I look up to the “giants” that formed the video game industry. Shiguru Miyamoto. Eiji Aonuma. Koji Kondo. Masahiro Sakurai. Satoru Iwata. Yoshio Sakamoto. Yuji Naka. Hironobu Sakaguchi. Some of the most brilliant, creative minds that I’ve ever seen, as far as their ideas and the concepts that they have created.

Problem is, there is a bit of a language barrier between me and them. The Japanese – they’ve got games that never made it to America, and therefore, were never translated into English. Gems that I never really got to “taste”, since I never understood Japanese. That is, until now.

Learning a new language, especially if it’s your first one, isn’t an easy task. And for the longest time I wanted to learn Japanese, but I just didn’t know how. Then, I discovered Learn Japanese RPG: Hiragana Forbidden Speech. And わあ (wow), I’ve been impressed as far as how this game has showed me the basic ins and outs of grammar and short phrases.

Learn Japanese RPG - Kai speaking

You play as protagonist Kai. (かいさん) A meteor strike hits his area. Though he survives the attack, he begins having hallucinations of ghosts, called shinrei (しん れい). Someone (or maybe something?) beckons him to the Forbidden Forest. But as he does so, he’s going to have to fight his demons. Thus, the game is presented as a top-down RPG with pixelated graphics.

Mechanics

Walk around a little bit, then fight the shinrei. You can adjust how frequent the battles occur according to your tastes. Here’s how the battle system works: a word is presented on the screen. It could be a Japanese symbol (known as Hiragana). Or it could be an English word. Your job is to translate that word with your keyboard. So, for example, if “すぐ” is presented on the screen, your job would be to translate that Hiragana into the English meaning. In this case, “すぐ” means “soon”, “at once”, or “immediately” in English (depending on the context), so you would type one of these words in.

Or you might be asked to type the Hiragana in Roumaji. Roumaji uses the English alphabet to describe Japanese sounds. So “すぐ” would be “sugu” (pronounced “suh-goo”) in Roumaji. On the other hand, if the English word “soon” is presented on screen, your job would be to translate that word into Roumaji, which, again in this case would be “sugu”.

Learn Japanese RPG - battle

If you translated the word correctly, you’ll attack the monster. Attack the monster enough times, you’ll eventually defeat them, earning you XP. But be careful: if you take too long to guess, the monster will eventually drain Kai’s HP until he’s defeated. Nothing really happens, however, when a battle is lost. You just won’t get the XP. More HP can be earned by finding chests or necklaces scattered across the map, or by getting a perfect score on a quiz from one of the various NPCs you’ll come across.

The more XP Kai gets, the more Hiragana he’ll learn. The game will tell you the Roumaji of the Hiragana, the pronunciation (the game is backed by Japanese voice actors), and, if there is an English translation, what the meaning of the word is.

I’m probably making your head spin as I’m explaining this. No worries though. The game will progressively teach you these things the further you get into the game.

The point is, fighting sequences like this make learning Japanese a much more fun, immersive experience. Exactly how the description on the Steam store page puts it:

Our frustration with other Japanese learning games is that while they teach hiragana and words, they rarely (if ever) use these learnings in actual conversations. Almost everything is out of context. A random character, word, or sentence here or there. On the other hand, trying to learn Japanese by watching anime or reading manga is overwhelming (for a beginner).

We try to strike a balance between these two worlds. This game strives for “Mild Immersion.” We want to immerse you in Japanese as much as possible, but only beginner Japanese. We want you to feel confident that any Japanese that comes your way is something you’ve been taught and are capable of understanding at a basic level.

Learn Japanese RPG - busy islander

If you’re on Steam Deck, the game actually has a built-in profile that allows you to play the game easily this way. Instead of typing the word, you’ll be presented a multiple-choice selection when the word is presented on screen. Just press a direction on the D-pad towards the translation and you’ll immediately be told whether you got the translation right or wrong. However, I do recommend playing this game with a keyboard, as it does make the gameplay a little more challenging by not giving you multiple-choice answers.

