Title: Aoishiro (Blue Castle)
Year: 2008, 2009 (PC port), 2016 (mobile port)
System: PS2, PC (PC version contains extra content, including redone CGs, an entirely new route, and other content such as a side-scrolling beat ’em up where you play as Kei from Akai Ito)
Genre: Horror, Mystery, Romance, Yuri
Length: 6 routes (Nami, Yasumi, Migiwa, Kohaku, Secret Character, and Grand/Nami route 2, with two small “Gaiden” routes in the PC version). In total, around 65 hours.
Rating: 15+ (Note: Just like its sister game Akai Ito, it should’ve gotten a higher age rating. It’s less dark than Akai Ito, but still has its moments of depressing tragedy and violence)
English Translation: Yes (full PC patch available)
Aoishiro’s plot begins with the kendo team of an all-girls school (Seijou Girls Academy) going to a summer training camp which is being held at a temple near the eastern sea, Shoushinji. The protagonist, Shouko Osanai (otherwise known as Osa, her pet name), is the captain of the kendo team and is not a normal high school student. Besides being a highly skilled kendo ace, she’s also very serious, has a dry, sarcastic, almost mean sense of humor, and is described by her classmates as having a personality very similar to a grumpy old man. Along with the club manager, Yasumi Aizawa (Zawacchi, as her best friend calls her), the young but skilled Akita Momoko (Momo, as Yasumi calls her), and the graceful, yet deadly, vice captain, Ayashiro Sakurai. They intend to have a productive experience, however, dark memories begin to surface in Shouko’s mind. Memories of red tsubaki flower petals, a young girl, violence, and crimson blood. To add further complications to their summer, a young, doll-like girl (whom they name Nami) washes up on the beach without any memory or even the ability to speak. Shouko must confront her phantoms, as well as deal with a friendly but dangerous Oni-Hunter, a pale girl with a single red eye dressed in ancient clothing, and many other obstacles in her path to discover the truth.
Just like it’s sister game, Aoishiro takes a huge amount from Japanese and even Celtic mythology. The use of mythological and supernatural elements is far more prevalent this time, with the opening sequence being Aoi-sensei (the team’s advisor and literature teacher) telling an epic tale of an oni extermination. It takes quite a bit of inspiration from Akai Ito and is structured as a mystery novel, with horror and romance aspects thrown in for good measure. Just like its sister game, Aoishiro utilizes plenty of deep themes, though it differentiates itself quite a bit from it’s predecessor. While Akai Ito utilized the haunting atmosphere of the hour of dusk and the power of blood, Aoishiro has a water motif (as you can tell by the two games’ logos), and has the story center around the eastern sea and the depths of the water. One thing I forgot to mention in my Akai Ito review is how atmospheric the duo of games are. There’s nothing quite like listening to MANYO’s score as you look at the beautiful moon reflected on the gorgeous CG waves. Sometimes when I was playing the VN, I just stopped to listen to the wave sound effects, and look at the well-drawn beach. To fit with its motif, the storyline is… admittedly, outwardly less dark. But just like the depths of the ocean, the beautiful waves hide something sinister underneath. Like Kei, Shouko suffers memory loss, though unlike Kei, things are made somewhat clearer earlier, as Shouko’s family is still alive, and her grandfather is there to explain a few things by cell phone. Also, Osa has dreams which depict scenes from her memory that Shouko herself doesn’t remember experiencing.
Aoishiro takes place in the same universe as Akai Ito, but it isn’t a direct sequel (in-game, it suggests that Akai Ito takes place a few years before the events of Aoishiro), and as such, Aoishiro introduces many new concepts to the universe. Storyline links, such as the Onikiri’s presence, can be found in the game, and oni very similar to Nozomi and Milkage from Akai Ito do exist.
Like its sister game, Aoishiro also has many different endings; fifty six, to be exact. Compare that to the 36 in Akai Ito. And like Akai Ito, most of them are very, very sad.
Aoishiro’s cast is well-written, albeit not as good as the cast in Akai Ito, in my opinion. The five route characters are all excellent and varied and have radically different personalities. Just like in Akai Ito, everyone has strengths and flaws to their character (in fact, unlike Akai Ito, some of the characters have downright antagonistic roles in other routes). Shouko is an awesome heroine in her own right, though she’s very different from Kei in both personality and role. However, unlike Akai Ito, the side cast is well-developed, which is a huge plus, in my opinion. Characters like Ayaishiro, Momoko, and the monk Yuukai (who is the coolest old man in history), add quite a bit of diversity. Momoko also stars in her own prequel manga (which goes into her unrequited feelings for Yasumi). The antagonists, like Akai Ito, are equally well-developed, though I can’t talk about them, since they are spoilers. Needless to say, one of them is the epitome of pure and utter badassness and completely overshadows the other one.
