"This piece of historical fiction strikes a wonderful balance between anime stylization and reverence to Bakumatsu era (1853-1867) sensibilities."
I have played many otome games, as evidenced by my review catalog, and 2012's Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom for PSP was my favorite in that genre. For those unaware, an otome game is a visual novel where the protagonist is a girl following the storyline paths of various male characters toward one of several endings. I loved Hakuoki's gripping story filled with swashbuckling action, intense period drama, and romances portrayed with dignified strength rather than the usual cloying sappiness. For those curious, my review from before can be found here
However, it has been five years since I played Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom so while I remember really liking it, I don't remember specifics of my play experience. I offer this introduction/disclaimer because Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds, for Vita, is a remaster/director's cut version of this fantastic game that not only enhances the original's merits but adds additional storyline paths and characters. Therefore, not only did I approach Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds from a place of nostalgia (since I've played it before) but also with a fresh set of eyes (because it's been years since I played it and there is new content).
For those who've played this game before, all you really need to know is that the additional character paths feel like they were always meant to be present in the storyline. Nothing felt shoehorned in at all. I remember the overall story enveloping Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom being sweepingly grand and complex, and Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds is akin to that game having spent 5 years at the gym, adding several kilograms of muscle to an already beefy plot.
The story details the arduous journey of Chizuru Yukimura, the daughter of a renowned doctor named Kodo. Kodo embarked on a secretive journey to Kyoto when Chizuru was younger, and suddenly disappeared. Chizuru, sensing something is not right, disguises herself as a boy (since a woman traveling alone in 19th century Japan would have a massive target on her back) and journeys to Kyoto to find some answers of her own. Unfortunately, as night falls, she's accosted and chased by some ronin (rogue samurai) who want to steal her heirloom kodachi (short sword). These ronin are later killed by another gang of ronin, these ones pale and demonic-looking with blood red eyes.
Before these demons can get to Chizuru, members of the Shinsengumi (a controversial police force comprised of former ronin) dispatch them and detain Chizuru, since she was witness to a conflict she should not have seen. Although Chizuru's fate hangs in the balance, fate grants her a reprieve. It seems the Shinsengumi are searching for Dr. Kodo as well and decide to utilize Chizuru in their mission. At first the Shinsengumi are exasperated by her presence, but over time she grows on them and slowly evolves from being a ward to being a valued ally. Being in collusion with the Shinsengumi is not fun and games, despite several members' cavalier personalities, and the gravity of their situation becomes clear every time Chizuru witnesses the ruthless efficiency they kill with.
The game earns its M rating not because of raunchy or gruesome visual content, but because of its colorful descriptions of intense situations and sometimes harsh language. Even though no gore is seen (aside from some artful blood splatter on blank screens), the descriptions stoke the imagination, making tense scenes quite visceral. I feel like in this era of gratuitously showing everything, the power of suggestion is a fading art, and I love that the power of suggestion shines here.
Given the Choose Your Own Adventure nature of this game, Chizuru's choices put her on one of many storyline paths involving one of the many guys she encounters, be they directly or indirectly connected to the Shinsengumi. The dialogue gives every character a robust personality, though it may read a little formally to some. However, this only serves to add that "right" feeling to a period piece, since we typically romanticize period film, TV, and literature dialogue to possess a more refined formality.
Chizuru is a naturally introspective protagonist for whom different storyline paths showcase different aspects of her personality. For example, the more rebellious choices may steer Chizuru on the path of the sardonic Okita where her sassiness goes toe to toe with his mordant jibes. Other paths, like that of Saito, a warrior with a zen-like calmness, showcase Chizuru's more intuitive nature. I like that though Chizuru is something of an "everywoman," her personality develops in unique ways over the course of each path. Some of the guys' paths and their respective depictions of Chizuru may be more favorable to you than others, but that's the nature of this sort of game.
