Otome visual novels that dive into various Japanese historical periods aren’t anything new. Nightshade and Birushana: Rising Flower of Genpei are examples of this type of VN, although the prolific Hakuoki series is the most well-known. Set in a feudal shogunate-run Japan back when the city of Tokyo was still known as Edo, Winter’s Wish: Spirits of Edo adds its name to that particular otome collection. Does Winter’s Wish manage to carve out a niche for itself? It certainly tries to, though the experience isn’t always flawless.
Winter’s Wish: Spirits of Edo begins with the main character, Suzuno, living a solitary life in the mountains following the death of her father. Suzuno is ostracized and barred from interacting with the nearby village since she can perceive threads around a person’s neck denoting their emotions. The villagers fear that she’s a demon, especially given that something awful happens whenever she notes that the threads are black. One day, two samurai visit her village with orders from the shogun to bring Suzuno to Edo. Before they depart, a mob of angry villagers rebukes them for bringing the cursed girl to their homes. Suzuno can only watch in shock as their black threads converge, forming some horrific monster that the two samurai, Tomonari and Kunitaka, quickly dispatch.
Not long after that, Suzuno travels to Edo and appears before the shogun, who explains the situation to her. Tomonari and Kunitaka are part of a secret group of warriors known as the Oniwaban, serving the shogun by eliminating monsters known as blightfall. Blightfall are caused by collected negative emotional imprints. In other words, the black threads that only Suzuno can detect. Because of this power, Suzuno is recruited into the Oniwaban’s forces to help the group combat blightfall throughout Edo. But can they keep the peace in a city teeming with the remnants of negative emotions?
Winter’s Wish: Spirits of Edo is an alternate historical VN with an element of fantasy. This Edo is an Edo where monsters can materialize at a moment’s notice and where beloved objects can develop into people known as Formfolk. It’s a brightly colorful VN that captures the imagination, and I appreciate the detailed glossary that often accompanies notes of particular historical and cultural import. Unfortunately, there isn’t much to talk about regarding gameplay since Winter’s Wish is very much in the vein of a traditional VN experience. Players take on the role of Suzuno, advancing through the story until they reach a decision point. Decision points can change the story’s direction and raise the affection levels of specific characters in the cast, thus helping guide players to one of several endings. The game features a helpful story map, character affection chart, and auto-skip feature for the text you’ve already seen to make story progression easier.
Because Winter’s Wish: Spirits of Edo is an otome game, Suzuno can eventually develop bonds with six different members of the Oniwaban once she joins their ranks. There’s the blunt Tomonari, who automatically feels a nostalgic connection with her for reasons unknown; his comrade Kunitaka, serving as a prominent brother-type figure; the carefree and energetic Ohtaro; the famous kabuki actor Kinji, logical and collected; the dutiful Genjuro; and, lastly, the rather laid-back Yoichi. All six bachelors are Vessels, beings created from objects much like Formfolk. However, Vessels have their memories and emotions sealed away to better fight against the blightfall using a unique ability known as the Snow Sacrament. At first, Suzuno cannot read any of her romantic candidates’ emotions due to these circumstances. Then, however, things start to change as she spends more time getting to know them as individuals. The Vessels’ gradual character development as they slowly unlock their memories and feelings is when the writing for Winter’s Wish is at its strongest. I’m particularly fond of Yoichi’s and Kinji’s character development, although I credit the plot for making all the bachelors likable.
At the beginning of the game, Suzuno must decide which district in Edo she’ll help the Oniwaban patrol: Samurai Town, Castle Town, or the Entertainment District. This point branches the game into three paths, broken down further into two Vessels’ routes. For example, picking Castle Town will have you pursuing either Genjuro’s or Yoichi’s routes. Once the initial story arc for each district plays out, the game decides which Vessel’s route you’re on from that point forward according to character affection levels. Each story route is relatively meaty, with several hours dedicated to the standard routes before spending time on the unlocked individual character routes. This title isn’t the most interactive VN out there, with choices often being between two different responses, and there are at most three different decision points in a chapter, though sometimes you’ll only get one. If you like your otome VNs to have many player choices, you might find Winter’s Wish somewhat stagnant.
