As the small handful of you who regularly read these blogs should know by now, I’ve developed a fascination with realistic games. I don’t mean the kind of AAA realism that renders heroic fantasies through a hyperrealistic lens, but the kind of realism that sees everyday life as valuable in its own right. Yet this realism alone isn’t enough to win me over. The most interesting games don’t just accept their realism and call it a day (how shallow an experience would that be?), but push further to make some meaningful commentary through it. Ihatovo Monogatari caught my interest because of what it had to say about the warmth of community life, just as Yuuyami Doori Tankentai explored the crushing isolation one feels when they’re denied that warmth.
This would explain why Gokinjo Boukentai feels so lacking: because while it may share that fascination with the real, it lacks any structure to give that fascination meaning. So despite whatever charm its world may hold, that lack of any meaningful structure gives the game no choice but to confuse simplicity for relatable childhood charm.
Then again, it may be more accurate to say the game actively flouts structure. Besides God commanding a five year old girl to purge the world of evil, one of the more notable aspects of Gokinjo is what a compartmentalized game it is. Battles exist in isolation from one another, Mana (the infant protagonist) never uses what she learns in school in the real world, and each weekly adventure stands in isolation. As far as I can tell, this is all part of the game’s effort to emulate a Saturday morning cartoon, the idea being that you can jump into the story at any point and enjoy a new adventure. But doesn’t this rest on the false assumption that an episodic format can’t exist within something greater? After all, Persona 3 uses a similar episodic format, but because those episodes always relate back to a greater narrative purpose, the game can both use those episodes to render worthwhile commentary and give the individual episodes greater value for it.
Gokinjo Boukentai, on the other hand, completely blocks off meaningful development by doing away with frameworks altogether. This places a very heavy burden on piece of the game to stand on its own and deliver something of value. Obviously, this is a burden no one part of the game can bear, so the whole project crumbles under its own weight. Any potential these pieces had to do something interesting with the premise goes to waste as they’re cut off from the support they need. Consider Mana’s school life, for example. Scheduling Mana’s classes each week grants the game a light nostalgic air similar to Boku no Natsuyasumi, and there’s an interesting statement here about how Mana draws strength from her own femininity. Yet because Mana’s schooling is only given importance at school (no other part of the game capitalizes on it), all we ever see is a one-dimensional Mana: tenacious and always prepared to take on the next challenge, but unable to grow or develop as a person.
Or consider how all this interacts with the game’s battles. It would be easy for me to say that the decision to heal your characters after each bout finds its roots in Gokinjo’s flawed episodic approach, and that this prevents the battle systems from providing a challenging play experience and from creating any sort of distinct mood. But I want to look at the mood itself more closely. On the surface, it’s clear how much the game wants to emulate Earthbound’s surrealist tones. We see many of the same comical, quirky enemies set against a vaguely realistic backdrop, and both games evoke something toy-like in battle (ticking numbers for Earthbound, and a See ‘n Say-esque slot system for Gokinjo).
What separates the two is that where Earthbound owns its surreal experiments and lets them inform the rest of its design, Gokinjo is more reluctant to venture outside the tried and true. Rather than commit to its more bizarre traits, the game hides them behind bright colors, flashy shapes, and “comically” slapped on expressions. Indeed, other parts of the game are all too quick to follow suit. For example, we know nothing of the characters beyond the shallow tropes that define them. All we know about Nanako is that she’s the bratty rich girl, just like we only know Shikushiku as the crybaby and Doctor as the nerdy girl. And even when we see hints of real emotional content (like Mana dealing with her family rejecting her), the game retreats back into staid comical routine.
Of course, a large part of why Gokinjo suffers these problems goes back to its divided nature, which fails to provide the game the ground it needs to move beyond its basic sense of humor. Yet given how eager the game is to repeat the exact same jokes between weekly adventures, I think it was kept this simple on purpose to make it more marketable to a younger audience. The unfortunate side effect of this is that it robs the game of character to the point that even its target audience might be put off from playing it. More than that, even: it leaves the game bereft of whatever character it could have had at all. The further I went on Mana’s journey, and the less I saw the game engage its surreal qualities, the more I started to wonder if those qualities were ever there in the first place; that they weren’t something I actively read into the game out of generosity toward it.
This isn’t to say that Gokinjo Boukentai lacks redeeming qualities. Just look at the world, for example. Mana’s cramped neighborhood serves as the perfect playground for one to live out their childhood fantasies. It borrows Ihatovo’s open warmth, but then tempers it to evoke a sense of childlike freedom. Every corner of this world contains something to reward your curious inquiry. It may be some new toy or facet of the world you hadn’t seen before, or it may be all the colorful personalities that make it feel like a neighborhood where people’s lives intersect with one another. And although I wouldn’t make the argument, one could interpret the simplistic tone as reflecting Mana’s childlike innocence – at least in this scenario. The only downside I can think of is that because story beats are so strongly restricted to one location at a time, you’re limited in your ability to capitalize on whatever freedom the world offers you. But given how much this can vary between story beats, I feel understandably hesitant holding this against the whole game.
So the best thing I can say about Gokinjo Boukentai is that it has a workable idea about what people value about childhood. Yet ideas alone can never sustain a game. They can provide the spark to set it in motion, but it needs clarity and technique if it hopes to keep that momentum going. Games like Boku no Natsuyasumi and Persona 3 understand this all too well. The former enables one to live out childhood fantasy through loose (but still present!) world design, and the latter adds weight to the characters’ quest and their quotidian routines by making them codependent. While there’s certainly potential for Gokinjo to follow in either of their footsteps, the game proves too reluctant to commit to either. All we’re left with are ideas; shadows of what could have been.