Edutainment games are a genre that has perplexed developers for decades. How do you make a game that is both fun to play but also educates the audience? For every success like “Oregon Trail”, you get a mess like “Mario is Missing”. “Learn Japanese to Survive! Hiragana Battle” on the other hand, tries to break into the genre by mixing an RPG with teaching the player Japanese (In my opinion,”Learn Japanese To Survive!” has managed to combine the two genres like a boss).
The story of the game is basic. It follows the heroine Claire, her two friends, and their Japanese teacher as they try to save their country from an evil wizard and his hiragana warriors. The game follows a very basic formula. Learn a set of hiragana, do part of the story, lather, rinse, repeat. Sometimes there are some side-quests to throw in a curve ball that teaches Japanese phrases and vocabulary, but it is largely a paint-by-numbers type of game.
Being someone who is both a teacher in my day job, and also someone who learns Japanese on and off. The Japanese learning is not overbearing, but seamlessly inserted into legitimate RPG style gameplay with easy lessons to take the player step-by-step. Like the name of the game suggests, your main enemy are the hiragana characters, one of the three Japanese writing systems. Instead of using normal attacks or magic to kill the enemy, you have to choose the corresponding syllable sound. For example, you might have a battle with the character こ. Pick ‘Ko’ from the list of attacks and you’ll successfully deal damage.
This style of combat performs two key functions. The first is it serves the educational purpose by constantly forcing the player to pick the right syllable, creating muscle memory in your mind. If you pick the wrong one, then it does no damage at all. The game makes sure that you’re prepped by teaching you the correct syllables before they pop up, unless you decide to skip ahead on the map. However, if the player does that, then they just die from being unable to kill anything.
The second purpose is it gives a level of strategy to basic combat that is not usually present in RPGs. The NES Final Fantasy is one of a few, rare games that have this form of combat where if you kill the first initial target, then the secondary target is not affected. This forces the player to think who is going to attack which enemy in a strategic pattern, while making them not realize they are actually partaking in another layer of language practice.
There is a balance that needs to be struck in a game like this. The player needs to be able to progress at a good pace, so they don’t get bored. All the while making sure they don’t learn too much too soon and become overwhelmed. I feel the game has been capable to strike that balance with their lesson, mission, lesson, mission, formula. There are some curve balls to break up the formula though, like switching the enemies from being the hiragana to the romaji characters (English), and thus getting the player to practice is a different way. The more progress made in the game, the more mixing of all the letters will occur.
As already mentioned. “Learning Japanese to Survive!” is an RPG Maker game, so the graphics are not going to blow your mind away. They look clean and crisp for SNES era graphics, but that is as good as you’re going to get. Considering the goal of the game, there are few enemy models. Instead, they are the hiragana and English letters themselves. Which is boring, but understandable. The soundtrack is pretty good, particularly the battle themes. With all the hiragana practice, nothing would be worse than listening to a dull, lifeless soundtrack while studying. It does enough to keep you feeling a bit peppy.
The biggest complaint I have is that some of the missions drag on for too long, which I feel was done solely for the sake of getting you to complete more battles to practice more. Especially in one mission, in particular. You’re tasked with finding a key for a door, but the key won’t appear until you’re told to search for it. Thus, you are forced to backtrack constantly. With a lack of loot available to find around the stages, this also hurts the flow of the game. Once the player is wise to this pattern, there is little incentive to do anything but find the exit as quick as possible because it’ll have you backtrack any ways.
The economy also needs little tweaks to handle the power creep more effectively. Early in the game, the enemies do not drop a lot of money forcing a lot of grinding to be done. Some savvy strategy can get you through the tough battles, but it is either grinding for experience points or money that will need to be done to progress at a steady rate. There is a bonus system, allowing the player to cash in ten bonus points acquired from side quests (which is just enough for everyone to level up one level). This helps you to get a couple of levels ahead of a hard location. Since it auto-levels you no matter the points remaining (instead of giving a set amount of experience points). There will be some number crunching with party member’s current experience point level, to determine when it is most efficient to cash in the chips.
The main focus of the game is to teach hiragana, not Japanese grammar or vocabulary. While there is some of that in the game, it should be made absolutely clear this is a game about teaching how to read hiragana. Everything else is a bonus. Learn Japanese to Survive! Hiragana Battle is an edutainment game. It is not trying to be the next Mass Effect or Final Fantasy. Instead, it takes the basics of RPG Maker style gameplay, and adds in language-learning elements to trick the player into thinking they are just playing a game and not studying.
For what it attempts to accomplish, it does so wonderfully. Even though I already knew hiragana, it became an invaluable practice tool with an interesting story to boot. However, if you’re fluent in hiragana, there is nothing new here. That said, the developer told me that they are working on a katakana and kanji version in the future. So, I´m keeping my eyes open for those versions, as for here and now though. I´ll stick to “Learn Japanese To Survive!” for the time being.
+ Strategic battle system
+ Fun musical score that has an anime feel
+ Seamless meshing of the education and RPG genres
– Grind heavy economy in the early game
– Lack of loot
Replay value: 4/5
A smooth edutainment game that meshes RPG with learning Japanese hiragana. Anyone interested in learning Japanese reading, and/or looking for a fun way to practice what they already know, will get a steal of a deal. However, if you´re looking for a narrative driven thrill ride of an RPG, then you will have to look elsewhere for such thrills.
Title: Learn Japanese To Survive! Hiragana Battle
Developer: Sleepy Duck Educational Games
Resolution: Standard/Average for PC
Release date: 2016-02-17
Spent time: +12 hours
Average grade internationally: N/A
PEGI age rating: 12+
Price: 6,99€ via Steam
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