Because of how the story splits, character appearances throughout routes are uneven. Even members of the main cast have more prevalence in one route than another. In addition, there are side characters that populate the different districts, which you’ll only see during those specific routes, such as a pair of lovers named Tatsunosuke and Ruriko in the Entertainment District or the wife of a prominent samurai named Chie in Samurai Town. Miharu, a Formfolk who serves as Suzuno’s cheerful big sister figure, is one of the more memorable recurring characters alongside the three Oniwaban district leaders, Kyoshiro, Yabuta, and Miyaji. I found cynical Yabuta to be the most interesting of the three, especially when his past is explored in the Entertainment District story arc. Suzuno herself is a rather compelling main character, with a lot of her character development stemming from learning how not to care so much about what others are feeling if it comes at the expense of her needs and wants. Oddly enough, her inability to see the emotional threads of the Vessels at first helps her become closer to them in a very realistic manner.
The story arcs themselves are rife with adventure and mystery. I enjoyed seeing how specific plot threads subtly connect, like how Kunitaka and Yoichi’s pasts intertwine without them even knowing it. Some plot elements have a bit of a mature connotation, and the game doesn’t shy away from subjects such as brothels and red-light districts. Kinji’s route, in particular, delves into these topics more, though it does so with a surprising level of sensitivity while managing not to romanticize things. I especially found the plotlines involving the Formfolk and the Vessels interesting, such as the topics of their personhood compared to a regularly born human. Once you reach a character’s “good ending,” you also see a lengthy epilogue detailing the aftermath of that story’s outcome. I liked how all-encompassing the epilogues are.
Visually, Winter’s Wish: Spirits of Edo is a lovely VN. I love the details in the character designs, and enjoyed seeing Suzuno wearing different outfits and hairstyles depending on what’s going on in the story at any particular time. You unlock beautiful CG illustrations depending on story direction too. Character portraits are expressive, with their mouths moving per dialogue. There’s a particular emphasis placed on lighting effects throughout to convey specific actions. For instance, light flashes indicate sword strikes, and the screen goes dark at the edges to denote the black threads Suzuno sees. Music, such as the gorgeous opening theme, and sound effects help effectively set the scenes, and the voice acting is fantastic for everyone. However, I was disappointed Suzuno herself didn’t have a voice actor, given how her unspoken lines can sometimes take you out of a scene’s spoken dialogue entirely. On a positive note, the game provides menus allowing you to view unlocked CG art and peruse music you’ve heard in the OST.
That isn’t to say there aren’t some weak presentation points. Winter’s Wish relies greatly on “telling, not showing” in its action scenes. This point is especially true of the blightfall, who are often conspicuously absent from the screen even when told a massive one has just appeared, and we can hear the sound effects of it stomping around or the ensuing battle. Also, most minor characters do not have art, which can take you out of the plot whenever they’re featured prominently in a scene. The English script work is mainly excellent, though there are some noticeable typos at times. Mascot characters are often hit or miss, and the one here is no exception: the sparrow Komame might take too long to warm up to in most story routes. Tomonari and Ohtaro’s good endings are locked and can only be unlocked after playing through several other character routes. Given how that limits story and character choices at the beginning of the game, it’s a somewhat questionable narrative decision. Also, the affection indicators could be tough to decipher since there are two types of choices in this game: ones that raise affection levels and others that just influence the story. Because the two types of indicators aren’t mentioned in the game itself, it could be hard to differentiate between the two as I only learned about the two different types after perusing a guide. Sometimes I’d get one that showed up over one character but was a choice for another’s story route! It was occasionally confusing, so I often checked the helpful character affection map to figure out which character’s affection actually rose.
Still, those quibbles aside, Winter’s Wish: Spirits of Edo is another enjoyable alternate Japanese history otome VN. Those still yearning for that particular subgenre will undoubtedly appreciate the plot and characters! I enjoyed my time with the game and was surprised to find something to like about every character route I saw since that isn’t usually the case when I play otome titles. Suzuno’s entertaining tale of romance and finding herself is rather satisfying. A winter trip to Edo might do the heart wonders!