One of the first things I did when I received my special edition of Clannad (usually stylized as CLANNAD) was look through the extras. Along with its beautiful collector’s box, there was a soundtrack sampler and an art book. The soundtrack sampler contained an insert with notes from the composer and the amount of work put into the game’s music. The art book’s later pages contained development and debugging journals written by Jun Maeda and Kai, two of the game’s lead developers. Reading through the team’s struggles that started in 2002 and ended in 2004 was eye-opening. Clannad is a simple game in theory, but an intense amount of work went into perfecting it so it could be released bug free. Like its production journey, playing Clannad is a labor of love. This visual novel has enough text to cover the planet. The question is whether you’d want to read all of it and be rewarded in the end.
Clannad puts you in the shoes of Tomoya Okazaki, a guarded delinquent at Hikarizaka High School. After his mother’s passing, Tomoya has been closed off and distant except with his best frenemy Sunohara. One morning, he meets a girl named Nagisa Furukawa. The two become friends despite having little in common. Tomoya decides to help his new friend revive the school’s drama club just to pass the time. But, Tomoya’s apathetic nature might change thanks to Nagisa. Along the way, the two will befriend other students from all walks of life as they try to navigate their remaining school days together.
The premise of Clannad might sound familiar to anyone that’s played a visual novel. Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. During gameplay, if the right/wrong choices are made, then boy falls in love with another girl. Or, boy ends up alone. This blueprint exists in Clannad, but there’s so much more to it than that. Every character, every area, every story arc, every circumstance in Clannad was written with bountiful detail. After only an hour of playing, I felt like I was already part of Tomoya’s small town and knew him like a longtime friend. The same can be said for other characters. Aside from Nagisa, there’s Kotomi Ichiniose: a quirky child genius that loves to read and has some connection to Tomoya’s past. There’s also Kyou Fujibiyashi, a scooter riding gal with a tough exterior yet warm personality. As Tomoya’s and Nagisa’s days continue, they’ll meet more and more faces. Before you know it, you’ll have a cast of characters that make Clannad a living, breathing entity.
However, with all this detail comes a lot of reading and a lot of choices that will dictate which ending you get. Despite this port of Clannad getting distributed to the Switch, it’s clear that Clannad is a product of the early aughts. There’s no flow chart for jumping around or QoL feature that make the journey to the end less of a slog. To see all Clannad has to offer you’ll have to play through the game multiple times and make the correct choices. Having a guide handy is highly recommended. The right choices will reward you with orbs of light that get used in Clannad’s true ending arc called After Story. If you become invested in the world of Clannad, then this won’t be an issue. If you’re playing Clannad to dip your toe into the VN world or are a fair-weather VN fan, then you’ll be in for a lot of work. After Story is where Clannad’s emotional impact hits the highest but getting there takes a lot of time.
Still, it’s hard to get upset at Clannad when there’s so much detail put into the narrative. That same level of detail was put into the presentation. The music in Clannad is masterful. The emotional power of the narrative gets amplified by the game’s music. Personal favorites include “Town, Flow of Time, People”, “Illusions”, and “Like the Wind.” The entire game is voiced in Japanese. The real star of the show is the character art. It perfectly captures my favorite style of anime. Character have big, expressive, and colorful eyes and big hair to match. A variety of beautiful backgrounds and set pieces capture the town. Characters portray a range of emotions. It’s all topped with some stunning character graphics. But, again, to see all of them you’ll have to buckle down and get ready for a lot of reading.
It can take up to 60 hours to see it all. Part of this depends on reading speed, but the fact remains: this is a long game. If you’re a big fan of visual novels, then Clannad is the perfect game. If you’re more of a casual visual novel fan or new to the genre, then proceed with caution. The good news is that Clannad is available in other mediums for those that don’t want to spend hours reading while having a guide handy. In other words, Clannad’s best feature can still be enjoyed outside of the video game world. But, to get the full experience you’ll want to go this route.
Overall, 8/10: It took a long time to release Clannad. It takes a long time to see all of Key’s hard work. This is the most complete way to experience Clannad but also the most grueling.