Aokana – Four Rhythms Across the Blue Review

It’s that time of year again. We have finally shaken off the long backlog of Vita fanboys getting through all the amazing visual novel ports that came at the beginning of the year (holy crap, was Yumetsutsu just a few months ago?), it’s time to turn our attention to new ports and new ventures. There are plenty of amazing ones on the horizon, but let’s keep our eyes on the present. Sprite, a well respected, but perhaps lesser known VN dev, has finally brought their most famous work to the West thanks to the combined efforts of NekoNyan and Pqube, and the Switch is a marvellous home to reside. While all visual novels can be enjoyed in handheld mode, I highly recommend you have your Switch ready for docking: you’ll want to enjoy these gorgeous visuals in a larger capacity on a bigger screen.

Aokana: Four Rhythms Across the Blue is an alternate reality version of Japan, but that doesn’t mean that the usual tropes of romance and silly games can’t exist. Somewhere along the line, Grav-Shoes have been invented, which means each and every person can have their very own flying experience without needing to rely on heavy machinery or even public transportation. Naturally, this is all regulated and stuff like that, but it also has given birth to a brand new sport: The Flying Circus. Flying Circus is somewhere between in-flight racing or in-flight tag, depending on which version of the game you’re playing. Everyone involved wants to be a great Skywalker (dope term for the different players), and the new girl, Asuka, seems to have a proficiency for the game that perhaps others have underestimated. As Masaya, the main character, chief romantic interest and unofficial captain, you must make a brand new Flying Circus team for Kunahama Academy and rocket towards the summer tournament. You may or may not have trauma from your past that you need to work through, with the help of your friends (who are all girls) and maybe help them open up about their own lives as well. You also need to figure out which girl will be your girlfriend, because there’re choices but this ain’t no harem game. Be loyal, figure it out, don’t just go with Rika because you saw her undressing in the first episode. Or do, whatever.

To quickly touch on some bases for Aokana, let’s review what you will and will not see in this game. First, it’s a visual novel, and it’s one where the choices are plentiful, but spread out across a pretty decent length read: we’re talking a minimum of 24 hours with speed reading at heart. You will court one girl, they will react according to your choices, and you will probably end up sleeping with them at the end of the route as long as you follow simple, common sense responses: (“I wanted to help you fly” versus “The teacher told me to help you”). There is no direct nudity or sex, though it was created for the game (it exists in a PC only patch, and I can’t see Nintendo saying yes to both hardcore sex and modifying game files). You will bed them, and you’ll see some before and after shots, but nothing for during. The Nintendo Switch may not have censored the game as much as the PS4 (plenty of hot spring shots, some panty shots, etc.) but there’s no outright pornographic content yet. Not to say that the game is tame, however. I thought Aokana would break ALL kinds of barriers when my male rival crawled into my sleeping bag, but I guess that’s just now Japanese boys intimidate each other. Sure.

I love the way that, unlike some visual novels, Aokana really feels like I‘m watching an anime unfolding before me. The characters and details in sequences are all well connected and even get bookended with different episodes, complete with recap montages and a familiar chapter song. It switches between both traditional character drawings and chibi portrayals when the humour calls for it. The different awkward moments are broken up between “accidental” sexual energy and some very, very deliberate approaches by the women. It’s so hard, because I know there’s justification that happens within games for how you’re a high schooler and so are they, so everything’s copacetic, but it sometimes feels really creepy to have these teenagers openly vying for my affection. Then again, if I didn’t want it to feel skeezy, I probably shouldn’t have played the games period. Oh well.

Holy crap, do I love this soundtrack. The music and score of Aokana are unbelievable, and each and every track gets notation to let you know what you’re listening to so you can hunt it down later. A beautiful balance of strings and piano with a lot of synthetic tunes and more than a bit of vocal work, there’s this incredible amount of thought that went into the design of the soundscape for Aokana. There’s one violin piece that almost sounds like it’s Celtic, and then some classical guitar work that brings you into the seaside life of the archipelago people. This is only further bolstered by the voicework, which, as expected, is top notch. We thankfully have a silent protagonist throughout the game (I really don’t like it when the main talks because he often sounds super creepy), but everyone else has plenty to say, and usually in a full range of emotion and intonations. We have different accents and speech patterns, showcasing just how diverse the world of Flying Circus can be.

Speaking of which, the Flying Circus moments were almost more enjoyable than the moments between the main and the different girls. This sport is obviously impossible to play in current technologies, but Aokana (and Sprite, by proxy) put a lot of thought and also great design into how this game could be played. There’s fierce, bitter rivalries, amazing “special moves” that they practice and incorporate, and some serious meta mind games happening on the land and in the sky. I read that Aokana is an animation as well, and I’m not surprised. The chemistry and serious energy between the different factions, even within the two dimensional world of the visual novel, are powerful and potent. Hell, Saki is probably one of the strongest characters I’ve seen in a VN in a while, and she isn’t even a main (though I also love the nature of Irina as well). If I’m being honest, though, my favourite moments were in the hollowed out bus that the team uses as a combination meeting room and changing area. I don’t know why I love the thought of a hollowed out bus as a clubhouse so much, but I do.

The routes you can choose between the four girls are all pretty standard, and each is adorable and endearing in their own way (though many will state, correctly, that Misaki is the best one). Each builds their own level of trust and love with Masaya, and, without spoiling too much, each character has their own complexities with both Flying Circus, their connection with Masaya and their personal lives. Playing through the game once helps to unlock additional routes, and it’s worth it: Asuka is great and all, but you really want to see the true ending and also see as much of the gallery as you can. Oh, and playing through once unlocks the Gallery where you have the music player (THANK YOU) as well as all the awkward moments you encountered throughout the game. Hardcore fans can also save a massive number of voice bookmarks as well, giving you a chance to hear some cool phrases again and again, both enjoying the voice actress work and passively studying Japanese through listening. It’s a cool extra feature, and dedicated players will want to exercise it (now I can add “I will avenge you” to my Japanese repertoire).

Like so many visual novels, many of the fans of Aokana were planning to buy this regardless: the artwork is amazing, the soundtrack is beautiful and the play time is legit with a well written storyline throughout. Fans who aren’t really VN players would do well here as well: it’s got enough science fiction departure and actual focus on plot points that aren’t romance to keep you engaged. Honestly, as long as you’re not disappointed that you can’t actually see the sex scenes, I would recommend it to most. It’s damn good.

REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to editor@bonusstage.co.uk.

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Aokana – Four Rhythms Across the Blue Review
  • Gameplay - 9/10
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  • Graphics - 9/10
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  • Sound - 9/10
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  • Replay Value - 9/10
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User Review
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Overall
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Summary

Aokana is a stunning visual novel that delights, surprises and positively delivers in both story and soundscape.