*Warning, massive spoilers ahead*
As a subject of much controversy, the 2012 visual novel of the year was translated (very poorly, I might add) into English by a company called Moenovel. They renamed the game "If My Heart Had Wings," (which, by the way, is again not the correct translation. The correct translation would be, "Throughout this wide sky, spread your wings," or something similar.), cut all the sexual content in the game, and censored vast portions of even 'dubious' content that they found dislikable for whatever reason. This butchered version of the game was then released for sale, and a fan group took it from there to patch the game back into its original state, with all the cut and censored content restored. Unfortunately, it still doesn't fix the terrible translation which is rife with ridiculous errors, or the times when the translation intentionally lies about what is being said on screen in order to make the content of the game more 'foreigner friendly'. There's also a bug in the restored game that means many of the game's images are just plain missing in the image gallery, so if you want to see something again your only choice is to save while the game is at that exact point. This bug wouldn't have existed if only Moenovel had left the game alone in the first place, and is just one more annoyance on top of all the others.
Nevertheless, the game is available to play in English, which is more than can be said of many other visual novels, and given its reputation as the best game of 2012 it was an obvious necessity to try out, of course in the fan restored form.
The moment I started playing the game, I couldn't put it down again for hours. Every line made me desirous to see the next line and wouldn't let go of my attention for even a second. The music was remarkably beautiful, the game starting with almost an unearthly hymn. The art was fantastic, perhaps the best any visual novel has ever produced. In terms of a 'hook,' you couldn't have asked for more:
The story continues on rails, with choices that don't even seem to matter whenever they come along, as the story moves in the same direction regardless each time, as you get to know your starting cast and work together to build a glider to sail through the sky. Your initial flight with Amane in a failed attempt to reach the Morning Glory is absolutely thrilling, with the music and graphics giving all the emotional push you could ask for. Up until this point, the game should have made you laugh, cry, and marvel at it over and over again. But after this, sadly, the common route comes to an end, and your choices come back to haunt you from the beginning.
After the common route, much of the game is just sex. Lots and lots of sex, with every conceivable fetish entertained. Choosing your route is more just choosing which girl to have sex with. The art involved in this is still great, to be sure, but there isn't much emotional or intellectual appeal from here on. Furthermore, the story content is rather frustrating on the majority of the routes.
For Kotori's route, you discover that her family is unreasonably annoying and meddlesome, demanding she not ride on the glider because it's dangerous (when it's really not that dangerous at all, compared to many other activities many other people do for fun.) To take the one fun and challenging activity a handicapped girl can do away from her is cruel beyond belief. She had finally found something she was good at and something she could do, and they take it away from her because, apparently, handicapped girls should never be allowed to do anything again for the rest of their lives except wait to die. When faced with such atrocious people, you just throw up your hands in disbelief. Artificially evil people create artificial drama where there should have been none, and drag the story artificially beyond the length it should have ended at with a happily ever after.
And it's not just Kotori's route that does this. Ageha's has the exact same problem, only this time it's a meddlesome and obnoxious teacher who is trying to shut down the soaring club because it's dangerous. Somehow it's okay for sports clubs to exist even though there are constant injuries to athletes, but God forbid if you get injured flying gliders, somehow that's an unacceptable risk. Yet again it's foreigners meddling in something that isn't any of their business. If people want to risk their own lives flying a glider, they're the only ones who know in their hearts whether the risk is worth it or not. No one has any say in the issue at all, because it doesn't impact anyone else but the glider-riders themselves. This is just basic morality 101. Ageha eventually overcomes the evil meddling teacher after a long and ridiculous adventure, but the whole situation is so infuriating that it would have been better if the story had never been told at all.
Amane's route is somewhat better, in that the meddling teacher is less of a presence. However, as Amane can't even be played until after you clear Kotori's route, a lot of the Amane route is repeat content you've already seen elsewhere in your playthroughs of other characters. When you take out all those repeat scenes, plus all the sex scenes, you get some nice comedic portions at the beginning of the route, plus a very short flashback storyline between Amane and Isuka which resolves in a satisfactory manner at the very end of the route. That's a lot of nonsense to wade through for little reward.
Which brings us to Asa and Yoru, surprisingly, the best characters and the best routes in the story. Yoru's route can't be played until you clear the Asa route, and this is definitely a case of saving the best for last.
These identical twin girls are both beautiful beyond belief:
And it isn't just their looks. Their personalities are captivating as well. Even their voice actors are way better than the rest of the cast. In addition, they seem to be the most fitting heroines for the story as a whole. Kotori's disability makes her pretty much ineligible for romantic feelings (who would want to take care of her for the rest of their lives?), so her wish to fly in the sky only covers 1/2 of the theme of this visual novel. Asa and Yoru, however, fulfill the criteria of strongly wanting to fly and being girls anyone can and should fall in love with.