A small spoiler: Like Akai Ito, there’s a secret character route you can unlock (besides the grand route), which I won’t go into detail because, once again, it’s a big spoiler. Unlike Akai Ito, the secret route is on par with the others and clocks in at the same length with the same amount of choices you get.
In short, Aoishiro continues the tradition of excellent storytelling that was started by Akai Ito, and I really wish Success would makes more visual novels.
Bold, headstrong, and aggressive; Shouko, the main protagonist of Aoishiro, is a completely different character compared to her predecessor, Kei from Akai Ito. While Kei usually hid behind her lover, Shouko charges head-on into battle and uses her wooden sword to beat things to a bloody pulp. As the captain of the kendo team and their resident ace, calling Shouko skilled is an understatement. She displays her kendo skills by battling the supernatural threats with nothing but a wooden stick and her sheer willpower. Described as being an old man by her classmates, Shouko is very a unique character and has characteristics not usually seen in Yuri. Not just very tomboyish, Osa has an air of… maturity about her, which in my opinion, many anime, visual novel, and manga protagonists lack. While Kei would use puns and constantly joke around, Shouko is far more serious, although she does have a playful side to her. Also, while Kei was way too friendly, Shouko is far more reserved and cautious, which comes in handy when you’re a survival horror protagonist. Furthermore, while Kei would be overly emotional (crying over the smallest things), Shouko is considerably more cold, detached, and stoic in her interactions, which isn’t to say she’s a bad person. In her own words, Shouko explains that’s simply how she was raised to behave, but more importantly, she is completely selfless and won’t hesitate to throw herself in harm’s way for a loved one. Better yet, when she makes a promise, her word is her oath, and she will never go back on it.
Yasumi is the kendo club’s manager. Described as being timid and shy, Yasumi is, unfortunately, very sickly, with small bouts of exercise exhausting her completely. She is also the team’s cook, and she handles all of the meals and is described as a master chef. Best friends with Momoko, Yasumi has a massive crush on Shouko. As explained in the manga, the reason for her joining the kendo club was because she fell head over heels in love with Shouko the first time she saw her at a kendo demonstration at the school. Calm, collected, and loving; Yasumi is a model student, and she often has to keep the highly energetic, and quite frankly, deceptive, Momoko in line. Yasumi has a connection to the island, is highly secretive about her past, and isn’t entirely what she appears to be. I initially disliked Yasumi because she was often at odds with Nami (my favorite character) and intensely jealous of everyone else who got close to Shouko, but I grew to appreciate her character. Her route is also pretty sweet (especially some of the normal endings, compared to the good one, which is slightly disappointing).
Aoishiro’s deuteragonist, Nami is similar to Yumei in role, if not in character. In fact, Nami is massively important in all routes, and she gets two routes dedicated to her and Shouko’s romance. Shouko initially finds Nami washed up on a beach, where she rescues her and brings her back to the temple. Because it is inconvenient to refer to her as “that girl”, the group decides to name her Nami (after the waves). Nami cannot talk, and instead speaks through small grunts in order to show her happiness or discomfort. Furthermore, she’s described as having a doll-like appearance, with people making note of her porcelain-like skin and hair as white as snow. Another thing most mentioned is her beautiful, gorgeous eyes, which are lapis lazuli in color. Like Yumei, Nami is pure and unquestionably good. Probably the nicest and most innocent of the characters, Nami only seems to want to spend time with Osa (and she grows attached to Yasmui as well). She is noted to have a child-like personality, and also being utterly adorable (she completely enthralls the, in my opinion, closet lolicon, Ayaishiro). As mentioned above, Nami stars in her own route, as well as the grand route—which points to her being the canon pairing—and both routes are by far my favorite.