The game would have been even more immersive if there was microphone detection and you could say the word through the mic and have the game pick it up. But understandably there would be a lot of complications to adding something like that. It’s still pretty good as is.

Story

The story, according to the Steam store page, is anywhere from 16-20 hours. I’ve invested close to 18 hours so far and I haven’t even finished the game yet. I’ve only learned half of the Hiragana, and half of the words. So, the great thing about this, is the expanded story length allows you to learn at a gradual pace, without making your head hurt. You couldn’t possibly get a basic grasp of a new language in just a 10-hour story. The lengthy story sequences are actually すごい (sugoi - “amazing”). And I can confidentially say, without spoiling the story, that there’s no “padding” in this game: you’re actually going to be interested the entire time you’re playing it, all the while learning new phrases and grammar skills.

I’ve even taken a few hand-written notes, just to jog my memory and keep the Hiragana fresh in my head:

Hand-written notes

Learning Japanese requires more than just learning Hiragana, the Roumaji equivalent, and the English translation. You’ll also have to learn how to properly address someone, be it in a formal or casual setting, and whether a particular word is said by a woman or a man. The game will teach you this during the story. So while battles will teach you new words, the NPCs in the story will teach you the grammar basics. The further you get into the game, the more you’ll learn about these basics. Fortunately there are some areas in the game where you can re-visit these topics, and repeat the lesson on them as often as you need, because chances are, you’re going to forget about them later on.

Steam Deck Compatibility

As I had mentioned earlier, there is a built-in Steam Deck profile that you can use. This will allow you to play the game without having to use a keyboard: during battle, you can select a word via the D-pad, rather than having to type it in. One problem that I do have though, is with the choices you’re given. Sometimes, two options of the same word will appear on-screen, making it even easier to guess the right translation. Not sure why that is. Regardless, typing the translation via a keyboard, or even Steam’s built-in OSK, will make the game more challenging – which I recommend if you really want to memorize the Hiragana and their respective English translations without having a couple of answers already at your disposal.

As far as performance, I mean…do I really need to explain this? It’s a RPG made with RPGMaker. Pixelated. It runs out of the box. You can tone the TDP limit and GPU clock speed all the way down to 4 W and 200 MHz respectively and still get a solid 60 FPS. The only thing I would suggest, is if you don’t like the black bars on the left and right side of the screen, you can set the Scaling Mode to “Stretch” to fill in the entire screen. There’s no in-game video configuration options.

Learn Japanese RPG on Deck

Great Way to Learn Japanese

Learn Japanese RPG: Hiragana Forbidden Speech is a great game to get into if you’re looking to learn Japanese from scratch. It will give you a basic idea of how Japanese grammar works, along with some of the most common words used in the Japanese language. The RPG-style system makes learning more fun, and there’s an interesting story to boot.

Right now, I’m not going to be able to listen to an episode of One-Punch Man and understand what the characters are saying. And no, I’m probably not going to be able to play Segagaga and fully understand the in-game dialogue. But, I’m hoping by the time I finish the game, and have a few more notes written down, I can get a basic idea of the conversations that take place.

TL;DR

The good:

  • a fun way of learning Japanese via the RPG system
  • decent story length without padding
  • gives you a basic grasp of the Japanese language while also teaching you grammar and rules of formality
  • adjustable rate at which battles occur allows you to learn at your own pace
  • Steam Deck profile allows you to play on the go without needing a keyboard

The not-so-good:

  • sometimes two of the same words can appear in the multiple-choice dialog during battles, making it even easier to guess the right translation

Learn Japanese RPG: Hiragana Forbidden Speech just got out of early access on Steam as of today. There’s a free demo if you want to check it out. Otherwise, the full game is $20.

Review key provided by Keymailer.

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