Hakuoki: Edo Blossoms

"There are twists, turns, and startling revelations aplenty involving a powerful ensemble cast of complex heroes and chilling villains. "

Editor's Note: Hakuoki: Edo Blossoms is a direct sequel to Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds so this review may contain spoilers.

It is no secret that Hakuoki is one of my favorite visual novel series. I loved 2012's Demon of the Fleeting Blossom and am finding greater joy in this new director's cut duo of Kyoto Winds and Edo Blossoms. Sure, 2012's Demon of the Fleeting Blossom nicely tells the entirety of Chizuru's story, but the wonderfully enhanced Kyoto Winds (the first half of Chizuru's story) and Edo Blossoms (the second half of Chizuru's story) are akin to Demon of the Fleeting Blossom hitting the gym hard for years and gaining serious muscle mass without sacrificing agility, speed, or endurance. The long and short of this review is that if you enjoyed Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds as much as I did, then playing Hakuoki: Edo Blossoms is an absolute no-brainer.

Edo Blossoms comes out swinging with an energetic opening song and a visually striking montage of images. This totally sets the mood for the game, and the rest of the in-game music is excellent. Most of the compositions are the same fantastic pieces I heard in Kyoto Winds, but there are also several new tracks to complement the game's new locations and characters, along with a stirring new end credits vocal song. I especially liked the music that accompanied the more sinister and action-packed scenes. As with Kyoto Winds, the sound direction is wonderful, in that the scenario directors know precisely when silence speaks louder than music for greater dramatic effect. Adding to the dramatic effect is the series' skilled use of sound effects, particularly the combat sounds that add visceral qualities to the action scenes.

In terms of visual impressions, Hakuoki looks its part. This is not one of those saccharine "lovey-dovey" games with bubbleheaded anime tropes as characters. This is a broiling wartime drama where romance takes a back seat to high stakes action and grimy political drama. As such, the artfully detailed background scenes and stylish character designs look more gritty than glossy. Sure, some character art contains exaggerated anime styling, but I found it no worse than beloved period movies that make some liberal stylistic enhancements here and there to romanticize a bygone era and draw our eyes to prominent characters during key shots.

Edo Blossoms' plot picks up right where Kyoto Winds left off, with protagonist Chizuru Yukimura accompanying the Shinsengumi to Edo as they navigate challenging sociopolitical and supernatural climates. Sociopolitical upheaval has pushed the once-proud Shinsengumi to the fringes of society. Making matters more complicated are the deep dark supernatural secrets both the Shinsengumi and Chizuru herself harbor. These secrets represent the multiple climax points in Kyoto Winds, practically making a playthrough of it required to glean the most out of Edo Blossoms.

After pressing Start on Edo Blossoms' title screen, you can select whose storyline protagonist Chizuru will follow, from one of the many male characters. Selecting a character offers a summary of that character's storyline from Kyoto Winds and allows the game to be played on its own, but a textual recap does not compare to having actually played through Kyoto Winds. Once the character path has been chosen, Chizuru's decisions affect the trajectory of that path. The choices presented lack the breadth of Kyoto Winds' choices but are deeper and often more subtle. Stumbling into a bad ending is all too easy because some of the most trying decisions are the seemingly innocuous ones.

Chizuru walks the edge of a knife with particular chosen companions who, in Kyoto Winds, underwent the procedure to become Furies: powerful demon-human hybrids whose sudden and unpredictable mania for blood can be their undoing. Chizuru is more than willing to cut herself to give her blood to a Fury companion, because she heals abnormally quickly due to a deep dark secret of her own. However, there is an obvious downside. Feeding the bloodlust may strengthen Chizuru's companion, but will erode and corrupt his already fleeting humanity. At these key junctures, should Chizuru offer her blood, offer a rudimentary medicine to suppress symptoms, or allow her companion to endure the episode through sheer will? Tightrope decisions like that really heightened my gut-level experience with the game.

Edo Blossoms' story starts out tense and remains dramatic till the bitter end. There are twists, turns, and startling revelations aplenty involving a powerful ensemble cast of complex heroes and chilling villains. Once I completed a path, I immediately wanted to start another one to gain a greater scope to the story as well as broader insight into the various members of this game's incredible ensemble cast. Each path reveals new layers to the overall plot, just like in Kyoto Winds, so there is great motivation to experience them all.

As mentioned in my Kyoto Winds review, not only does each path in Edo Blossoms offer broader insight into each member of the incredible ensemble cast, but each path also accentuates different aspects of Chizuru's multifaceted personality. Some characters bring out her stubborn resolve whereas others bring out her pensive intuition or rebellious streak, to name a few traits. In addition, the writing in Kyoto Winds and Edo Blossoms displays improved scripting to that of Demon of the Fleeting Blossom. For example, I found the character path of stoic warrior Hajime Saito rather dull in Demon of the Fleeting Blossom but compellingly introspective in Kyoto Winds and Edo Blossoms. Not every interpersonal relationship plays out as expected and some character paths will engage you more than others, depending on your taste. However, in a game of this nature, having unique and sometimes unpredictable paths is a boon that only boosts the game's already motivating replay value, so viva la difference.

Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds and Hakuoki: Edo Blossoms are a magnificent duo of games that enhanced a beloved otome game to breathtaking heights. I hope Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds and Hakuoki: Edo Blossoms do well enough outside of Japan to warrant more Hakuoki games getting localized and into my hot little hands. Personally, I would love to play Hakuoki: Reimeiroku especially after hearing its terrific soundtrack. To conclude, if you're a visual novel fan and haven't given these Hakuoki games a whirl yet, you simply must do so.

This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.

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