I discovered that Visual Novels are difficult to review because not all are created equal. Titles like Danganronpa and Corpse Party feature familiar mechanics, like navigating a map, interacting with people, and using items to lead the story to branching paths and multiple endings. In stark contrast, If My Heart Had Wings offers very little gameplay hooks. A visual novel in the truest sense of the term, players have limited influence on what direction the story takes. There’s even an option to put the experience on autopilot that removes player interaction altogether. Because software such as this lacks traditional video game mechanics, then my job as a reviewer is to scrutinize the story because that is where the emphasis lies. If My Heart Had Wings won’t win high literary honors -- some localization issues and Engrish phrasing see to that, and for as often as I grew frustrated with the experience, I often found some its quieter moments quite compelling.
The plot of If My Heart Had Wings will feel overly familiar to those well versed in Japanese anime. It finds a comfortable place within the romantic comedy genre, however the number of quiet, intimate moments of introspection between the main characters edges closer to romance. The drama unfolds in the fantastically ultramodern and clean suburb of Kazegura, where the lush green hills are home to sleek, elegant buildings that look borrowed from Final Fantasy VIII. Aoi Minase returns to his hometown after suffering a tragic accident that left him physically unable to enjoy his passion (and school club commitments) for cycling. He intends to complete his academic career at Kazegura’s Keifuu Academy, an engineering school known for its diverse clubs and curriculum. Due to the meddling of his mother, Aoi has been installed as the den mother for a girl’s dorm. There he butts heads with Kotomi Habane, a young woman confined to a wheelchair who is abrasive, hotheaded, and a bit of a crybaby. While the other girls grow to enjoy Aoi’s company, Kotomi makes life difficult for Aoi as he juggles school and keeping the dorm clean and tidy.
The game doesn’t place the burden of creating meals or surprise them with Persona 4-style pop quizzes. Instead, you are merely a spectator, clicking the mouse button to move onto the next chunk of dialog. Aoi and Kotori sit at the center of the drama as kindred spirits who have suffered a debilitating injury. Both struggle to find their place and meaning in life after their carefree futures took a sudden left turn. They also have their own way of dealing with their particular disabilities. Aoi has a difficult time with coming home but soon finds comfort in reuniting with his childhood friends. Kotori, on the other hand, lashes out at people, chooses to remain fiercely independent, and actively skips school in order to complete her own personal bucket list. The only reason she enrolled at Keifuu is because of the school’s ADA compliance. Aoi and Kotori spar quite often and arguments usually end with the girl turning up her nose and rolling herself out of the discussion. Kotori’s cold demeanor begins to melt after she and Aoi discover the school’s Soaring Club led by a senior student obsessed with repairing a glider and taking it high in the sky.
If My Heart Had Wings can be a trying experience, especially for impatient gamers. For one, Kotori’s behavior gets old quick and there was nothing I wanted more than to grab her shoulders and tell her to stop acting like a child. Thankfully, her personality slowly begins to change, but not after sitting through five hours of her whining and complaining. The game’s secondary characters aren’t as interesting as Aoi and Kotori because they haven’t experienced their physical and emotional suffering. That doesn’t prevent the player, however, from pursuing romantic routes with the other girls. The writing is serviceable but there are a number of moments where some of the descriptions, analogies, and humor falls flat. Characters often say and think phrases and speech patterns that no “normal” person would use. There’s also a bit of localized Engrish, such as the transition scene’s one liner, “Extend the little wings that fly in the sky highly.” What does that even mean?
And yet, for all the goofy, doofy dialog that made my eyes roll, the moments where things got “real” between Aoi and Kotori had me leaning into my monitor, teeth biting away at my already uneven fingernails. From the very first verbal sparring match between Aoi and Kotori, you’re anxious for the moment where someone will drop the harsh truths needed to rouse Kotori’s spirits. For every moment I wanted to slap her in the face, the moments where her facade breaks are quite surprisingly moving.
The game uses a mix of static images and animations to tell its story and unfortunately, the game recycles them rather quickly so it is easy to get bored. There’s nothing particularly exciting or life changing about the game’s artwork but it is pretty and refined The characters fit the mold of cute, bright eyed Japanese boys and girls with different personalities that help tell them apart from each other. It’s worth pointing out that the Steam version of If My Heart Had Wings is “clean,” as the sex scenes and blue collar humor have been removed. There’s a patch available online that will restore the cut content, so those looking for the complete experience will want to do some digging around online.
To give this title a score is to judge it primarily by its story and speaking as someone who has seen their fair share of anime, I thought the story rather bland. However, presenting two main leads that share a disability is a unique hook that helps to define the roles they play. If My Heart Had Wings won’t be for everyone because there isn’t much game to be had. Clicking through dialog is about the closest it gets to interactivity but even that be removed by activating the “auto” advance setting. It's also a long (long, long) story that trudges forward at a relatively slow pace. I've been playing this game for days and I feel like I've barely scratched the surface. So lulled was I by the game’s pacing that the inexplicable appearance of an animated title sequence five hours into the game sent me into a fit of terrifying confusion.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.