In Japan, Hakuoki is a fantastic example of a successful otome game. Despite coming out just shy of a decade ago on the Playstation 2, there have been several re-releases and spin-offs over the years that expand upon its fictionalised version of the Shinsengumi and their role in the Meiji restoration.
Release Date: 16th May 2017 (NA), 19th May 2017 (EU)
Platform: PlayStation Vita, PlayStation TV
Genre: Otome, Visual Novel
Rating: ESRB M, PEGI 16
Publisher: Idea Factory International
Developer: Idea Factory, Design Factory
What is far more impressive is that so many of these have now been translated and released in English speaking territories. While there certainly is a market for otome games like Hakuoki, Hakuoki’s popularity in Japan stems from its unique fictionalised portrayal of famous people and events from the Bakumatsu period. Primarily, the men of the Shinsengumi who were a unique special police force at the time famous for saving Kyoto from an arson attack that could have been devastating. The Shinsengumi have long since been romanticised in all kinds of fiction from novels, TV drama, anime and in this case games where our fictional heroine can fall in love with now six of the famous Shinsengumi captains and that is just the start.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Hakuoki begins with the main character, Chizuru Yukimura having just arrived in Kyoto searching for her father. Unfortunately, she stumbles across the Shinsengumi while they fight a murderous, white-haired, blood drinking human monster. Due to the existence of these monsters being a Shinsengumi secret, Chizuru ends up staying as a half guest, half prisoner of the group. Chizuru then bears witness to the heroism that brought the Shinsengumi to the peak of their fame and eventually the betrayals that would cause their downfall.
If some things about that last paragraph seem a bit off historically, you are not wrong to be suspicious. The Shinsengumi certainly never fought vampires in the streets of Kyoto, but in Hakuoki they do. This is Hakuoki’s real charm, deciding that setting their story in a civil war was not enough, the Shinsengumi were also involved in vampire research! This lets them keep characters that historically ‘died’ alive longer as they just go into hiding after that point. Not only that the imperialists on the other side have teamed up with oni who are even more powerful than the vampires. Thus, the only way the Shinsengumi captains can even compete against such powerful beings is by becoming vampires themselves.
This ridiculous stuff might seem like it would clash with the more straight forward ‘last of the samurai’ drama that is also going on. But it doesn’t, Hakuoki, you see, has a cast with such powerful chemistry that whether they are seriously talking about the machinations of their Chōshū opponents or how to best deal with the super-powered oni that works with them neither feels off. The reason for this is the superbly directed voice cast for many of whom this is the latest game in a long history of playing these characters. The delivery is so spot on that even in the most ridiculous of scenes you believe the cast is taking this seriously even if you really cannot. No other game merges a period tragic drama, period romance and absurd vampire war all together with a straight face and gets away with huge sales across three systems. Empires are built on less.
Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds, being an updated re-release for the Vita, the cast of romance-able characters has increased as well. Along with the original five Shinsengumi captain routes (Hijikata, Okita, Sanosuke, Saito & Heisuke), Shinpachi Nagakura and Sannan Keisuke now have routes of their own. Both of these are long overdue, it always seemed cruel to leave out Shinpachi when he is just as prominent as Sanosuke and Heisuke. Sannan, meanwhile, undergoes a powerful metamorphosis with the addition of his own route. In nearly every other story Sannan becomes a sacrificial lion used to show the stakes of becoming a vampire, the addition of his own route allows him to surpass that role.
The other new addition from the wider cast is Yamazaki, who is essentially the Shinsengumi’s ninja in all but name. Giving him a route was a fantastic idea as, not only, does he have an attractive character design (most important) but with his own route he is able to grow a bit more as a character. Before, Yamazaki was sadly one of the few characters in Hakuoki who was overshadowed by his real life historical counterpart.
While these additional routes are very welcome especially to fans of the characters in question, all the routes of the Shinsengumi by their very nature have the same starting dynamic between Chizuru and the character in question that the reader wants her to end up with. Chizuru must thus always insert herself into this close-knit group, gain trust and only then do the routes start to feel different. Even then everyone in the cast is senior to Chizuru apart from Heisuke and even then Heisuke has seniority within the Shinsengumi.
The three other new routes for Kyoto Winds are different. Firstly there is Souma Kazue, a young man who joins the Shinsengumi later and becomes a page, making Chizuru senior to him. The other two are not even members of the Shinsengumi. Iba Hachirou, a famous swordsman of the era who is not just a special operative for the shogunate but also in the fiction of the story made to be Chizuru’s childhood friend. He’s even voiced by the now mega-famous Mamoru Miyano who gives him a kind and beautiful voice.
But the last addition is even more impressive. Sakamoto Ryouma, who was perhaps one of the biggest opponents of the Shinsengumi now, has his own route. It is not completely new, as the very first game had a route where Chizuru ‘switched sides’ (although not really) but the character she ended up with was really creepy and possessive. Sakamoto, however, is as charming as Iba and like him, he is also voiced by a superstar: Daisuke Ono who gives Sakamoto the baritone energy his is famous for.
But while these fresh routes give this re-release of Hakuoki new life they only further muddle the complicated flag gauntlet you have to run through in order to get on to those routes. Many of the newer routes have events and flags scattered in between the old story, meaning that if you are too kind you can end up getting pushed onto some of the newer routes before having the chance to raise affection with any of the other characters. I was trying to go through Hijikata’s route but ended up with Iba because I was trying to be nice to everyone. It also does not help that adding more and more choices has only made Hakuoki’s more difficult to raise flags even harder to find.
However, Hakuoki does allow you to save and load at any point. Also after finishing any route a map of all the branching paths is made available making it much easier to see what you have yet to unlock. There is also a record kept throughout your play through that will show you how much affection you have gathered and with whom. Something that was not available for every character in previous games. While it still feels like you are getting lost at the start once you get an understanding of how the choices work and make liberal use of the feature to speed past what you have already read there is a lot to enjoy in a game like Hakuoki that throws three separate genres tougher with absolute aplomb.
While this is the definitive Hakuoki experience it is also the most complicated one. Best to be something that you pick up if you really love the otome games, if you do then there are no other games out on the vita at the moment that offer you this much. Both in the scale of the story and even more so in the choice of romance options.
This title was reviewed using a PlayStation Vita review copy provided by Idea Factory International, Inc.