Migiwa is another student who’s staying at the temple at the same time as the Kendo team. In return for meal, she joins them on many of their shenanigans and helps them with chores. She is vaguely reminiscent of Uzuki Senba from Akai Ito in both role and personality. Outwardly, she’s very friendly (a little too much, according to Shouko, as she makes a couple of rather… perverted advances towards Yasumi), a huge prankster (Shouko describes her as “monkey-like” in her mannerisms), and she gets along famously with the fellow troublemaker, Momoko. However, she hides a far darker side underneath that outward facade. She’s ruthless, completely dedicated to her cause, and downright cruel, if she needs to be. Like Uzuki from Akai Ito, Migiwa is a member of the oni hunters, the Onikiri, albeit a different clan (Uzuki is a member of the Senba clan, while Migiwa is part of the regional branch native to the temple). Unlike Uzuki, however, Migiwa is so consumed by her zeal that she sometimes takes an antagonistic role, often opposing Shouko and her partner, if they get in the way of her mission. Despite this, she has a tender side, and in her own route, is quite clearly in love with Shouko (having possibly the coolest scene in the game), and I like her character. She’s also a great source of dark humor.
A mysterious, sword-wielding oni that Shouko encounters on the top of a mountain trail, Kohaku is essentially a heroic (well, anti-heroic) version of Nozomi from Akai Iito, except with crazy swordsmanship skills. She’s able to cut down and massacre hundreds of small, lesser water oni like they were cattle. Like Nozomi, she’s not human. Though, as an oni, she’s rather fond of humans, unlike Nozomi. She’s also quite willing to help Shouko out when she’s in danger, even in the other characters’ routes (albeit acting like a jerk, most of the way through). Having long white hair, a single red eye, and wearing the clothing of a nobleman from ancient Japan, her design is certainly unique, as is her personality. Very masculine in her mannerisms during her route, she takes the male role while Shouko gets in touch with her feminine side. Her background is very spoilery, so needless to say, it’s very interesting and goes all the way back to ancient Japan. Despite her jerkish exterior, she does truly care for Shouko, and her route is full-on Yuri, all the way through. While less zealotic then Migiwa, she does have a job to do, and in one other route, shall we say, she becomes far, far more mean and antagonistic.
Aoishiro is, simply put, an utterly gorgeous game, somehow surpassing the already beautiful Akai Ito. HD visuals all around, the CG is probably some of the best in the genre, and nothing can compare (especially when you have a 1080p monitor. Pure, uncompressed glory). Unlike Akai Ito, whose most beautiful scenes were at night or the hour of twilight, Aoishiro’s elegance is in the ocean, having wonderfully done waves and watery depths. When the moon is out, expect to be awestruck by the quality of the scene. The eponymous “Blue Castle” is especially wondrous and looks stunning when you see it the first time in the grand route.
Aoishiro also manages to top the impressive amount of options Akai Ito gave us. It has the same cool menu systems, the full voice-over of people telling you what option you’re about to choose, funny remarks about what time you have set, and more. Even more impressively, this time, you get to choose which voice speaks (instead of being stuck with Kei), which includes every voiced character in the game (including Nami, who just grunts). Like Akai Ito, every character is lip-synched and has gorgeous sprites. The glorious in-game flow chart is back, and it looks just as pretty as ever. All of the other stuff—the in-game encyclopedia, CGI viewer, and ending viewer—are back, along with a tool that lets you create your own scenarios.
I dont think anyone would argue that Aoishiro’s technical aspects are downright impressive. Everything, including the menus, UI, flowchart, and CGI, screams high production values.
Once again, MANYO (composer of Akai Ito, and recently, Innocent Grey’s Flowers) brings his A game to the table, and the end result is a beautiful-sounding soundtrack. The BGM of the game is one of the best parts and incorporates the game’s water motif to excellent effect, with the OST having a watery, oriental feel to it (best shown in the main theme “Beyond the Darkness” and Nami’s theme “Water Murmers”). From stirring battle music like “A Trailblazer Surpasses Death” to the haunting and melancholic “Palace of Lapis Lazuli”, the soundtrack has a lot of variety. The opening “Beyond the Darkness” (which also plays at the climactic final battle in the grand route), and the ending “To the Water’s Surface”, are utterly brilliant and capture the mood and themes of the game perfectly. Also including some remixed songs from Akai Ito, MANYO outdid himself with this game, and I find it to be his magnum opus.
Gameplay is exactly the same as Akai Ito, which isn’t a bad thing, as I loved the unlock system. To put it simply, to unlock routes in Aoishiro, you need to beat other routes and get their good endings. When you do that, after the credits, you’ll get a really cool screen with the faces of the characters you’ve just unlocked among the waves, along with a message saying you’ve “broken a seal”. On the flow chart, locked character routes have a lock on their routes, and once you unlock them, the lock is broken. Unlike Akai Ito, however, some endings break multiple locks. In order to make things more interesting, to unlock a full route, sometimes you need to break multiple locks. To unlock Grand Route, you need to complete all the other routes (including the secret character). It’s best to play through it like this (Yasumi, Migiwa, Nami, Kohaku, Secret Character, Grand/Nami 2).
