A town cursed to eternal winter; two warring factions; serial killings; a witch’s legend; a ghost residing in a tower; a girl pretending to be a man. These are just some of the narrative beats that come together to form the occasionally disturbing, but ultimately beautiful and moving plot in the otome visual novel Psychedelica of the Ashen Hawk.
Players take on the role of Jed, a young woman whose right eye turns red whenever she has heightened emotions. In the town that serves as Ashen Hawk’s setting, the populace believes that a witch with red eyes has placed the town under a curse of eternal winter. Because of this, Jed has lived her entire life disguised as a man in order to avoid accusations of being a witch. Naturally, the suspicions the townsfolk hold regarding witches are raised even more due to rising tensions between the two feuding ruling clans and a string of unexplained horrific murders.
This is the harsh reality with which Jed lives and works, despite only wanting to offer peace and happiness to her fellow townspeople. When Jed is tasked with finding a special object for an annual celebration where everyone gathers together peacefully for a day of festivities, she unknowingly sets events into motion that will forever alter her — and the entire town’s — destiny as dark secrets are revealed.
Psychedelica of the Ashen Hawk is a story-driven, extremely text heavy VN with a multitude of endings to uncover. Some of these endings can be quite dark and sad, others more hopeful and romantic, and a handful can only be unlocked once other endings have been viewed. Fortunately, the game provides a detailed Flowchart that allows players to review scenes as needed or skip right to one of the many branching story points. Given how lengthy the story scenes are, players will definitely want to use the Flowchart frequently if they wish to see all the endings. Another welcome feature in Ashen Hawk provides a Fast Forward option to quickly move through scenes, which is very helpful given how often scenes must be repeated in order to reach new story segments at decision points.
The only real major drawback with this title is that it doesn’t have many player choice options in comparison to other otome games. In fact, the first two chapters of Ashen Hawk provide no choices whatsoever, and are the longest in the game! On one hand, it is impressive how story-intensive Ashen Hawk is, but players should expect to go long periods of time with nothing but plot exposition before even one choice presents itself.
Perhaps to try and counter this, Ashen Hawk does bring some interesting RPG gameplay elements to the table that you don’t see often utilized in VNs. At certain points in the story, Jed is able to peruse an area map that allows players to visit different parts of town and open up optional or main story scenes. Talking to people in these moments will award players with money that can be used to purchase additional story scenes from the tavern shop. Jed can also alternate between her male and female disguises, which has an impact on what areas of the town she can visit and just who she is able to talk to. These “gameplay” elements add an interesting aspect to what would otherwise be a pretty typical visual novel experience, and I found myself enjoying those segments greatly since player interaction is key.
Though Ashen Hawk’s characters are all interesting and several are very likable, all are presented as flawed and believably human. Given what is happening around her, Jed makes understandable mistakes. Despite being quite oblivious to matters of the heart, she is a strong and willful heroine that the player can’t help but root for. The other characters are just as complex and thought-provoking, helping the town itself feel alive as a result. The plot has many layers, and each new scene, story segment, or ending uncovered only helps to add more pieces to an interconnected and fascinating puzzle. I was genuinely surprised and moved by several of Ashen Hawk’s plot twists, and was always enthusiastic to discover more of the story. Because the optional “memory fragment” scenes unlocked whenever a new ending is cleared would shed new light and perspectives on the cast and their relationships, I found myself eagerly going back to the game’s Interlude segment to view them. The plot is immensely complex and emotional, and gamers will only get its entire scope by playing all the different ending routes.
While romance plays a large part in several of the routes, it takes a backseat to the overall story in Psychedelica of the Ashen Hawk. Many of the endings aren’t even romantic, though the ones that are happen to be quite varied and ultimately touching. Though it might appeal to gamers who are hesitant to delve into the otome genre, this might turn off those who wish for the love developments to be the center focus of an otome title. It really just depends on the player’s story preferences.
There are some typos and grammatical errors in Ashen Hawk’s localization, but for the most part it is excellently translated. The voice acting is all in Japanese, and though everyone does a great job with their performances, I feel I should make special mention of Jed’s voice actress. Tamura Mutsumi does an incredible job with her range as Jed in disguise and as herself, and I particularly loved how she portrayed the role in the game’s Gentle Ending. It was a phenomenal performance, and I’d be hard pressed to recommend turning off her voice when the game asks at the beginning. Ashen Hawk’s sound effects and music are wonderfully utilized and really help breathe life into the world and the story scenes. The crunching of snow underfoot, the clash of swords, ethereal vocal tracks, or haunting melodies all come together remarkably well and help build the town’s atmosphere.
Manga artist Satoru Yuiga provides the artwork in Ashen Hawk, and it is beautiful and eye-catching, with art book-esque character designs and illustrations for important story scenes. There’s an atmospheric sense of winter that comes from how the backgrounds are drawn. The character portraits move about the screen in an attempt to convey motion, attention to detail that further helps the narrative play out.
There are a few connections to Psychedelica of the Black Butterfly in Ashen Hawk, though they’re presented in such a way that one can play the two titles separately. Players won’t feel like they’re missing something by not having played the first title, though having more knowledge of it will add another layer to Ashen Hawk’s mythos.
Overall, there is very little to fault Psychedelica of the Ashen Hawk for. My time spent with the game was memorable, and many of the endings emotionally resonated with me. As far as otomes and visual novels go, Ashen Hawk is one of the best I’ve played in a long time.