Here’s the thing. This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered visual novels as a reviewer or as a gamer. Admittedly, most of the titles that I’ve come up against possess some sort of gameplay element. Sometimes it’s pointing a finger at your opponent to prove your client’s innocence. Other times Japanese high school girls are scaring the pants off of you. Sometimes it’s just slinging drinks to squeeze info out of patrons to help flesh out the story.
With Aokana: Four Rhythms Across the Blue, it’s more of a traditional visual novel affair. Yes, it’s another story set in a Japanese high school. You won’t get any disagreement from me about how well-worn this setting is. But throw a sci-fi element like anti-gravity shoes into the mix? It’s a worth a shot at the very least.
Developed by Sprite/Neko Nyan and published by PQube, Aokana: Four Rhythms Across the Blue is currently available on Steam (PC) and was released on PS4/Switch on August 21, 2020. The Switch version was played for this review.
Set in the modern day on an island close to Kyushu, a scientific breakthrough involving “anti-gravitons” leads to the invention of shoes bearing the same name. Colloquially known as Grav Shoes due to their anti-gravity properties, these devices supplement light travel throughout the world. Simply put, they give the wearer the ability to fly in a manner similar to Superman.
Unsurprisingly, a sport centered around the main function of flying, called “Flying Circus,” springs up around these shoes. This is where the bulk of the formative years of main character Masaya Hinata’s went. Naturally, this leads into wanting to play Flying Circus as a “skywalker.” Under the wing of one Aoi Kagami, an FC superstar in her own right, Masaya excelled. Right to the point where he himself became an FC pro. That changes when he suffers a defeat at the hands of a seemingly innocuous beginner, in a non-FC setting that caused him to totally swear off the sport.
If a lot of this is starting to sound like an anime, it’s not much of a stretch to think that. Much of the story that isn’t wrapped up in the four heroine’s romance routes plays out like many slice-of-life shows. Naturally, a lot of the non-FC segments have undertones that would affect FC, but much of it revolves around general high school shenanigans. There’s the typical club bonding, sassing each other, hanging out off of school grounds, and not so sly jokes about fanservice-y things you tend to see in anime. Perhaps too much at times.
Though to the surprise of no one, a sports-focused story does a pretty damn good job in making me care about the sci-fi sport in question. There’s a lot of explanation on certain techniques and such that do help invest me into how tense some moments can be. Some of it can be a slog to read through, but sometimes these explanations help the actual matches flow better.
Plenty of time is spent shining a light on the work that goes into a match as well. Namely the numerous practice scenes where training is placed on full display. Sometimes Masaya has to be creative, and it’s occasionally amusing to see what comes out of that. More often than not some collaborative brainstorming happens. But it’s a good setup for the actual matches and the occasional duels.
Once those kick off, that’s where things get to be fun and even riveting at times. It’s not exactly what some would consider a proper play-by-play, but it’s close enough. Mixing in the minutiae of Grav Shoe properties, play-by-play, battle banter, and the like is fun to follow. The writing for these can be slightly mixed, though, thanks to Masaya’s deadpan explanation of the action and what’s actually going on.
Romance in the Air
The main focus in a sports-focused story is obviously the sport itself, but this VN gives you the choice to steer the romance part of the story between four different heroines. Masaya’s past does end up being involved in some fashion regardless of what route you take. You can choose between the precious cinnamon roll Asuka Kurashina, the bratty Misaki Tobisawa, gamer trash/Misaki fangirl Mashiro Arisaka, and the straight laced neighbor Rika Ichinose.
The only “gameplay” to speak of for this game revolves around making the appropriate choices when prompted during the story. It does help that keeping a bead on the story progression up to that point will guide you well enough, but you can save scum to your heart’s content thanks to being able to save anywhere with plenty of slots. It’s very possible that newcomers to VNs may be totally satisfied with completing a single route (maybe even the bad ending), but those wanting to compare and contrast each route will find that there will be a hefty amount of content waiting for them.
Regardless of which route you take, romances will be wrapped up in character specific moments and a singular sexual one (implied or not explicitly shown, as this was toned down in the Switch version). Considering that this is centered around a group of high school students, this was pretty uncomfortable. The bog-standard disclaimer of “everyone in the story is over 18” feels questionable at best, because they’re all in high school. Come on. Aokana is classified as an “eroge” VN, sure. But even with the aforementioned toning down of these explicit moments, it still nets an M rating.
