Review by Matt S.
Visual novels that are deeply rooted in some kind of bittersweet nostalgia are dime a dozen. Japanese culture itself is a deeply nostalgic one (to this day the country struggles to resolve its respect for tradition with its love of progress), and there’s an abiding fixation on youth in Japan which makes the nostalgic a natural go-to theme for storytelling.
Likewise, visual novels that thrust a single male protagonist into a harem filled with a wildly eclectic bunch of girls are hardly infrequent. In fact, the harem genre is one of the most overloaded of all across anime, manga, and Japanese video games. So it says a lot that If My Heart Had Wings manages to stand out so completely despite belonging to such traditions. It stands out because this is one beautifully sentimental little game, and every time it teeters on the brink of falling into the abyss of stock-standard horny teen fan service and other such tropes of the genre, it pulls things back to remember that it’s got a far more grand story of real substance to share.
If My Heart Had Wings is a story about loss and redemption. The two central characters – Aoi, the protagonist, and Kotori, a wheelchair-bound girl, are both listless in life, with disabilities that they both feel stifle them. For Aoi, a knee injury that prevents him from take on serious athletic pursuits causes him to flee back to his childhood home village, and this kicks off the story. Kotori’s wheelchair disability causes her to almost quit school entirely. Through the story both find emotional redemption in joining a club that aims to create a glider, so they can soar through the skies and feel complete freedom.
Every other character within that club is written magnificently, too, and while the bulk of your sympathies and focus is meant to lie with Aoi and Kotori, the “harem” that forms around Aoi are all equally flawed individuals, experiencing their own version of loss, and likewise finding redemption through their social interactions. My personal favourite is Ageha, a gorgeous girl that was a tomboy, and Aoi’s best friend before he left, and is now uncertain about how to re-connect with him on his return. Now, she’s fashionable, popular, sexy, and brilliant, and there’s a lot of unresolved tensions between her and Aoi that are only made more substantial as the teenage drama is layered on top.
You’ll have your own favourite characters from among the cast, with six major characters each enjoying their own narrative arcs, and a host of supports that help to add context and tone to the dynamics within the group. If My Heart Had Wings has plenty of moments of raw and unfiltered emotion, but it’s also got a wicked sense of humour at times, and by way of example, I looked forward to every moment where Hatto showed up. Hatto being a white duck that wears a top hat and has a near mystical ability to bring chaos with him, everywhere and at any time. At other times If My Heart Had Wings indulges the fan service side of anime – the Nintendo Switch version of the game lacks the explicit sex scenes and nudity of the original visual novel, but there’s still plenty of bath scenes, swimsuits, and talk about girl’s panties.
A little like with Nekopara on the Switch before it, I actually believe the “censored” version of If My Heart Had Wings has a better tonal consistency. There are many visual novels that absolutely do need the sex scenes. Saya no Uta, for example, would have nowhere near the impact that it does were it not for the sadistic and extreme sex that went on. However, If My Heart Had Wings wants to be a nostalgic trip back to youth and dwell on themes with significant emotional resonance. The fan service in the “censored” game is superfluous to that intent, let alone what this game might be like with the additional sex distorting the pacing and tone of the game. It’s not that I didn’t want to see Ageha get very naked as I played, because If My Heart Has Wings totally sells me on the idea that I want to love her, but sometimes less is more effective, and as a story, the Switch version of If My Heart Has Wings is structured perfectly with only the mild fan service moments diverting attention to the core narrative principles.
It’s also so, so beautiful. Visual novels, being what they are, need to be pleasing on the eyes and ears over long periods of relatively static stuff on-screen. Not only does If My Heart Had Wings offer a surprising amount of animation (making it clear that this is a premium-standard VN), but every still image, every character design, and every background evokes a soaring sense of spirit – combining rural Japan with airy colours and pure serenity. From the windmills that are a recurring visual motif, to the exquisite architecture of every single building, this visual novel is a masterwork of visual elegance and grace. The soundtrack, too, is magnificence in its airiness – it’s the kind of music that you want to have playing through a good set of headphones as you read, for its ability to completely block out the world around you and absorb you in its embrace. There are plenty of very beautiful visual novels out there. There are none that I have found so purely invigorating as this one.
There’s no deep meaning to the story If My Heart Has Wings tells. It’s not Steins;Gate in its winding science fiction intensity, nor is it Saya no Uta in being a high art homage to Marquis de Sade. It’s not Death Mark in being a clever exploration of horror, and it’s not the philosophy thesis that sits under the surrealistic humour of Danganronpa. But it deserves the same respect of all of those visual novels, because If My Heart Has Wings does such a good job of being emotive and evocative in its nostalgia. It’s just that beautiful, heartfelt, and well-written that I can’t think of a better example of youthful drama across all of the visual novels that I have played over the years.
– Matt S.
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