom easily has the most substantial story arc for a multitude of reasons, my personal favorite routes were those of the heroines Kotomi and "Tomoyo" (not a typo, her name is actually that similar to the default lead "Tomoya").
Tomoyo being very assertive and strong(physically as well)-willed woman and is a sharp contrast to the apathetic lead, while Kotomi is a bit more air-headed with the comedic timing of a sloth, despite being something of a genius. Regardless of their apparent anime-styled quirks they both very much have their own human moments.
Though all routes are fairly different (except for maybe a certain set of twins), they each generally play on the game's central theme in various ways, which is "family". While that may cause one to falsely believe Clannad is focused on warm-fuzzy feelings , despite how light-hearted and humorous it may be at times, the narrative is more than willing to hit players with very poignant narrative gut-punches in many forms. Probably the reason why Clannad's storytelling works as well as it does is because it is quite good at balancing comedic situations and deeply serious, relatable character moments. It is clear to me that Clannad is known as a classic for a reason, regardless of how much certain aspects of it have aged.
Admittedly, there are parts to the visual novel that are quite disjointed and do not work quite as well. Some of that is simply age, like the rigid interface or the occasionally awkward presentation (What is with everyone's faces and eyes?!), but the more important are with its inherent design. Clannad hides its most substantial extended story route, Nagisa's "After Story", behind various prerequisites that are obtained by fully completing most routes. Though there is an in-universe justification for it, it just comes off as rather clumsy (because the supernatural parts are usually the weakest parts of the narrative), in addition to making it take significantly much longer to complete for an already huge visual novel. It also brings to light that certain routes are easily worth less of your time compared to others.
The other issue is with its localization. Perhaps I have been spoiled by other game localizations lately, but a lot of the actual in-game text reads more unnatural than it should in Clannad. It does not ruin the game by any means, but for a visual novel with such personality and distinct characters it reads more flat than it should at times.
It may be more than ten years detached from its original Japanese debut, but Clannad remains memorable among many visual novels for a reason. Be it the great characters within it, or the narrative that easily bounces between entertaining to surprisingly poignant, Clannad becomes a roller coaster of emotions for those who can sit through it. Still, it is a huge visual novel, and in some ways to its own detriment with its necessity towards very thorough play and inconsistent quality for the lesser narrative routes. However, in its best moments Clannad more than upholds its classic reputation and becomes a must-play for many visual novel fans.
+ Heavy-hitting storytelling themes for its better routes that very much hold up even now
* Great, and surprisingly relatable characters
+ Genuinely funny moments
+ Massive visual novel with a couple of interesting routes that are not covered by the anime adaptation at all
- Noticeable gap in quality for some story elements and character paths
- Rigid interface and unnecessarily prolonged requirements to unlock the "After Story" route
Overall Score: 8 (out of 10)
For as much as it may have aged, and bears some fairly apparent shortcomings, Clannad still manages to stand above most visual novels with its powerful storytelling and character moments alone
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PC code provided by the publisher.