Every path is an important contribution to the tapestry that comprises the overall plot. Each story branch unfolds new layers of the bigger picture, almost like Rashomon. Some character's paths focus a lot on the turbulent sociopolitical status quo and the precipice of war. Other paths focus more on personal struggles. Others still focus on the supernatural underpinnings. Chizuru herself has a very involved backstory and different paths reveal different pieces of it. With so many character paths containing several unique endings (some good, some tragic) this visual novel will keep you coming back to reread thanks to its immense replay value.
Encouraging replay value is an enhanced version of a feature carried over from Demon of the Fleeting Blossom, called Record of Service. Record of Service allows you to go to most any point you've crossed in a prior playthrough and proceed from there. There is no need to restart the adventure from the beginning to witness all the paths not taken! You can just start from a bookmarked page preceding one of the "what if?" junctures, and with some optional "New Game Plus" boosters to speed things along. How wonderful is this? Every visual novel should have this feature, and it's essential in Kyoto Winds because full playthroughs are quite lengthy. Ergonomically speaking, this new version is far more user friendly.
The interface as a whole is wonderfully optimized for the Vita and is quite intuitive. The menus not only look stylish, but are functional and easy to use as well. Adding to the ergonomics is the clear, legible font atop opaque text boxes. A game involving reading on a small screen should not cause eyestrain, and I had no problem playing/reading Hakuoki for lengthy sessions. All I thought about was progressing through the story to find out what happens next. My only nitpick is that in the extensive in-game encyclopedia, people's names are arranged alphabetically by first name rather than surname, which is counterintuitive when looking them up. Regardless, given the vast number of characters and unfamiliar terms, the in-game encyclopedia is most welcome.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: Hakuoki's style and vibe are the complete antithesis of the neon-colored fanservice normally associated with typical Idea Factory titles, and this game is all the more gorgeous for that. The backgrounds look artfully detailed, which appeals to me since a lot of visual novels phone those in. The character designs have a unique look to them and none of the guys fall into overly glossy bishounen ("beautiful man") tropes. Some stylized design choices, like some characters' flowing hair, have bishounen appeal, but these Shinsengumi guys carry themselves like warriors. The colors, shading, and tones of the characters and backgrounds really add to the artistic period look while also allowing the characters to have flourishes to draw your eye. Even Chizuru herself is attractive without looking like an impossibly airbrushed model, making her feel more believable. This piece of historical fiction strikes a wonderful balance between anime stylization and reverence to Bakumatsu era (1853-1867) sensibilities.
The beautiful opening sequence is made amazing by the inviting vocal theme that really sets the tone for the overall experience. The end credits theme has a bold richness that speaks to how strong a person Chizuru has developed into over the course of her adventures. I remember, years ago, thinking that the background music in Demon of the Fleeting Blossom was lackluster. However, I wonder if time allowed intangibles to marinate and my brain to mature, because I found myself stirred by the background music this time around. I don't know if the music was arranged in such a way to take advantage of the Vita's sound chip or the soundtrack simply needed to grow on me, but I'm definitely singing a different tune. Also skillfully done is the music editing, in that the scenario editors knew exactly when and where silence would speak louder than music.
What puts the sound rating over the top for me is the incredible use of sound effects. The clangs of dueling swords and fleshy "thunks" of slumping bodies as they're eviscerated by said swords make the action scenes all the more visceral. Even the quieter scenes are made more immersive by judicious sound effect usage. Further enhancing the experience is the Japanese voice acting. There is no English dubbed voice track which works in this game's favor, since it is set in feudal Japan. Between the visuals, writing, music, and Japanese-only voice acting, it's impossible not to be completely immersed.
If it wasn't already abundantly clear, I loved Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds. I already adored the game's previous iteration as Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom on the PSP in 2012, but Kyoto Winds brings it to the next level. I simply cannot say no to a hard-boiled, politically charged epic with visceral and bloody katana-wielding action, along with romances that feel robust, deep, and meaningful. Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds is my benchmark by which all otome games shall be judged and I recommend that you leave any and all pretenses behind and give this game a look.
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.