Unlike Akai Ito, after beating the game, you get some more goodies, which include two small gaiden routes—where you play as Aoi-sensei and meet up with Sakuya from Akai Ito, and in the second, the secret character for a second time—and a pretty cool minigame, which is a side scrolling beat ’em up where you play as Kei (which follows her famous, but non-canon, “An oni is born route” ending) fighting the creatures of the night, all while clad in Onikiri armor and wielding Uzuki’s legendary blade, Ito.
Similar to Akai Ito, Aoishiro has three types of endings: Bad endings, in which Shouko and her partner die, normal endings, in which Shouko survives, but something happens to her partner, and good endings, in which everyone lives. Like Akai Ito, normal endings tend to be A LOT worse and far sadder than the bad endings. That said, one of Yasumi’s bad endings is probably my favorite in the entire game, most likely due to how sad, tragic, yet utterly sweet and heartwarming it is. In total, there’s 56 endings, with only 6 of them being happy.
Like Akai Ito, there are a lot of choices that can lead to many different scenarios, but ultimately, thinking smart is the best way to beat the game. It also features a day and night cycle. Day is when the slice of life elements happen, along with comedy. Night is when stuff starts hitting the fan and it essentially turns into a survival horror visual novel (The first two nights are usually calm. The others are when crazy stuff starts to happen).
Aoishiro earns its status as a “girls’ love” visual novel. Like Akai Ito, it keeps the glorious tradition of having highly erotic blood sucking, albeit this time with actual normal kisses on screen. Though, as it’s an “all-ages” game, you can’t expect to have full-on sex scenes like in Sono Hanabira.
Yasumi’s love for Shouko is pure text and entirely romantic (it goes into more steamy details in the prequel manga). Everyone, including Momoko (who has unrequited feelings for Yasumi), knows how much Yasumi’s into Shouko, but Shouko being Shouko, is oblivious to the blatant advances Yasumi tries to make. Even in the awkward stretching scene, not only do they kiss, Shouko begins to return Yasumi’s feelings and gives off a “princess and knight” vibe as her route progresses.
Ehem… *awkward coughing* …pictured above is the… rather memorable “breastfeeding” scene where Kohaku gets permission to feed from anywhere she wants on Shouko (who’s in a bikini). To Shouko’s intense embarrassment and shock, Kohaku makes a small cut in-between Shouko’s breasts before gorging herself and making remarks about how she loves the feeling of warmth she gets when she buries her face in other women’s breasts, and how it makes her feel so comfortable feeding on blood like how a baby would feed on her mother’s milk. Yeah….
“That’s not yuri!!!” Really? Okay. Is this yuri enough for you then?
Besides the makeout scene (which sends Yasumi into a seething display of jealous rage), Migiwa makes… rather creepy, advances towards Yasumi. Besides that, she’s very flirty towards Shouko and makes it clear that she’s “interested” in her that way. They have a unique, but rather cool, relationship. While it’s romantic, they also seem to be kendo rivals, but at the same time, they’re very respectful towards each other.
The main couple (at least, that’s how I think). Shouko and Nami are always depicted together in art, and they get two routes to focus on their relationship. Nami and Shouko have by far the most yuri-ish of endings, both in their use of words and visuals. Using terms like “my precious someone” and “the one when I’m with, I will fear nothing”, Nami and Shouko are very close, and going by her route’s ending, confirmed to be romantically involved (her regular route’s ending is the most blatant). Though, unlike the others, they don’t have an on-screen kiss, which is largely mitigated by the ending. Furthermore, her and Shouko share the most erotic blood feeding scenes.
the string of fate draws us there.
There is no need to fear
what tomorrow holds,
if the two of us are together.
-To the Water’s Surface
Easily surpassing its excellent predecessor, Akai Ito, Aoishiro is my favorite visual novel (if not video game) of all-time. It’s both, technically and storywise, a shining example of how to do the genre justice. Having strong romance, horror, action, and mystery elements; it combines my favorite genres, which really makes Aoishiro something special. Some may lament the fact that it sticks too closely to Akai Ito, I instead say don’t fix what isn’t broken and simply improve on what worked, which is what Aoishiro did.