GINKA is the latest visual novel from Frontwing (best known for the Grisaia series) and the team behind ATRI -My Dear Moments-. I’m a sucker for stories of love braving the tides of time and destiny, and those are exactly the vibes GINKA gave me. It’s a type of story that takes patience and tact to pull off well–qualities that too many visual novels lack. But when it works, there’s nothing quite like it, so I was excited to see what GINKA had to offer.
After 5 long years, Aoba Ryusei has returned to the quaint, isolated island of Himeshima where he grew up. His homecoming is about more than nostalgia though. Right before Ryusei left, his childhood friend Shinomiya Ginka vanished without a trace on the night of the island’s summer festival. The islanders whispered that she was spirited away by the god beyond the sea. Ryusei never bought into such superstition, and the true purpose of his trip is to find out exactly what happened that fateful night, and what became of his dear friend Ginka.
The matter seems to be quickly resolved when the islanders tell Ryusei that Ginka was never seen again. He resigns himself to accept that Ginka must have drowned. The ocean is unforgiving, and she wouldn’t have been the first child to go missing. Deflated, Ryusei plans to take the next ferry back to the mainland. But before he has the chance, Ginka reappears, looking exactly as she did five years ago. She knows nothing or the island or herself, not even her own name. The only thing Ginka knows is Ryusei, and that she loves him. Has Ginka truly returned after five long years? Ryusei finds himself drawn to stay on the island, unable to let go of this chance to recover what he lost and needing to understand the truth. But confounding the situation is the appearance of a second mysterious girl–one who looks how he imagines Ginka would have had she not vanished and instead lived out her life for the past five years.
Do You Remember?
The first act of GINKA is mostly slice of life as we watch Ryusei integrate the reappeared Ginka back into the community and reconnect with his old friends. Even though it’s been five years, the island warmly takes Ryusei back. His junior, the bright and perky Umino Himawari, is the first to welcome him, happy to have her “Ryu-nii” back to amuse her. Araragi Nazuna, his old teacher, likewise accepts him kindly. Nazuna was a supportive influence in Ryusei’s childhood and tells him she enjoys seeing her students living their lives. Even rowdy girl Suzushiro Rin jumps right back into affectionately teasing Ryusei, just as she did when the pair were younger. The only person who isn’t happy about his return is his old school rival Nanamori Souji. Ryusei and Souji never got along even as kids. Souji resented that Ryusei, an outsider not born on the island, made little effort to fit in with Himeshima’s history and traditions.
As Ryusei reintroduces Ginka to the experiences she loved as a child, he reflects on the times he and Ginka shared as children–a second story told in parallel through flashbacks. As the island’s priestess, Ginka grew up sheltered and isolated, and it was Ryusei, the outsider with little care for tradition, who served as the bridge that connected Ginka with the other children. I enjoyed the way GINKA wove these two timelines together. It builds both the stakes and mystery. The flashbacks effectively show you both why Ginka is so special to Ryusei and the unanswered questions about her disappearance and subsequent reappearance. They also nicely break up what would otherwise be the same generic slice of life scenes you see in every other visual novel.
That’s because the slice of life scenes themselves are a bit tropey. There are panty jokes, deadly cooking, and cuteness overloads–all the same tired material you’d find in a run-of-the-mill moege. I liked the idea of spending a few peaceful days getting to know the characters before diving into the mystery, but whether for Ginka herself or for the side characters, GINKA spends too much time showcasing the kind of cutesiness and desirability you’d expect from a multi-route romance visual novel. I don’t need a scene where Ryusei ogles Rin and monologues about how hot she is when neither she nor any of the side characters are romanceable. I’d have preferred to learn about the characters’ hopes and dreams, what makes them tick, and their connection to Ryusei’s story. Fortunately, this does come eventually. The first act just feels like it missed an opportunity to strike a more mature and sincere tone that better matches the emotional mystery and heartfelt romance GINKA develops into.
