I like to test different game genres whenever I can, with the only caveat being most of the genre’s not part of my mainstays: RPGs, Action, FPSs, and Adventure, tend to thrive on ramped up player challenges. For example, dungeon crawlers and especially their masochist off-shoot brother (little sister?) roguelikes; are difficult because of features like permanent death and random enemy wave spikes that; intimidate me far more than the looking at any monster at the end of a cave hallway. Hell, the recent Etrian Odyssey 4 with its rocking soundtrack had a casual mild mode specifically made for people like me. I am also dreadful at strategy games; owning almost every post GBA Advance Wars game but have yet to beat even one. Visual Novels on the other hand, specifically the young women-targeted otome games, focus less on the skill and execution. How about I start with the most recently popular one, 2008’s Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom?
Hakuoki, developed by Idea Factory and released in the U.S. by Aksys Games, is a huge franchise in Japan branching into both manga and anime adaptions from its original Play Station 2 release. Like a big fish in a small pond, Hakuoki’s has a swath of ports, Play Station 3, PSP, DS, 3DS, to its various amounts of cell-phone charms and wall scroll merchandise, painting the series as a samurai-filled media juggernaut. Fitting I guess, since Hakuoki is marketed as the first big example of an American release of an otome game.
Taking place during the beginning of 1864 Japan, Chizuru Yukimaru (you have the option of naming the protagonist, but I felt my default high-fantasy/European names like Myria would clash oddly with a last name like Yukimaru) is a doctor’s daughter roaming the streets of Kyoto looking for her father Kodo Yukimaru. Disguised as a boy (she still looks like a girl, but semantics), she visits her father’s friends for hints to his whereabouts. That is until nightfall when a group Ronin, Samurai a class ever shifting with the era’s ever changing rulers, harass her in an alley. A lone figure appears butchers the Ronin in cold blood, the Ronin revive, but now have white-hair and blood-lust in their eyes. Fearing for her life, Chizuru tries to escape. Suddenly, she is rescued by three men wearing the light blue color jackets of the Shinsengumi (think the Shogun’s personal cops); including the stern commander Toshizo Hijikata and the stoic captain Hajime Saito.
Chizuru is taken away as a detainee in the Shinsengumi’s compound to stop her from revealing details on the incident. Throughout the course of the game, Chizuru gains the trust of the Shinsengumi, whose original plan was to silence her by killing her; to the point where they trust her enough to bring her into the group as an assistant (think short errands and performing moderate medical treatments she learned from her father). The Shinsengumi’s as a whole, big enough that I do not have enough space to list all of their names, exists to uphold order in Kyoto, be it patrolling the streets or fighting against the series’ biggest antagonists, the rebel nationalist group known as the Choshu. Did I mention that there are also demon lineage drama and deep-dark Shinsengumi secrets happening at the same time as all this 1900th century Japanese political warfare?
As is common with Visual Novels, all of the player’s input comes from the text options used to shape the player’s story, which to Hakuoki’s credit, create choices divergent enough that the right path cannot be paced out by simply avoiding the stupid. I played Chizuru; to fit what I thought would make an interesting character. She is always active in her role, wanting to help and willing to physically defend herself. Hakuoki is about romancing and hooking up with a choice of one of the Shinsengumi members; Hakuoki’s succeeds were the few other Visual Novels I have played, have failed. You actually get to interact and enjoy other non-main love interest characters.
For instance, it took me a few hours of game play to remember that one of my in-game goals was to end up with someone (Hakuoki uses a cherry-blossom petal animation over a character portrait to indicate you said the right thing), where I was so caught up enjoying Chizuru’s adventures palling around with the Shinsengumi captains (characters like youthful Heisuke Todo and lady’s man Sanosuke Harada act as more approachable captains/buddies for Chizuru). I felt an emotional shift when I actively decided to go down Hajime Saito’s (picked because we both share the ability to have side ponytails) path, at the expense of interacting with the other characters.
Hakuoki mixes its period piece setting with its sexy guys art focus to create an interesting result. The game tries to tell a politics heavy narrative with its cast of over twenty characters, jargon, and historical dates. While it gets confusing at times, the game has a built in encyclopedia that I found myself actually using. The game also tends to jump ahead in time, covering over six years by the end. What does this have to do with art? Hakuoki covers an era of Japanese history where imposed Westernism is foisted upon Japanese culture. The end result is more reaching than simply all the game’s infantrymen portraits receiving upgrades from spears to rifles, but to the character designs as well. Where once the Shinsengumi wore their light blue with white stripes Hayori (jackets), metal head bands, and cloth fashioner strings called Tasuki, they later wear gorgeous western tight stiff collar suits with buttons. Yay for being overly excited for historic fashion!
Pros: Engaging story based on standing strong for one’s personal worth, with Chizuru acting as a potentially active protagonist. Great character designs that work past the simple beef-cake trappings. This is a fantastic period-piece emulating operatic and keyboard soundtrack.
Cons: Since most Visual Novels to me feel like reading lit-up prose novels, Hakuoki sporadically kept my attention in the overly-extended scenes. Think whenever you read a book, the book either has your attention for thirty-minutes or up to two hours; same with Hakuoki, you think to yourself “yeah, I’m liking this, but I have had enough today”. Politics and name dropping, while cool for world building and narrative, can get convoluted real quickly. The knowledge that you might not be able to actually talk about this game with someone who isn’t a seventeen-year old girl is saddening.
I have Hakuoki’s PSP port, with Aksys Games also putting out a more extras-heavy release for the 3DS later this year. Bottom line, Hakuoki is fantastic, with the only restraining caveat that it will not appeal outside of the target demo group who are not willing to try new games. Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom’s a great starting point for people trying to get into the Otome genre, as well as just a generally well executed title. I enjoyed it so much, that I am selling off my PSP copy to a friend to fund pre-ordering the Limited Edition 3DS port. I know this is a shocking recommendation considering I rarely ever pre-order games, so check this one out.