Asa's story is that of being an ordinary girl surrounded by extraordinary people. Even her identical twin little sister, Yoru, is a genius who's the head of her class and can do anything she wants with ease. This makes Asa feel suffocated by the weight of everyone's disapproval, to the point that she runs away from home, even though no one ever specifically says or does anything mean to her. She is just so effective at reading atmospheres that she can't stand to even be around those disapproving faces a moment longer. Despite only receiving negative emotions from others, she is kind, open, and admiring of the people around her. Her enthusiasm to fly comes from the understandable desire to finally be above all the people who used to think so lowly of her. Out in the sky, doing something none of the others could even dream of doing, she can finally find her own identity, not just as a worse version of someone else.
Accompanying her, however, is her worst nemesis, her twin sister Yoru, who loves Asa more than anyone else in the world, and whose sole desire is to stay close to the one thing in this world that makes her happy. The distance Yoru goes to stay with Asa is heroic, and it really shows just how important her twin is to her. In Yoru's route, unlike all the other routes in the game, the two seated glider doesn't seat the male protagonist who enviously gets to have sex with all of these heroines, but instead fulfills Yoru's greatest desire, to stay by Asa's side forever, as the two fly through the Morning Glory together. And in this route, all the built up tension that comes from Asa's inferiority complex, and Yoru's cynicism and detachment from life and other people, are worked through together, as twins should work things out, in a bond that transforms them both and leaves them both better off and stronger than before.
The story also head-on challenges one of the most common assumptions in romance, that monogamy is the only true or pure love. In Asa's route, this works out just fine, as Yoru always puts her sister ahead of herself. But it's impossible to love Yoru alone. She won't accept it. She loves Asa far more than you could ever love her, and would rather be with her than anyone else. In other words, if you want to love Yoru, you must love Asa too, and just as much, enough that the three of you are always together and always happy forever. And when it's put this way, at the behest of the girls themselves, and when you look at the alternative of these identical twins being forcibly separated along any other timeline, you realize how absurd the idea of monogamy can be.
Commonly, polygamy is viewed as a tyrannical male collecting more and more wives as he tires of each older one, in a completely unequal relationship between the patriarch and his virtual slaves, usually compelled by force to obey his will. Obviously this sort of relationship is inferior to monogamy. But when two girls love each other, and both of them love you, and you love both of them, and you honestly accept all of their feelings from the very beginning, so neither is 'dissed' or 'spurned' as not being good enough halfway through life's journey, what objection can be brought? If the three of you want to share your love together, while never even thinking of straying to anyone else, because no one else could possibly be equally loved by all as this select group of three is, then why would you be better off cutting these twins in half and only loving one of them? Why would the twins be better off hanging out with only 1/2 of the special people in their lives for the rest of their life? Who is better off? Why would they be better off? Yet again, we find outdated laws stomping all over the precious feelings of the parties involved, forcefully tearing apart what was written in the stars as meant to be together. Whether it's gays, miscegenation, incest or polygamy it's all the same -- it's no one's business but the lovers themselves what they want to do, and no one knows what is right for them except the parties concerned. A story which makes this point is desperately needed in the world today, which still is trampling over the hearts of millions of people every day just because they don't fit into some traditional box of what love should be. Like Oreimo before it, Oozora is another stand for the civil rights of lovers everywhere, a principled stance far stronger than most gay marriage advocates are willing to make, that love is love is love, and it's nobody's business if you do.
Yoru's refusal to compromise and insistence on a polygamous relationship with Aoi is one of the reasons she's the best character in this game. Another reason is her biting sense of humor that's always ready to mock the relatively stupid people around her. A third is her completely unabashed, accurate self-appraisal that declares early and often that she's rich, beautiful, a genius, and the chosen heir of a powerful family that can achieve anything she desires at the snap of her fingers. A fourth is her admiration, nonetheless, of her older twin sister Asa who she finds to be even better than she is. In fact, she's jealous of Asa, who foolishly is jealous of her, because Asa can fit into society, unlike her, because Asa is easy to please, unlike her, and because Asa can take courageous steps to change her situation and work incredibly hard to improve her life, neither of which Yoru has attempted much less succeeded at. When you realize that Yoru isn't condescendingly following after Asa in order to take care of her and make up for her weaknesses, but instead is doing it out of the wish to not be separated from her guiding light, whether emotionally or morally, a whole new avenue of respect and understanding opens up for this wonderful imouto.
