Visual novels aren’t exactly mainstream. While they have gathered more steam in recent years, as with the Ace Attorney games, Hotel Dusk: Room 215 and Cing’s other titles, and 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors, they’re still far from main stream. Otome games (also called reverse harems) in particular fall under a small niche. Yes, there are games that have come out here that let you play as a female and try to woo a guy like Persona 3 Portable, Avalon Code, Princess Debut, and Harvest Moon games featuring a female protagonist. But pure visual novels that let you pursue men making it outside of Japan are a rare sight compared to the reverse, and they’re mostly confined to the PC, with Yo-Jin-Bo being one of the more prominent ones. In that light, Aksys’s decision to bring over a game that not only is on a system that’s on its way out the door, but also one with a very narrow appeal. The fine folks at Aksys aren’t exactly averse to risk; they’ve brought over 999 along with Fate/Extra, titles that are heavy on text and light on main stream appeal. Let’s see if the gamble was worth it in this case.
Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom
System: Playstation Portable
Developer: Idea Factory
Publisher: Aksys Games
Release Date: February 14, 2012
MSRP: $24.99 (PSN), $29.99 (standard edition), $39.99 (limited edition)
The story centers around Chizuru Yukimura (you can change her first name), who disguises herself as a boy and sets out to find her father after his once-daily letters stop coming. She becomes entangled in the Shinsengumi after witnessing two of their members strike down white haired, red eyed, blood crazed beings, who in turn had struck down hooligans attempting to steal her family sword. The Shinsengumi debate over whether it would be too risky to let her live, but they decide to let her stay with them upon finding out who her father is as long as she maintains her disguise. While the events and characters are based on actual history, there are supernatural elements thrown into the mix that obviously didn’t exist in real life. As long as you’re not a stickler for complete historical accuracy, there’s plenty to enjoy in the story and general events. That said, the outcomes of key battles do align with what actually happened. If you’re familiar with the history of the Shinsengumi and their lead members, you’ll proably be able to figure out their ultimate fates. But you can still enjoy the plot even without that background, and the encyclopedia explains various terms, events, and locations so that you can brush up on it and put everything into context.
Story is the pillar of any visual novel, and this has quite a suspenseful and well-paced one. It also balances out the politics and fighting with depictions of slice-of-life events that add characterization to the members of the Shinsengumi. Given the nature of the game, there are also tender moments to be had, though those don’t come as often as you’d expect in an otome. Before you ask: no, there aren’t any salacious bedroom scenes. Such scenes likely would’ve gotten this game an AO rating and red-lighted for release. While there are some mildly steamy moments, the main reason for the Mature rating comes from the fights.
In fact, the game’s actually more focused on the political intrigue among the various factions and the battles than romance, which should be good news for anyone casting a wary eye towards this because of the possibility of excess mushiness. Each decision, even seemingly minor ones, have weight to them, and you get to see plenty of the ruminations running through Chizuru’s head. You also get to see some of the thought processes of the members of the Shinsengumi as events unfold and Chizuru grows closer to them. Each of them has his own outlook of life and manner of dealing with things, and none feel cliche or trite.
The art is gorgeous, especially the stills which have plenty of detail, such as the patterns on some of the clothes. Character portraits are detailed and richly colored, and as to be expected, the guys are rather easy on the eyes. The backgrounds can repeat, but they’re also well done. The interface is thematically fitting and easy to navigate. Accompanying the visuals is an orchestral soundtrack that helps set the mood of the situation. It’s aurally pleasant, and the two vocal tracks start (if you watch the opening) and cap off the game nicely. I also sometimes lingered on the main menu just to hear more of its theme. However, you do hear the same few tracks a lot through the course of a playthrough, and the best tracks play only during a few scenes. The voice acting has been left in Japanese, and every line except narration and the protagonist’s speech are voiced. Even if you can’t understand the language, the emotion during intense scenes come through well. During fights, you can hear the metallic clang of swords clashing and the visceral sound of steel penetrating flesh and the resulting gush of blood and cries of pain.
The controls are simple. X advances the text, triangle brings up the menu, circle hides the text box, Start turns auto advancing text on and off, Select toggles between fast-forwarding all text and just what’s been read, square fast-forwards accordingly, and the left and right triggers create and load a quicksave respectively. You can also view previous text and rewind back to it. All these features make it easier to reach a specific spot or review something you missed the first time around. In addition, you can also turn on or off a bloom of sakura that appears whenever you make a choice that raises the romance meter for one of the guys.
There are six men eligible for pursuing, though Kazama only becomes an option after you beat the game once. While it provided a different perpective on things, I wish his route was longer. There are a bunch of images to unlock in the gallery, some of which you only get by making different choices. The first three chapters are the same for every route, but they branch off from there to the one you’re after. You can jump to a chapter you’ve completed in the Record of Service, which makes it easy to jump to a specific part of the game to unlock another image in the gallery, terms in the encyclopedia, and see certain scenes. However, both meters will be set to zero, something to be aware of if you’re using it as a jump off point into another playthrough. Some of the same events happen across all routes, but depending on your choices, you’ll either see them firsthand or hear about them afterwards. Likewise, the same information can also be relayed in different ways depending on whose route you’re following.
The game gives you twelve save slots to work with. While that sounds like a lot, it feels a bit limiting for those accustomed to playing visual novels on the PC and having a lot more available to use. It can also be hard to keep track of where you were at a given save since the time displayed on each save is the time of day you were playing rather than the amount of gameplay time elapsed. However, the rewind feature does help mitigate this somewhat. If you reload a save, you can’t go back to the previous text, so keeping an earlier save and fast forwarding to where you want to go is the way to go if you’re running out of save slots. The choices you make affect the romance (and later, depending on route, corruption) meters for each guy. Even if you make a wrong choice, it doesn’t detract from the romance meter, though you do need it to be pretty high to reach the final chapter for that route. One decision can mean the difference between reaching the end or running into a premature game over. It’s highly advisable to save often and take advantage of the rewind and fast-forward features.
I found myself glued to my PSP and to this game, not only to be able to get enough playtime in to review it, but also because I wanted to see how every route would unfold. Whenever I ran into a game over, I would reload my last save and set out to make things right. At times, I deliberately made choices that weere likely to lead to a game over just to see what would happen, though on one occassion it led to a rise in a guy’s romance meter instead. I found Chizuru herself a likeable enough protagonist, even if it would’ve been nice if she could’ve done a bit more with that sword she always carries. Some of the guys could’ve also used more background information, though they do still get plenty of characterization. The endings do have a bittersweet note to them given what you know of the situation and their ultimate fates, but there is some sweet romantic moments to help balance that out.
Hakuoki may have seemed like a strange choice to bring over, but it was a good one to use for an attempt to reach a much-neglected niche. Not only does it appeal to those who like otome games and pursuing pretty boys, but it can also appeal to those who just like a good story with plenty of action and some historical basis. The art and sound are both quite solid, and the controls make it easy to skip to specific scenes. It’s worth the purchase for anyone who’s a fan of visual novels.
* Well-paced and intriguing story and characters
* Gorgeous art
* Good replay value
* Some music tracks repeat a lot
* Limited save slots
* Could’ve elaborated more on the background of some of the guys
FINAL SCORE: B
Disclosure: A review code was provided by Aksys Games. At the time of this review, four routes were completed.