GINKA also struggles with pacing in its slice of life segments. Flashbacks can be effective, but GINKA overuses them, and the way they are deployed during rising action sequences is particularly awkward. Throughout the story, characters work toward goals together, and GINKA often portrays this by stating the goal, jumping ahead to the eve of its realization, and then immediately flashing back to the preparation. The story is then apt to bog itself down in unnecessary minutiae, sapping what little anticipation had been built for the big moment. I found this especially frustrating because the flashbacks to Ryusei’s childhood are in contrast paced very well. They draw you into the deep connection between Ryusei and Ginka through a series of key moments that feel like part of a larger whole. It’s unfortunate that the part of the story set in the present can’t do the same.
Can Wishes Really Come True?
Although it takes a bit to get there, GINKA’s characters have some meat to them. Ginka herself has three incarnations: the reappeared child, the mysterious older girl, and the Ginka from Ryusei’s memories. Each is a bit different. The reappeared Ginka has a childlike innocence, along with a tendency to get her way, even when acting spoiled. The older girl is cold and disciplined but hides a softer side. And the Ginka of Ryusei’s memories shines with a pure love and awe at the simple wonders of the world. Despite their differences, they share one important thing: their connection to Ryusei. Which is the real Ginka? The way GINKA deftly weaves their stories together, sometimes pulling you in three directions, sometimes allowing the incarnations to align, makes you question the answer, and whether you’re asking the right question in the first place.
Even in their limited screen time, the side characters have their own dreams and motivations. Himeshima is a place of nostalgia, but also perhaps a place where dreams go to die. Himewari dreams of attending a trendy high school in Tokyo and becoming an influencer, a far cry from her life in the backwater. Rin has to help out on her ailing grandmother’s farm and rarely leaves the island. Even Souji, who is more loyal to Himeshima than most of his generation, has to face the fact that it’s difficult for such an isolated and traditional society to survive in the modern world.
The least interesting character is Ryusei. It’s common for visual novels to have generic protagonists, and Ryusei isn’t as bad as the worst offenders. From the story’s outset, he has beliefs, goals, and agency. His background is interesting, and his kid self from the flashbacks has charisma, but the present-day Ryusei lacks a consistent sense of personality. He plays to the tropes in the slice of life sequences, but then is quite thoughtful when reflecting on his memories. And when things kick into high gear, he slides into the role of a shounen lead–driven and determined to will himself to his goals. None of these traits are inherently bad, but it feels like Ryusei’s characterization springs from the moment-to-moment needs of GINKA’s plot rather than from a grounded sense of who he is as a person.
Himeshima itself is also something of a character in the story. It’s an island that feels removed from the rules that bind reality, a place where time flows as it may and Ryusei’s past and present freely intertwine. It’s a land of dreams, where the villagers write their wishes on paper butterflies and send them off to a god beyond the sea in the hopes they will be granted. But with dreams come nightmares, and Ginka’s disappearance five years ago left a scar on the island that seeped into the hearts of its residents.
The theme of wishes, and the idea that wishes inherently bring conflict, is what gives GINKA’s characters meaningful moments that allow them to stand out. Granting a wish requires the sacrifice of leaving others unfulfilled. It’s a concept that looms in the distance in Ryusei’s childhood, but solidifies as he and his friends grow up and realize it’s impossible to pursue all your dreams. The opening scene hints that wishes are what connect Ryusei and Ginka, and GINKA cleverly layers itself over this core as it builds its central mystery. The side characters, too, struggle with wishes that might never be granted, and their arcs explore the different ways they grapple with their emotional trauma. GINKA effectively makes you feel you get to know them on a deeper level and that their struggles are relevant to Ryusei’s story.
What’s Happening in Himeshima?
All the while, GINKA draws you deeper into its mystery. The story has three acts; the first is the aforementioned introduction. The second act starts to explain that not all is as it seems, and there is some deeper truth hidden behind Ryusei’s strange situation. Without going into spoilers, the final act explores the implications of this truth for Ryusei and Ginka and lengths to which they must go if they wish to hold on to their chance to be together.
