"Hakuoki is a solid otome game that even folks with dangly parts below the belt can enjoy."
Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom is an otome visual novel developed by Idea Factory and published for US audiences by Aksys. For those who don't know what otome is, it's a term referring to games typically geared towards female gamers. Now, dear reader, please don't go running scared at the thought of "ewww, girl games" like that horrid Barbie junk. Yo-Jin-Bo: The Bodyguards was an otome game with a female protagonist and some sharp looking anime men to pursue endings with, but it also had cool stuff guys like, such as samurai, ninjas, sword-fighting, bloody violence, knuckleheaded humor, a hot rebellious princess, and a driving hard rock soundtrack. In a similar fashion, Hakuoki is a solid otome game that even folks with dangly parts below the belt can enjoy.
I know what else you're thinking, dear reader. You're thinking, "Okay, fine, I'll buy that some of these 'otome girl games' may not suck like Barbie's Mall Madness or whatever, but you'll never convince me that an Idea Factory game does not suck!" A fair enough assertion, but what if I told you that everything that makes most Idea Factory games maddening to play is absent here? Wonky battle systems often ruin Idea Factory games with needlessly complicated mechanics that don't work harmoniously, creating massive balance issues and resulting in artificial gameplay time padding that makes gamers ask, "What were they thinking?!" while making jokes about "Bad Idea Factory" or "Idea Factory, not Execution Factory." All that is absent from Hakuoki, however, as it is a no-gimmicks visual novel with a simple Choose Your Own Adventure play mechanic in which your choices lead to one of many endings.
I trust that you, dear reader, are still not convinced that this game bearing the Idea Factory stamp is actually good. I don't blame you. Some of the storylines in Idea Factory games yo-yo between over-the-top ridiculousness and fallbacks on trite clichés and stupidly blatant fanservice. There are some flashes of originality here and there in Idea Factory's concepts, but they're hard to see amidst all the bubblegum panty lollipop nonsense. Now get that ridiculous visual out of your head, because Hakuoki's story has none of those crazy trappings typically associated with Idea Factory.
The story presented here is a surprisingly earnest piece of historical fiction with some supernatural elements to pepper it. Set during Japan's Bakumatsu period (1853-1867), the game stars a young girl named Chizuru Yukimura who journeys from Edo to Kyoto to find her missing father. She disguises herself as a boy to avoid being molested (and is largely successful), but as night falls in Kyoto, a trio of ronin (rogue samurai) attempt to steal her kodachi (short sword), a family heirloom. Although she manages to run and hide from the ronin, a group of zombie-like men emerges from the shadows and viciously slaughters her pursuers.
Chizuru is about to be the next victim when two men from the Shinsengumi (the shogunate's special police force that keeps the peace while being mistrusted and hated by the people) quickly dispatch the "zombies." Because Chizuru (still under the guise of a boy) was witness to all this, the Shinsengumi take "him" hostage and debate whether they should kill or release him. Once the Shinsengumi leaders find out their hostage is a girl and the daughter of the important Dr. Kodo Yukimura they're searching for, they decide to keep her around.
It takes the Shinsengumi a while to warm up to her, but as she earns their trust, they start to feel like family to her, and she does her best to be a valuable ally in this politically turbulent time. Chizuru is a very introspective protagonist, and I really felt like I was right there with her, living her story. Even the smallest decisions presented to her along the way had a certain gravitas to them, pushing her to grow and develop into a stronger person.
The Shinsengumi leaders are definitely not run-of-the-mill guys, and I felt the conflicting, often atypical, emotions they imparted onto Chizuru. They have humanity, but can also kill with professional efficiency at the drop of a hat. These guys are intense and certainly not wangsty pretty boys who fall into predictable archetypes. And, yes, depending on the choices made, Chizuru can pursue an ending with one of a handful of guys. There are plenty of bad endings too, and I saw multiple characters' paths to untimely demises about four or five times before FINALLY getting one of the good endings. I love it when visual novels make getting a proper ending a challenge. And though the bad endings culminate in Game Overs before the final curtain of any given path, some feel satisfying in a tragic way.
