If My Heart Had Wings is developer MoeNovel’s first foray into the visual novel realm. Although the staff members behind the title have been involved in the scene for quite some time, the studio at large is taking their very first plunge into the medium. As such, it’s clear that the newly formed team is looking to create a splash with their grand unveiling here. And while If My Heart Had Wings certainly has its limitations, the game takes a refreshingly unique approach to the genre by providing an experience that is affecting, enchanting and resonant with a poignant degree of emotionality.
If My Heart Had Wings introduces its audience to an endearing story right out of the gates, with an opening scene that feels both existential and sincere in its decorated ambition. By setting the scene through wide-angle shots that capture the expansive countryside of Kazegaura — a suburb outside Tokyo — in addition to rolling hills, sparkling waters and the emblematic fields of peacefully rotating windmills, this visual novel makes quite the statement in its inaugural message. Having said that, it wastes no time in getting its readers involved in the tale either. Within less than a minute, we are treated to our first batch of text which comes from an internal monologue of our main character Aoi Minase. Aoi is an adolescent boy who is moving back to Kazagaura, his hometown, after being injured in a bike racing accident. Incidentally, he’s been away from the town for five years while living with his father, and is unsure of what to expect in the homecoming.
During his approach in the initial segment, we find Aoi standing on one of the swollen hillsides. As he takes in the sights and sounds of a place that feels warmly nostalgic and strangely unfamiliar, Aoi spots a small paper airplane soaring through the air. Clutching it from mid-flight, the boy unravels the origami and reads a message scribbled on the elegantly folded paper: “help me,” it says. Not knowing whether to react with decisive swiftness or caution, Aoi takes the SOS to heart and eventually finds its writer — a wheelchair-bound girl sitting atop another one of the landscape’s undulating knolls. Aoi exchanges words with the girl and the two share something of an awkward but charming moment as they try to remedy the gal’s situation, which just so happens to be a flat tire on one of her wheels. Aoi, being a regular Tim “the Toolman” Taylor, informs the lass that he has a few tools in his carrying pack, and offers to fix the broken chair. After doing so, and following a few more beats of clumsy verbal interactions, the two go their separate ways, and our wheelchair-sprucing hero makes his departure for town.
As part of his return, Aoi plans to attend Keifu Academy, a boarding school in the area that specializes in the subject of engineering. Though school occupies much of Aoi’s focus and the game’s adventure, his part-time job serves as an equally large part of Wings’ narrative. Moreover, it’s the place that he visits first when entering the town from his passage through the countryside. The “Flying Fish Manor” is the name of his soon-to-be place of employment and it’s upon arrival that we find out Aoi’s job is that of a dorm mother. Yes, that’s right, this teen boy has been set up with the position, thanks to his own mother, and plans to make a couple bucks cooking, cleaning and taking care of other high school students. It’s only when he steps foot in the door that he realizes this particular dormitory just so happens to be an all-female boarding house. (Cue harem scenario!)
It becomes obvious that Aoi has his hands full with the roster of ladies under his care — one of which just so happens to be the gal from the hill earlier. Essentially, there are four females in the house, each possessing their own unique personalities and contributing to the story in some way. Unfortunately, three of the four seem somewhat underdeveloped in terms of character maturation, but that’s mostly because they don’t get a lot of screen time. The majority of the story centers around the wheelchair-adjoined Kotori in addition to some others Aoi meets and reunites with along the way.
After a somewhat plodding start to the game, which goes on for a few hours, If My Heart Had Wings finally begins to pick up by introducing the reader to a wider company of faces than just those from the Manor. Ultimately, the story settles into a nice pace that finds our main character and a select few ladies trying to keep the Glider Club at their academy from being discontinued due to a general lack of interest on campus. Once this plot point has been established, the game tells a beautiful story of Aoi and the gang trying to build the perfect glider to soar the high winds for which Kazagaura is known. The obstacles they face, the interactions they share with one another are all remarkable here, particularly the latter.
