introduction to gakuen heaven

the tale of bell liberty

Hi! If you're wondering what exactly Gakuen Heaven is and why you should care about it, you've come to the right place! This is a somewhat brief explanation of the history of the series and the basic plot and themes.

what is gakuen heaven?

The Gakuen Heaven series started as a humble visual novel that was released in 2002 by Spray, the then newly-formed BL (boys love) division of Visual Art's. It features writing by TAMAMI and artwork by Higuri You, with ten potential partners for the main character and 24 unique endings. The game was a huge hit, and it's hard to overexaggerate the immense popularity and influence that it had - and still has today.

Like many companies, Spray was quick to capitalize on the popularity of their product, and a huge variety of spin-off products was developed. Everything from collectible merchandise, to a series of manga adaptations, an anime, a musical, a fandisc that continued the story of the main game, novelizations, comic anthologies, artbooks... you name it, they made it.

And fans bought it. But even more importantly, they created fanworks - there's tons of stories, art, and doujinshi available for Gakuen Heaven, and some fans are still active to this day, producing new content for a game that is now over 15 years old!

After a long, long hiatus, the series returned with the release of Gakuen Heaven 2 in July 2014. GH2 has the same setting and a plot that ties in with the original, and carries on the themes and basic story elements established in the first game. A new cast of characters appears to breathe life into established tropes, while several key characters from the original make important cameo appearances. The entire game feels like a love letter to the original, with TAMAMI and Higuri You lending their talents yet again.

gh: what's the story?

Okay, that's an interesting history lesson, but what is Gakuen Heaven actually about?

Gakuen Heaven is a story about Bell Liberty School (yes, that's BL School and yes, that's intentional), a private all-boys boarding school for elite high school students. The school is run by the Suzubishi Group, a fictional mega-corporation whose main business is pharmaceuticals, but they have a hand in everything from cosmetics to athletic products.

Admission to the school is by invitation only - something which sets it apart from the typical Japanese high school, where anyone can take an entrance exam for their schools of interest. The only way to get in is to receive a special invitation called a Platinum Paper. Only exceptional students with grand accomplishments are invited - literal geniuses, record-setting athletes, top-level artisans, and so on.

The story of Gakuen Heaven begins when an ordinary boy with no special talents (other than ridiculously good luck!) receives a Platinum Paper. This is Ito Keita, the protagonist of the first game. The letter that comes with the Platinum Paper doesn't state why he was invited, so as the game progresses, both Keita and other characters wonder why he's at Bell Liberty. He's eventually expelled by the assistant director, Kuganuma, who states that he's not good enough for the school and his invitation was a mistake.

The other students are furious at this development and rally to help Keita, which leads to the creation of a school-wide event called the MVP Battle. Students compete in pairs in order to win an amazing prize - they get to meet the director of the school and have a single wish granted. Of course, Keita's wish is for his expulsion to be nullified so he can stay at the school. But depending on who he pairs up with, that person might also have a wish in mind...

While the MVP Battle plot unfolds, another one quietly bubbles in the background. There's friction between two factions on the Bell Liberty board of directors - one group supports allowing the students as much freedom as possible (including financial freedom to pursue their talents), and the other is more interested in the business side of things, aka making money. And spending money on overseas trips for athletic competitions and building new facilities for student activites doesn't make money for the corporation.

In addition to the board of directors subplot is another, more sinister story. The Suzubishi Group research lab is located on the school campus, and the school servers house all the invaluable research data. Now imagine a disgruntled Suzubishi Group employee growing frustrated and deciding to steal and sell that research data to a competitor in order to line his own pockets.

So, we have three layers of plot:
1. Keita trying to figure out why he was invited to Bell Liberty.
2. The struggle between the students and the board of directors.
3. Uncovering who's stealing research data, how, and why.

Depending on the character route, we also get a fourth layer:
4. Keita helping his partner resolve a personal issue.

Of course, there's always a romance between Keita and his MVP Battle partner. Unless you screw it up, that is. And depending on the character route, you'll uncover answers to the questions raised by some of these plots, but not all at once. The game is built so that you're required to play multiple times to get all the answers.

The fandisc, Gakuen Heaven Okawari, is a direct continuation of the original game and contains many of the same themes. Again, there's someone trying to steal Suzubishi Group research data, and there's also a fun main plot about Keita losing his good luck due to a cursed ring. Like the original, it takes multiple playthroughs to piece together the full story.

gh2: perfecting the formula

Gakuen Heaven 2 takes place seven years later, and once again it's a story about an ordinary boy with good luck getting invited to Bell Liberty. Our protagonist is Asahina Yuki, a cheerful eating machine who becomes student council president by chance immediately after arriving at the school. But in GH2, the student council has almost no power, so it's a pretty meaningless title. At first, anyway.

Like before, there are multiple layers of plot. The most immediate is why and how the student council lost power, and how it can recover its former glory. Soon after Yuki starts rebuilding the student council's reputation, the board of directors rears its ugly head and proposes shutting down the entire school! The struggle over the Suzubishi Group's pharmaceutical data is back as well, also cranked up to eleven. And every single character route in GH2 is about Yuki uncovering his partner's personal (and often very tragic) past and helping them recover hope for the future.

There are tons of parallels and nods to the original game. A few are:
• MVP Battle → Bell One Grand Prix (partner competition)
• A childhood friendship leads to the protagonist coming to the school.
• Super lucky protagonist!
• Friction between student council and a secondary group (Durak).
• Many similar events - protagonist starting school late, welcome party, athletic tournament, emergency visit to the director's office, etc.
• Recurring characters - Keita as a history teacher, Dr. Matsuoka still in his role as school nurse, and Kazuki appears in a few key scenes.
• Speaking of key scenes, there are unlockable bonus scenes with Keita and each of the guys from GH!

It's impossible to list all the subtle connections between the games, but the entire story is filled with them, creating a sense of comfortable familiarity for the player. It really does feel like returning to the same world, where all the same rules still apply, and it's filled with similar personalities. The connections aren't overpowering, though, and a newcomer to the series can enjoy GH2 without feeling like they're missing a ton of inside jokes.

There are also many notable differences that improve on the GH formula:
• Yuki is placed in a position of responsibility from the start of the game, which averts the unfortunate lack of confidence that plagued Keita in most GH routes. No one likes a wishy-washy protagonist!
• Sets up a ton of stereotypes, then kicks them all down. (The original was full of character stereotypes played 100% straight.)
• ALL partner characters have interesting personal histories to uncover. No one is a filler character.
• Sex isn't shoehorned into every love ending. This may sound like a negative, but trust me, after seeing Shunsuke's love ending... it's not.
• Fewer 'meaningless' decision points that do nothing but give a bit of alternate text and no real choice.

These improvements help to make every character route interesting by giving the player something to uncover in each. The subversion of tropes makes even characters who aren't the player's favored type fun to explore, because they end up being different from what's expected. And Yuki's strong and cute personality shines through consistently in every scene, borrowing the best of Keita's kindness and care for others while leaving behind his lack of confidence.

GH2 is essentially the same game, only better. Yeah, those might be fighting words, but I firmly believe that there's a lot of nostalgia haze around the original game that has made it difficult for GH2 to claim its rightful place as best of the GH series.

This doesn't mean that GH2 is flawless. A couple of the character routes are too long and could have benefited from better editing. There's some awkward CGs mixed in with the great ones. A few scenes are just weird. But overall, it's a great game with multiple interesting subplots that work together to form an excellent story, it has beautiful artwork and top quality voice acting, and there's lots of unlockable extras and fun references to the original.

anime, manga, and beyond

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