But don't be fooled, dear reader. This is not your typical love adventure where romance takes center stage. Romance is downplayed in this broiling wartime tale of political intrigue, where the drama, action, and adventure rise to multiple crescendos throughout its lengthy duration. There are betrayals, backstabbings, questioning one's honor, and all the good stuff you'd want from a political wartime drama, including plenty of spilled blood.
The writing fetches the game's M rating. Although violence, sensuality, and other such R-rated content is never explicitly shown in pictures, it is described fairly vividly. For example, while reading the intense battle scenes, I could almost smell the bloodshed and feel the thunk of dead bodies falling around me. There is also a good amount of swearing in the dialogue, so if seeing "F bombs" makes you balk, don't say I didn't warn you. Still, the fact that I was so immersed by the narrative is testament to how well-written this game is, despite a few stray syntax errors and occasional choppy progression (although following different characters' paths fills in many gaps). I also learned some interesting facts about Japan's turbulent political state during this time period via the game's encyclopedia. I now want to read more about the Shinsengumi and this period in Japan's history. I'll admit, I needed to refer to the encyclopedia to keep track of all the dramatis personae
and suspend my disbelief regarding the more fantastical trappings, but these are not the game's faults.
One minor fault, though, lies in the game's stylized font. It looks great within the game's context, but it's sometimes a strain to read. With a text-heavy game such as this where players spend 100% of their time reading, this is difficult to overlook. Another minor fault is that although the in-game encyclopedia is wonderful, I thought it silly that people were counter-intuitively alphabetized by their first names rather than their last names.
But this is no reason for you to walk out on me yet, dear reader. The aforementioned flaws could be found in many games, games that you would deem superior, and in the greater scheme of things are but mere trifles. Allow me to also reassure you that the earnestness of the storyline is not at all marred by artwork of chirpy anime girls with neon colored hair, breasts the size of Jupiter, skimpy outfits that leave nothing to the imagination, and all that body glitter baloney. Instead we have character art that, while stylish, doesn't completely betray the game's sense of period. Character designs are appealing and reasonably believable insofar as stylized anime characters can be believable. Sure, some of the guys may have floppy hair, but they aren't garden variety, overly pretty bishounen. They look a bit more like "guy's guys," (albeit guy's guys by Japanese cultural standards.) Even the youngest Shinsengumi leader has the intense eyes and hardened look of a warrior who's seen more in his youth than most men see in a lifetime. In other words, the guys exude a slightly more rugged cool, very unlike typical glossy anime pretty boys. I can buy that these are battle-tested swordsmen who can take a life as easily and naturally as they take a piss. Even Chizuru herself looks more "girl-next-door" cute than superstar idol "plastic" pretty.
Sadly, Idea Factory lacks in creative musical ideas here, and this is where you, dear reader, may briefly give me that reproachful "I told you so" look. The music presented gets the job done in terms of creating atmosphere, but there is nothing that really stands out, except for the cool opening and ending vocal songs (kept in their original Japanese form) and the title theme. I concede, however, that I'm picky when it comes to game music; Hakuoki's music is certainly not bad, just bland. In terms of sound, the effects are capable, and the voice acting (also in its original Japanese format) is excellent.
Despite lackluster music, Hakuoki is an enjoyable visual novel that could actually make gamers rethink their perception of Idea Factory. If Idea Factory releases more games like this, maybe they can reverse their reputation as a laughingstock developer. Hakuoki also has the power to compel gamers to rethink their perceptions of "girl games," because while this is an otome game, it has plenty of stuff to make guys say, "Whoa, cool!" So I implore you, dear reader, take a walk on the wild side, forget everything you possibly knew, and give Hakuoki a shot. You just might be as pleasantly surprised as I was.