In fact, Wings’ biggest selling point is its ability to create characters that the player truly cares about. This is done somewhat via crafting specific personalities, but mostly through how each develops in conjunction with the others. By the end of the story, we truly had connected with the troupe, and cared for them in a way that made us wonder what they ended up doing after the story came to a close. It certainly doesn’t hurt the game’s cause that each of the primary (and most of the secondary characters) are given their own motivations and histories. Kotori is a character that is particularly fleshed out, and one who gets much attention throughout the novel, making her personal account all the more heart-touching.
It’s in situations like this that If My Heart Had Wings demonstrates its uncanny aptitude to present its readers with rousing, thought-provoking allegories. In actuality, much of the tale is so magical because of how well it parallels actual events with a kind of metaphorical significance pertinent to all of our lives. In the end, Wings’ tale is one of friendship, love and ambition; a story of finding our places in the world; what we have to offer, the baggage we carry and the things we’ve lost along the way that, no matter how hard we try, we can’t ever get back. At times, title is tragic, but it’s also uncompromisingly real. With these themes on front-street, it’s hard not to be moved by the game’s big ideas and pungent messages that hit at the heart of what it feels like to be human.
Adding to the tenderness of its fable is the exquisite soundtrack. While some tunes play more often than they should, what is there in the way of a musical score is emotionally stirring. It hits all the notes it needs to for the emotionally-powerful scenes, striking sadness in one’s heart when necessary and making toes tap to the bouncing rhythms during upbeat, casual segments. It’s also one of those OSTs that’s so memorable it reproduces itself in the pre-conscious mind, popping up to the top of the conscious only to have folks whistling a song or two even when they’re not actually playing the game.
Then we come to the other part of the game’s beauty: its aesthetics. If My Heart Had Wings is not only one of the best looking visual novels ever created — making its strong art direction a given — but it also employs wildly vivacious colors and scenes that pop wonderfully thanks to its 720p resolution. When in motion, players may mistake the game for the work of Makoto Shinkai, with its beautifully realized world and arresting use of hues and color saturation. A mere glance at the game certainly showcases the amount of detail and work that has lovingly gone into making the experience downright dazzling to the eye.
Regrettably, many of the game’s backgrounds are used time and time again for the various scenes, especially those that take place in and around the academy’s campus. While each of these environments has been fashioned with a distinct level of care, it doesn’t make the re-using of assets seem any less lazy. While on the subject of what the novel doesn’t do all that well, it’d be inappropriate to not point out the sheer amount of grammatical errors, spelling mistakes and general typos that litter the game’s text. As a visual novel, where the bulk of the experience is derived from the actual dialog, this was maddening at times and just unacceptable at others. It’s as if no one proofread certain portions of the game at all! Moreover, sometimes the meaning of certain phrases got lost in translation due to a couple wonky localization efforts that essentially resulted in a few head-scratching moments of awkwardly-read dialog. The title also has an issue with jumping in and out of past and present tense, occasionally happening multiple times in a single scene, making the reading all the less fluid and natural. There’s very little interaction throughout the story as well, which may be off-putting for some who enjoy more option-laden, customizable experiences.
In the end, If My Heart Had Wings is a delightful experience. Its story is one of humanism, filled with both heartbreak and triumph, a testament to the challenges we as people face in our painfully ordinary yet remarkable lives. The game never forgets that it has a powerful, poignant tale to tell, and rarely compromises its vision for clichéd sentiments or melodramatic plot angles. To accentuate its beautiful understanding of the human condition, it embraces a breathtaking aesthetic, rendered in high-definition, giving its vistas gorgeous vibrancy. The soundtrack is also a work of true craftsmanship, pitch-perfectly ebbing and flowing with the emotionality that resonates within the heart-touching scenes, relatable cast and overall thematic message. The title isn’t without its flaws, most notably its slew of grammatical errors, but they are far more forgivable when put up against the qualities that make the title stand head and shoulders above its competition overall. This is the exact type of experience that can put visual novels on the map, and allow the niche genre to reach a broader audience.