There's so much to love about Asa and Yoru, but in the end it just comes down to scenes like this:
When Asa and Yoru realize they've both fallen in love with Aoi around the same time, Asa is the first to catch wind of this, because she can 'read the atmosphere' better than anyone. But not only is she sensitive about such things, she's also fragile to them. The idea of competing with her infinitely superior twin is impossible for her, and it instantly makes her just want to fold and run away. To make matters worse, it's so hard to even broach the subject that suddenly the twins who always talked about everything and were always together since birth can't even look each other in the face anymore while sharing their shared room at night together. Yet again, Asa finds herself unable to breathe, and only Kanako's quick thinking of having the two twins switch places with each other to find out what Aoi truly thinks of them saves the day. When Asa finds herself playing the role of Yoru, she summons the courage (something Yoru never has) to ask Aoi what he thinks of 'her' (really Yoru), and what he thinks of 'Asa,' (really her). There's just so much depth of characterization in this scene, about how similar and yet how different identical twins can be, and just so much subtlety to how the story is weaved, that it makes the rest of the visual novel look cheap and flimsy.
If I had to explain it in numerical terms, it would be something like this: 60% of the worth of this visual novel comes from the common route, up until the point where Amane graduates from school and the garage is destroyed. It's a fantastic story of victory and defeat, gains and losses, where you meet a lot of people you care about a lot who find happiness in what had been a pretty sad world. 35% of the worth of this visual novel is the continuation of this tale, down the Asa and Yoru routes. They lead to the eventual happy ending where you in fact reach the Morning Glory. They give you the romantic closure that the story promised in spades. They have little to no silly opposition from outsiders, with the story wholly driven by dynamics between only the main parties themselves. They take the opportunity of their routes to give much fuller and deeper character development than anyone else. The remaining 5% quality of the story comes from the other three routes combined, which I suppose are better than nothing.
The story is definitely better with all the sexual content added back in. Without the sex, the polygamous relationship of Asa, Yoru and Aoi could never have even been depicted, with all of its emotional depth and strength. The other routes also have important moments related to sex, like Kotori being soothed that even a disabled girl like her is attractive to men and can find satisfaction in bed like any other girl dreams of having with her beloved. Or Hotaru trying to seduce you away from Ageha and failing on the beach. Or Amane agreeing to have sex with you as the only way she can find as a way to confess her feelings, being too clumsy to take any other approach. In the end, sex is part of communication in a relationship, so it's weird for a romance story to not have any. Furthermore, female nudity is a natural work of art of overwhelming aesthetic value, God's gift to mankind, so not including it when you have such gorgeous female subjects to draw upon is just a terrible waste. In fact, some of the best artwork that Moenovel excluded wasn't even the sex scenes in the game, but just innocent bathing scenes where the girls simply happened to be nude. It would have been criminal to not at least have these artworks in the game, because there's nothing but reverence for the female form embedded in them.
My suggestion is for people who don't like sex scenes to simply self-censor the material they find objectionable (and believe me, squeamish folk will find a lot of objectionable sexual material in this game) by holding down control and just zooming through to the other side. There's no need, just to suit prudes, to butcher the story or artwork for everyone else. If you're going to play Oozora, be sure to play Oozora, and not 'If My Heart Had Wings.'
But what about the story overall? Did it live up to its reputation as the best game of 2012? Can it compete with other visual novel classics? My answer is yes, if you stick to the common route, Asa, and Yoru. No, if you dilute your experience with all of the others. If you read the whole visual novel cover to cover, you'll probably be thoroughly sick of it by the end and relieved it's finally over. If you choose the correct route, though, you'll have everything you could ask for from a game and more. With the art, music, and story along this route, it could well have been the best game of 2012. It makes me wish the sequel to this game, Flight Diary, were also translated into English. If it were I definitely would have picked it up and played that one too.
Out of my limited experience with visual novels, Key is obviously the best, followed by Circus' Da Capo. The only three visual novels I've read in full outside these two companies are Oozora, Daitouryou, and Shuffle! (I only read visual novels extremely slowly because I play them all the way through to the last drop of content, or else I feel like I've somehow lost the game, and that gets pretty hard when you're already thoroughly tired of the game and playing down routes and characters you hate) Out of these three, all of which I enjoyed, Oozora is the best by a good margin. Does that qualify as a masterpiece? Who knows. Really, I would need to read many more visual novels before I can accurately place just how good Oozora is in comparison to all the others. And with Oozora finally finished, that's just what I intend to do.