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I've got to tip my hat to Hirameki. This company localizes a variety of Japanese visual novels and love adventures; popular genres in Japan but niche genres in the US. Many of Hirameki's titles are released as interactive DVDs that can be played on conventional DVD players, PlayStation 2 systems (with DVD player version 2.10 or higher), Xbox systems' DVD players, and most PC DVD players. This allows these games to reach as wide an audience as possible. However, Hirameki's past few CD-ROM games for computer were PC only. But their newest PC game, Yo-Jin-Bo: The Bodyguards, is compatible for not only PC but for MAC as well. So now all you MAC users can experience a Japanese visual novel as only Hirameki can localize.
Yo-Jin-Bo was released by Japanese sound company TwoFive, and has inspired drama CDs, music CDs, and a manga. Given that TwoFive specializes in audio, it's no surprise that the music and sound in the game is excellent. The Japanese voice acting is exquisite across the board with a cast of experienced voice actors who have been in many popular anime. Each voice actor plays his or her role with the utmost enthusiasm. Even those actors playing the roles of minor characters really went to town on their roles. The music is quite good as well. There are elements of Japanese classical music, hard rock, spaghetti Western, and even some very interesting pieces that incorporate sound effects and/or uncommon instrumentation. Shamisen and electric guitar come together. My tinny laptop speakers could not do the music justice; the music is meant to be heard on good speakers so you can pick out nuances. There are many vocal songs not only during the introduction and end credits, but also peppered throughout the game to highlight key moments. I enjoyed all the vocal numbers, which tended to feature male vocalists. The sound effects are crisp and sound exactly as you'd expect them to. TwoFive really went the extra mile on the sound, and since they are a sound company, I wouldn't expect anything less.
The sounds work to enhance the incredibly fun story. The story begins in present day Japan, where an ordinary teenage girl named Sayori finds a lovely pendant in some ancient ruins during a summer expedition with her school's history club. She decides to take the pendant home, and that night the ghost of a long deceased princess visits Sayori and beseeches her for help. The ghost is that of Princess Hatsuhime of the Mochizuki clan, who died 150 years ago.
Cut now to the second chapter where the "unmanageable" Princess Hatsuhime and her loyal vassal Muneshige are posing as commoners so that the princess can have some fun at a village festival. After pissing off a vendor operating a goldfish grabbing game, she finds herself pursued by a bunch of thugs. She literally bumps into a red-haired swordsman. Turns out, his name is Jinnosuke (Jin for short) and, once the vendors catch up to the princess, Muneshige, and him, the townspeople are chanting "fight, fight, fight!" Jin's friends Yozaburo (Yo), Tainojo (Bo), and Monzan (Mon-Mon) emerge to see what all the fuss is about and sigh that Jin's gotten himself into trouble again. The boys bandy words back and forth, causing the princess to wonder whether these are really samurai or a bunch of clowns. Then Jin shows his warrior mettle by single-handedly sending the thugs running and earning some approval from the princess. The princess and Muneshige leave and the boys continue characteristically ribbing each other.
So what exactly is Princess Hatsuhime's plight? What leads Yo, Jin, and Bo to get involved with Princess Hatsuhime? Where does Sayori figure into this whole mess of things? These questions and more will be illuminated over the course of the game.
Plotwise, the story is nothing innovative or highly original, but it is still quite good. There is action, drama, romance, all that good stuff, but the most dominant aspect of the story is an unabashed sense of fun. The best part of the story is easily the colorful cast of characters, especially the title characters Yo, Jin, and Bo. The entire cast of heroes and villains absolutely ooze personality and their dialogue is excellent: easily Hirameki's smoothest reading localization. This is the kind of game where the good guys look heroic, the bad guys look evil, some guys look very pretty, and peoples' hair color is a reflection of their personalities. Why are tall, slim bad guys with long silver hair and a cold, calculating demeanor always so darned cool?
I must mention that in this game, the characters sometimes break the fourth wall, remind you that you are playing a game, and spout modern pop culture references. It's fun in a Working Designs kind of way, which can either be a "yes, please" or a showstopper for many gamers. So if you have an aversion to occasionally hearing things like a royal swordsman in 19th century Japan doing bad impersonations of Mickey Mouse or singing "Tomorrow" from Annie, then you probably won't have fun with this game. And since the text is an accurate translation of the spoken dialogue, things like the royal swordsman referencing Mickey Mouse are NOT creative liberties taken by the English translators. Those moments of wackiness are how the original creators intended it. And, yes, there is plenty of sexual tension/humor as well.
A single playthrough can be wrapped up in a few days, but the game has multiple endings, so there is plenty of replay value. Based on the paths you follow, extras like still scenes and music can be unlocked. There is also an extras tab marked ??? and I'll have to play through the game more to find out what it is (though the game does drop hints that it's some kind of unlockable character device.) In addition, multiple playthroughs on different paths can gain you insight into characters that may have been less developed in other paths. In my first playthrough, I felt as if things wrapped up rather quickly and suddenly, and I felt there was still a lot more to tell. But I have the urge to keep replaying the game till I get the full picture. In fact, the second time I played the game, I got a much more complete ending. For the sake of replayability, the ability to fast forward over scenes you've seen before is terrific.
The game follows the typical Choose Your Own Adventure format of most every visual novel where you are fed the story until it's time to make a choice. The choices you make throughout the game influence what ending you will receive. The big difference between Yo-Jin-Bo and other visual novels is the timer that pops up whenever you need to make a decision. If you don't make a decision by the time the timer runs out (usually a couple of seconds), the game will make the decision for you. Though this seems a tad unnerving at first since I like to really think my decisions through, it really helped emphasize the urgency of the events in the game. Also, unlike other visual novels, it is possible to die in this game due to a bad decision and get a "Game Over." Therefore, it's a good idea to keep multiple saves so you don't have to restart when you get a "Game Over." I learned this the hard way, because I was surprised at how easy it was to get a "Game Over" sometimes. In terms of saving, not only are you prompted to save at the end of each chapter, but you can also save any time you want within the chapter. The only time you cannot save is during the first chapter. You have to wait until the second chapter to be able to save any time.
Speaking of colorful, the game does not disappoint in the visual department. The graphics are the typical still anime portraits over environmental backdrops. The character portraits are loaded with vibrant colors, great detailing, and that lovely anime sheen. The backdrops, too, are colorful. The indoor backdrops have great clarity and nice detailing while the outdoor backdrops look almost like paintings. The only thing I think would have made the visuals better are fully animated cutscenes, especially during battles. Still, the more dynamic still pictures of story scenes are great, and those few depicting violent occurrences are very artfully and tastefully done.
So what's the final verdict? Well, the verdict is that I think the game is good and it kept me highly amused and entertained for a good while. As of this writing, I've already gotten two endings (one more complete than the other) and I intend to play this game some more. Though more serious-minded Hirameki-published visual novels, such as Ever 17 and Phantom of Inferno, are thoroughly engaging throughout their course, they don't have the sense of fun that Yo-Jin-Bo does. However, the game is not really for everyone, because it uses the Working Designs brand of humor that is very love it/hate it among gamers. If that is a showstopper for you, then don't fret. Hirameki has released a bunch of other visual novels that may be more up your alley.