Regardless, each route has a unique story that ventures into each character’s strengths and insecurities. Asuka’s route is mostly focused on FC. While her positive attitude and dedication to a sport she’s quickly picking up as a prodigy is infectious, sometimes it falls into the “super skilled protagonist” territory. That can annoy some due to the tropey nature of it, but her route is one of the stronger ones. I legitimately found myself really enjoying the latter quarter of the story, because it was actually fun and exciting to read.
Misaki’s route is a little more complicated and introspective. She’s one of the characters that already possesses some FC experience and, like Masaya, she decided to let it go until this part in the story. This route is also one of the stronger reads. Much of it is wrapped up in how dedicated she is to the sport and trying to expand her skills. There are some Masaya-related story beats here, but divulging any further would do the route disservice. There are emotional moments here that can hit close to home, and her route stands out as a result.
With the straight-laced Rika, her approach to FC is centered around hardline dedication to proper technique. The prestigious school she attends is no slouch when it comes to high-level players in the sport. Especially with classmates Reiko Satou(in) and club president Kazunari Shindo’s considerable skill, she has a lot to live up to. Some of her route unsurprisingly involves Masaya helping her soften up and being open stepping outside her comfort zone. It’s not one of the stronger ones, but it’s fine regardless.
The least FC-focused of the four heroines is Mashiro. Her own skill as a skywalker pales in comparison to the likes of Asuka and Misaki. But if there’s one thing she’s passionate about, it’s definitely Misaki. She may be more apt to play video games above her mother’s udon restaurant, but that doesn’t stop her from being Misaki’s top fan. Mashiro’s route may very well be the most cutesy of the four. Plus the enhanced focus on the romance aspect of this route might be a more palatable route for some. Personally, I found myself enjoying the FC aspects of Aokana more, so this route didn’t hit the same way it would for some.
Drawn to Motion
One advantage that traditional visual novels tend to have is that they’re like reading a slightly more complicated motion comic. In that regard, the first thing that most people will notice is the complexity of the art. Since we’re dealing with a modern anime art style, most everything character-wise is drawn quite well. Well, for the most part. There’s still the standard fanservice-y female body proportions typical of the style, though there’s a little bit of variety there. Male body proportions are generally go between “typical anime protag” to “slightly buff.” Part of that can be attributed to the ratio of characters in the story skewing female, but given the audience it make sense.
The backgrounds used in much of the non-CG scenes are nice enough, but you’ll find yourself cycling through a fair amount of it. The biggest strength here from an art perspective, though, is the use of motion during FC matches. Since the sport itself is dynamic and fast-paced, you’ll find a lot of elements at play. Close up animations, camera pans, screen shakes, and the like are all used in a way that adds to the excitement. The writing in these parts helps out a bit, so each scene tends to mesh well with the art here.
However, there would be some that would take issue with the removal of some art content from prior releases of the game. Since Aokana falls into the eroge genre of VNs, it’s not uncommon for these stories to devolve into just basically being porn. Since this is on the Switch and Nintendo isn’t exactly a fan of this sort of thing on their platform, the more erotic elements were pared down to just fanservice, censored nudity, and implied scenes.
The “ick” factor doesn’t really go down for me regardless of what was taken out, and the fanservice just seems unnecessary. It doesn’t contribute anything to the plot other than to titillate the reader. I’m fully aware that I’m griping about erotic content from a game that was originally an eroge. But aside from the more romantic aspect of each route, it just doesn’t seem to fit. Especially when the more sports-focused parts of the story are way more entertaining.
Thankfully, I feel pretty good with the sound direction. Aside from Masaya, you’re dealing with a full voice cast from start to finish. It’s a Japanese dub, of course, but the quality of the acting here isn’t unlike anything you’d typically see in most anime. The cast clearly understands what they’re working with, and they aren’t afraid to let loose a little bit. While the music may not win any awards, the breadth of the score is decent enough to fit the mood of the scenes in play. I may not be playing this in my car, but it’s not something I hated.
While I may have my own personal misgivings about certain elements, I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy myself. When it’s in a comfortable space, Aokana a hell of a good time to breeze through. But when things start inching towards the more tropey and problematic end of the spectrum, it does lose its luster a little bit. Though this could be a pretty good starting point for those looking to dip their toes into VNs as a whole thanks to the sports angle it has going on.
Ultimately, reading Aokana often feels like eating a variety pack of candy. Sure, there may be some flavors that don’t hit in ways that some do. But the ratio of good outweighs the bad here, and opening the box in the first place is a safe bet for a good read.
Review copy provided by PQube for Switch. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of PQube.