About three years ago, I watched an anime called Aokana: Four Rhythm Across the Blue. It was an anime that had a cool story concept, but was ultimately brought down by its subpar animation and poor pacing. It managed to turn a 30 or so hour visual novel into just 12 20-minute episodes, so the problems are pretty much a given. Nearly four years later, we now have that visual novel available in English, so I had to check it out and see how it compared.
Excellent high-res art. From a technical standpoint Aokana is one of the best-looking visual novels I have ever played. Not only does it offer resolution support up to 1440p, but the art assets themselves are actually stored at this resolution, not scaled up to fit it like other VNs. The result is some crisp linework on both characters and backgrounds, very high-quality CGs, and no blurriness on any of this even when zoomed in on. Coupled with the already great character designs and CGs and you get a pretty visually-striking VN.
However, what makes it even better is that the art is very dynamic. Characters are constantly changing faces (sometimes even mid-line), special effects and animations are used throughout, and the game has a massive amount of CGs. In fact, the game would sometimes have a series of CGs that changed with every new line, especially when portraying scenes with lots of movement. It made the whole experience feel very animated, which goes perfectly with the type of story being told here.
Unique sport-focused storyline. So, when I mentioned that Aokana is a game with lots of movement, I wasn’t just saying things. That is because the story is built around a fictional sport by the name “Flying Circus”. This sport is played up in the sky, as Aokana takes place in a world where anti-graviton shoes are a thing, allowing its users to fly around with ease.
Flying Circus (abbreviated to FC) is a sport that has its players fly around an arena up in the air and collect points at each of this arena’s four corners. Points can also be scored by touching an opponent on his/her back, creating this divide between speeders (who try to go as fast as possible and score points off of the beacons in each corner) and fighters (who try to get points by tagging the opponent). It sounds relatively simple, but there’s actually a lot more to it that is explained over the course of the game.
So given that an entire sport was invented for the game, the story of course has its focus on said sport. Although Aokana technically fits the “high school romance-drama” category, the addition of FC actually gives the characters some goal to work towards, specifically that of winning the FC summer tournament. The result is a story full of character development towards realizing that goal, which honestly felt pretty nice given that most games in this genre have little such development. You’ll still get your usual high school romance tropes present in similar VNs, but the sport element really sets Aokana apart in what oftentimes feels like a crowded genre.
Constant story progression. Building on the previous pro, Aokana also tells a story that actually has some good progression to it. By that, I mean that the story is constantly moving, never really slowing down to throw in the pointless cooking scene, shopping scene, etc. It is very much a story with a clear focus in mind and doesn’t want to waste a bunch of your time by fluffing it up with filler. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have any of this kind of content (there’s still a little bit), but it’s miles better than similar VNs in this regard.
Great soundtrack. One thing that I really liked about the Aokana anime was its soundtrack. I may have come away disappointed from that anime, but the soundtrack is something I’ve listened to since. Fortunately, the game not only fixes a lot of the issues that I had with the anime story-wise, but also has a great soundtrack to match, even better than the one used in the anime. It generally avoids that pitfall of having super-grating, looping background music that many other VNs fall into. The background music present here is not only pleasant to listen to on its own, but maintains enough variety throughout the game to avoid that pitfall.
However, this music really shines during action scenes, when these low-profile tracks are replaced with super-energetic alternatives. These tracks perfectly match how fast-paced these scenes can be and, again, are great to listen to on their own as well. This is all courtesy of Elements Garden, the same group that did music for the Grisaia series and Symphogear. They did a great job there and continue to do so in Aokana.
Subpar romance. While I did appreciate the goal-oriented focus of Aokana‘s storyline, it unfortunately comes with one major drawback: that being the subpar romance elements. Although the game is tagged as a “pure love story” on VNDB, that comes second to the sports side to the game. And by that, I don’t mean that the romance simply isn’t as good as that side (which it definitely isn’t), but that the romance element is so barebones in comparison that it honestly hurts the overall story.
The romance elements that are there are weak, sporadically placed, and honestly felt tacked-on at times. Granted, the amount of these elements depends on the route, but even then, it just never really felt fully developed. It’s a massive stain on an otherwise great storyline.
Meaningless choices. A pet peeve I have with the visual novel genre is that many of them are full of “meaningless choices”. By “meaningless”, I mean those choices that pop up and give the player a chance to interact with the game, but have no effect outside of changing up what the next few lines of text will say. Now, normally I don’t have a problem if a game has a few of these, but in Aokana‘s case, it is every single choice until the very end of the common route, at which point you’ll get a few simple choices that lock you onto whatever character route. To me, this just feels like a lazy way to make the player feel involved in the story when they really are not. Granted, I imagine many will not have a problem with this, but it’s worth noting regardless.
Lack of rebindable controls. Another minor complaint I have is with the game’s settings, or rather, lack thereof. I’m one that likes to play through visual novels by pressing space to advance the text. With Aokana though, all this does is hide the text box, a behavior similar to other visual novels. Given this, I went to look at the settings, hoping to find some sort of rebindable controls section, only to then be disappointed to find none. The settings elsewhere are at least decent (although the font config could use some work), but the lack of rebindable controls was a bit annoying. The game runs on Unity, so there really isn’t much of an excuse to not have them.
Aokana is a solid visual novel all things considered. It’s got a good story going for it, some really nice art, and a great soundtrack on top of that. However, it is brought down by its weak romance element, an element that stains an otherwise excellent story. There’s also the meaningless choices and lack of rebindable controls, but those are minor complaints in comparison. Regardless, it is a fun read and one that I would recommend, especially to those that are tired of the same old high school romantic drama that we usually get from the medium.
You can buy Aokana – Four Rhythms Across the Blue on Steam here.
I was provided a review copy of the game in order to write this review. Read more about how I do my game reviews here.