Thanks to editor-emeritus Patrick Gann I, somewhat unexpectedly, had the opportunity to play and review Kira Kira. I’m a big visual novel fan and I was rearing to get started. Unfortunately, the first couple of hours were a real struggle to play through. Excluding the first scene, Kira Kira starts off slow, clichéd, and rather uninterestingly. Luckily, once the characters start to develop and are removed from the typical Japanese high school environment, Kira Kira gets the chance to really show what it’s made of.
The story revolves around Shikanosuke Maejima and three girls he goes to school with. After leaving the competitive environment of the tennis club, Shikanosuke joins the dying Second Literature Club as a chance to relax and lessen his workload. His world changes forever when the club decide to form a band for the school festival at the end of the year. Perky Kirari leads vocals, Shikanosuke takes bass, his childhood friend Chie ends up with the drums, and the demure Sarina plays lead guitar. They’re rubbish to begin with, barely even able to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, but under direction from popular indie band STAR GENERATION’s lead guitarist, Tonoya, their punk rock hearts begin to emerge.
The first third of the game revolves entirely around preparing for their cultural festival. Some terrific rock culture references appear throughout such as allusions to the Sex Pistols and the Ramones along with some truly humorous conversations. A standout early on is when Shikanosuke is given a bass guitar by his best friend who found the decaying instrument in the trash. In an attempt to make it cooler he tries to write ‘Fender’ across the guitar, but this English word is too complex for him to spell and ‘Sfender’ is permanently etched into the bass instead. These sort of comedic situations are found throughout the game, but don’t do enough to help the first chapter out if its cliché grave. Early on, the characters fit into typical visual novel stereotypes. There’s the outgoing, perky, naïve girl; the “I don’t give a crap”, sarcastic protagonist; the childhood friend; and the sickly, well-to-do, well-spoken girl. For the first few hours I literally had to force myself to play onwards. It just wasn’t interesting at all.
Luckily, towards the end of the first chapter, the game undergoes some sort of rock ‘n roll resurrection. The background stories of the girls start to be revealed and, even though they rely on tugging on your heart strings, they’re realistically developed and believable situations. Chie’s parents’ getting a divorce, for example, and the struggles she faces through it are dealt with in a mature and reasonable way that makes you feel for her. What really picks the game up, though, is the introduction of indie band star Tonoya who acts as the cast’s rock and roll tutor. He’s a sensible, thoughtful young man with a real passion for anything musical. He starts to teach the main characters about the essence of rock and has them practise that creed in all sorts of hilarious situations. Performing a ‘guerrilla concert’ at a local mall while wearing Mexican wrestling masks, or telling them to insert ‘punk’ words into their everyday conversations is just the start. When these sweet young girls start to use obscene English swear words to talk to everyone from friends to teachers, its shock value is sure to make you laugh. Tonoya is the first of an absolutely terrific secondary cast that features some of the best male characters I’ve encountered in any visual novel I’ve played.
After their concert at the cultural festival, the members of the Second Literature Club band aren’t ready to give up on their music. They organise a road trip and head south from Tokyo to play their music on the street and in rock cafes whenever they can. This part of the story is the highlight of the game and features everything an awesome road trip should: financial and emotional struggles, disappointments, victories, surprises, adventure, and development of friendships. During their trip through Osaka and Kyoto they encounter a wide variety of colourful characters with surprisingly deep personalities. The tough, arrogant rocker Yashiro, for example, turns out to be a surprisingly sensitive and caring guy who can just be a little over the top with his musical passion. The aging rock musician Handa is another memorable character who at first seems like a smart, caring guy–which he sort of is–but still has a somewhat playboy personality. The comedic highlight goes to a young man who falls in love with Shikanosuke after he’s forced to cross-dress during one of their performances.
The band returns from the trip for the final chapter which revolves around their last year in school. It moves along at a much better pace than the first chapter and, based on the choices you’ve made throughout the game, the content will widely differ to include more time with the girl you chose. Unfortunately, it’s in this chapter one of the most serious issues with the game arises: the way it had been edited for an “all-ages” audience. Let me first say there is nothing “all-ages” about Kira Kira. This is a not a game you want to be passing off to your little cousins for them to play. Yes, the sex scenes have been removed and there is no nudity at all. However, there is extremely strong sexual dialogue leading up to the deleted sex scenes including specific sexual positions, pillow talk, and a few moans here and there. Much earlier in the game, Shikanosuke inadvertently encounters two students having sex in a classroom. Again, nothing is shown, but the dialogue is quite adult and specific. So adhere to the “all-ages” description at your own risk.
