Bakumatsu Renka SHINSENGUMI is an otome visual novel originally released in Japan on the PS2 back in 2004. Players step into the role of Suzuka Sakuraba, a young woman abandoned by both of her selfish parents during a turbulent time in Japanese history. The country seeks to rid itself of foreign influence while conflict brews between the pro-imperial and pro-shogunate forces. Suzuka dreams of proving herself a capable swordswoman, a goal she comes closer to fulfilling when her mistress and the closest thing she has to a loving parental figure, the Lady Teruhime, vouches for her to her adopted brother, the Aizu Clan’s daimyo. Our heroine becomes enlisted into the ranks of the Mibu Roshigumi, a group of samurai who will later become known as the historically famous Shinsengumi. Being the only woman within the Shinsengumi means Suzuka has to constantly prove herself to those who would argue she has no place there, but she also might find surprising support from some of her new comrades. The visual novel follows the oftentimes tragic journey of the Shinsengumi as they secure their place in history through Suzuka’s eyes and heart.
Stories involving the Shinsengumi in Japanese media are quite prolific. There are several dramas, anime, and manga that delve into that particular moment of history (on the anime/manga front, I’m exceedingly fond of Peacemaker Kurogane). Video games also like to cover the time period of the Shinsengumi as well, and otome titles are no exception. Perhaps the most well-known of these games is the Hakuoki series, which are excellent titles in their own right. To say that Bakumatsu Renka SHINSENGUMI is essentially the same thing as Hakuoki, given their shared subject material, would be rather misleading. There are key differences in how both games approach the story of the Shinsengumi, and this VN is surprisingly strong once you delve deeper into it.
Bakumatsu Renka SHINSENGUMI is chock full of historical notes and important moments during this period of history — so much so that sometimes names and terms are dropped into your lap without much explanation. Fortunately, a helpful Dictionary feature is just a button tap away to keep you well-informed whenever a new piece of information is given. I was thoroughly impressed by the attention to historical detail and even how certain topics were approached for the time period, such as the idea of a woman even wanting to become a swordswoman in the first place. You have to stomach some sexist remarks from quite a few of the male characters, but Suzuka or another character will usually set the record straight. Everything is handled with surprising accuracy, with even some of the best/”happy” character endings tinged by more bittersweet or realistic sentiments. You very much become invested in the exploits of Kondo, Hijikata, and the other members of the Shinsengumi, which drives up the emotional factor quite a bit when political schisms start and their real-life troubles inevitably strike.
Since this is an otome title, romance is a given. However, that element is so seamlessly connected to the main storyline of the meteoric rise and tragic fall of the Shinsengumi that even those who maybe aren’t as big on romance won’t necessarily mind it. I loved the storytelling approach in both the main story and the way differing love stories developed, and how those two aspects naturally flowed together.
Given that this is a visual novel title at its core, Bakumatsu Renka SHINSENGUMI is easy to pick up if you know the genre. You advance through story scenes until a choice needs to be made; in this case, those choices are often tied to an invisible point system that helps determine which character route you ultimately get and whether or not you’ll see a normal or happy ending. I have to note that if you’re especially looking for specific routes or endings, a guide might be beneficial. I played through the title multiple times and still couldn’t say what exactly I did to get the paths I ended up with. On my first playthrough, I was fairly sure that I would get Yamazaki’s route only for Okita to somehow sneak into the top spot at the very last moment. With another playthrough, I somehow locked into Heisuke’s route early on without even knowing how I did so. The conclusions were satisfying, so I didn’t mind, but getting to them was a bit of a head-scratcher.
The main storyline is divided into relatively short chapters that are broken up in the beginning by a “gameplay” period where Suzuka can converse with other members of the Shinsengumi and their allies. You get to pick which characters they want to speak with, and the conversations are not limited to the potential love interests, which I found refreshing! These side conversations not only help you gain more affection points, or even lose them depending on your responses, but they also offer neat insight into the characters’ personalities and thoughts on the current situations in the plot. I found the level of interactivity throughout the title to be relatively high for a VN. There are also differing scenes and scenarios to uncover depending on decisions made, which helps with replayability too. A skip through option exists to get through completed text, and the game helpfully records which conversation choices you’ve already made for future playthroughs in case you want to try a different one or stick to the same thing.
Interspersed throughout the main story, once you have accrued enough points with a specific character, are unique story scenes called either Date or Theme Events. Date scenarios tend to be more lighthearted and give you more on characters, while Themes are often somehow tied to events of the main storyline and are more serious. Both help to showcase how things are developing between Suzuka and another character at that point and are often accompanied by CG or special artwork depicting the event.
The characters are incredibly varied and grow on you the more the story progresses. I genuinely liked all of the potential love interests in one way or another, and other characters who show up are also quite memorable. Standouts among them were the coldblooded Kuwajiro Oishi, the helpful Kai Shimada, or the virtuous but ultimately tragic Kashitaro Ito. Suzuka is a great heroine in a lot of respects as well. The political talk sometimes goes over her head, but she is earnest and determined when it counts.
Unlike many otomes with a female heroine and seemingly only bachelors, Bakumatsu Renka SHINSENGUMI does have some LGBTQIA+ themes. Sometimes those themes aren’t always positive, as is the case of the character Kanryusai Takeda and his questionable “conquests.” But the heroine makes note that while she disapproves of Takeda’s problematic behaviors, she certainly doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with attraction to other people of the same gender. Unlike Takeda, Genzaburo Inoue is always portrayed as a nice, conscientious person, and he too indicates being gay, so there is non-problematic representation as well. I also give the game props for having one of the suitors, Susumu Yamazaki, be presented as gender-fluid since that’s highly uncommon in these types of otomes.
The script for the English language version is nicely written out, with only a few noticeable typos or grammar mistakes that I found myself correcting in my head readily enough. The translation isn’t too literal, so it reads quite naturally and helps convey the emotion behind the scenes. The voice acting is all in Japanese and was quite impressive overall. Favorites amongst the cast were Akira Ishida voicing Okita and Junko Minagawa voicing Yamazaki, but everyone did a great job bringing their roles to life through the voice work. If for some reason, you prefer not to have voice acting, the game provides you with the option of actually turning the voices off for specific characters. Other extras include being able to view acquired CG art, replaying specific scenes you’ve already seen, and accessing various versions of the opening cinema. The soundtrack fits the tone and setting of the game wonderfully.
The only real negatives I can think of are that the earlier portion of the game presents lighthearted tonal dissonance compared to the rest of the game and that the game’s attempts at comedy fall flat. I almost regretted picking up the title when I was playing the beginning parts, though fortunately, the story eventually picks up a lot, and it is easy to get invested later. Overall, the artwork looks dated even with the more spruced-up CGs, which is a shame, as I could see where some gamers might not be able to get past it to enjoy the storyline. I didn’t necessarily mind the art style myself, but I could certainly see how it might be offputting to those more familiar with more recent otome titles. There is a rather clever “screen moving” sequence that helps showcase motion that I haven’t seen in other titles before, although, on the negative side, it can be somewhat distracting. There is also no story map to speak of after finishing the game, so you will have to rely on the Skip feature and their recorded choices to help them out in subsequent playthroughs.
While it definitely isn’t flawless, Bakumatsu Renka SHINSENGUMI is an overall solid otome experience. This version of the Shinsengumi’s story has quite a bit to offer should you be willing to put in the time and get past the more dated art and style. Despite the hiccups, I’m ultimately glad I gave this VN a chance.