GINKA consistently hits on its biggest moments and sticks the landing. The story drip feeds you enough hints to build anticipation, and then when the climax arrives, isn’t afraid to go for it. The strength of the execution comes in the way GINKA focuses on the thoughts and emotions of its characters alongside the action, rather than get caught up in overexplaining the action itself. Whether in fights, precious times spent together, or difficult journeys, there’s a strong sense of presence, of why this moment is so important to the people involved, and of how it resonates with their wishes and dreams. The reveals can be surprising too, not so much in what they are as in when they come. GINKA artfully suggests that what matters is not just what happens, but also how you feel about it, and the wishes your feelings drive you to act on. The final conflict is especially strong–a beautiful actualization of themes built from the story’s outset, as the characters struggle against the final barrier holding them back.
The tradeoff of GINKA’s style is that the logic of its magical world can feel slapdash. GINKA doesn’t break its own rules, but it does throw out new ones ad hoc, frequently telling you “by the way this is how things work now”. If, like me, you care more about the vibes than the details, you probably won’t be too bothered. But I could see the way GINKA plays things fast and loose being frustrating for the type of reader who likes their mysteries intricately crafted and carefully explained.
GINKA features several choices, but it’s ultimately a linear story. Choices lead to either short branching scenes with no effect on the larger plot or alternate early (and mostly bad) endings. While a few of the alternate endings could be interesting in theory, they’re so short that none of them feel satisfying. In addition, there are a couple major choices where it’s not clear why a particular option is the “correct” one. The choices don’t detract from the story, but they don’t add anything either, and GINKA could have been fine without them.
Art, Sound, and Extras
I enjoyed GINKA’s art, particularly the way it shows how Himeshima is a place where the traditional ways live on with background composition emphasizing the natural beauty and rustic style of the island. Ginka herself has a nice character design too. Her classical stature and impeccable posture reflect her refined upbringing and popular status as Himeshima’s “princess” while her piercing blue eyes express her powerful resolve and childlike sense of wonder. The other characters’ designs are simpler, but they do enough to differentiate themselves. For example, Himawari sports a cutesy school uniform and an anime fang that match her playful personality.
The music compliments Himeshima nicely, featuring tracks with pentatonic melodies evocative of its old-fashioned ways and tracks with impressionistic piano riffs reflective of its dreamlike, ephemeral nature. You’ll get your quota of generic visual novel BGMs too, if that’s your thing. The character’s voices fit their types, from Himawari’s cheerful but ditzy interjections to Nazuna’s “ara ara” older woman cadence. It’s also neat to see the contrast between the different versions of Ginka: the innocent (if a bit spoiled) child, and the mysterious older woman with a cold resolve.
GINKA’s suite of features and extras is standard for a modern visual novel, with options to adjust individual voice volumes, text speed, and window opacity. The western release includes English, Chinese, and Japanese text options for the text, UI, and subtitles. I imagine most of our readers will use the English, but having Japanese included by default is a nice option for those who want to read the original text or compare it with the translations. GINKA also has touchscreen controls. I was not able to try these, as my laptop isn’t touchscreen, but it’s a useful inclusion for those with laptop/tablet hybrids.
GINKA can be a bit sloppy and frustratingly tropey at times, but it hits where it counts with a heartfelt story about the lengths people will go to reach the ones they love.
GINKA IS RECOMMENDED
If you are looking for more visual novels, you might want to check out our review of UsoNatsu. We’ve also got coverage of a variety of visual novel titles that you may be interested in taking a look at.
Thank you to Frontwing for providing a Steam review code for GINKA.
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A gamer since the days of Amstrad and DOS and someone who has dabbled in a variety of professions. He enjoys a wide variety of genres, but has been focusing on visual novels and virtual reality in recent years. Head Editor of NookGaming. Follow him and the website on @NookSite.