Prior to those scenes is some truly awful dialogue editing. Instead of adjusting the romantic scenes that lead up to them, the sex is simply replaced by a black screen and “…” written across it. It would have been a simple, non-invasive task to adjust the script slightly so we, as an audience, don’t feel ripped off. A great example of this is in Shikanosuke’s initial encounter with Chie. They have a lovely, romantic exchange which could have easily been edited to imply happenings later in the night, but instead the player is treated to a discussion of erections and bodily fluids before being promptly shut out of the whole event. It would be great for the adult version, but completely pointless to have in this all-ages release. The romantic dialogue is where it should have ended.
I’d like to finish on a positive note, so let’s finish discussing the negatives first. MangaGamer has to be applauded for its work in bringing over games like this that would have otherwise never seen the light of day in Western countries. Their localisation is generally solid, but it does have some glaring errors that should have been fixed. A noticeable number of spelling mistakes and grammatical problems appear throughout the game. They won’t affect your experience in a major way, but surely a simple proofread would have resolved the issue. It would have been nice if the songs sung by the bands, including the song playing during the credits, could have been subtitled too, but I’m nitpicking a little there. There’s no doubt their quality of localisation has been improving with each release, and they have done a solid job with Kira Kira, so I don’t doubt they’ll top their translations in the future.
Graphically, Kira Kira has its ups and downs. The characters are drawn in a cute way, but they don’t really stand out as great pieces of art. Their skin seems overly shiny at times and a few heads seem slightly disproportionate to the bodies they’re connected to. Background CGs are drawn with style, but many are lacking in that something extra that would have made them great. For instance, the characters spend a brief scene watching fireworks after a festival. The sound effects indicate the fireworks going off, but they’re not even shown anywhere in the sky on the background graphic. Even a little jostling of the screen during bus trips would have gone a long way to creating a more believable environment. Ironically, the male cast are generally superior to the female cast in their artistic design. They’re easier to differentiate and their personalities really shine through. Likewise, the CG sequences during band performances are terrific and convey a sense of excitement as they’re played.
These missteps are prevalent in the controls and menu mechanics too. The white font can be exceptionally difficult to read at times and there’s no option to change its colour. You can change the colour of text you’ve already read, so it would help on a second play through, but it seems sort of ridiculous to include that and not a way to change it the first time it’s read. The save/load system works well enough, but it could have utilized fewer menus to execute. Due to the large amount of text shown throughout the course of the game it’s displayed all over the screen rather than in dialogue boxes. You can right click to remove it temporarily and get a better look at the graphics so it’s not much of an issue.
The standout part of Kira Kira, along with the latter half of the story, is the music. The soundtrack is stunning and suits the tone and feel of the game perfectly. There’s good variety in general background music, but it’s the songs played by bands that really stand out. The Second Literature Club band has some great upbeat numbers that are a joy to listen to. Although they’re not really as punk rock as they’re supposed to be, funnily enough, they’re solid pieces nonetheless. After you beat the game you unlock both a CG gallery and a jukebox, so you can go back and listen to them at any time! Unfortunately, the voice acting isn’t on the same level, but it’s not bad. Only Kirari’s high-pitch, high-energy voice can be a little grating. If a particular voice isn’t to your taste it can simply be turned off in the options menu. Shikanosuke is the only character unvoiced.
If you’re looking a fun visual novel and enjoy rock music, then you can’t go past Kira Kira. Great music, a well-developed cast of characters, and even though the story starts off slow, it turns into an adventure you just won’t want to see end. It’s an easy game for newcomers to the genre as well as veterans of the visual novel universe to get into. It’s also a fairly lengthy adventure at around twenty hours, depending on how fast you read. The all-ages version suffers from some rather terrible editing, but MangaGamer manages to redeem this with a generally solid translation. When my time with Kira Kira came to an end, I genuinely missed it and I suspect you’ll have a similar experience. Rock and roll!