Romantic “visual novel” games don’t have much of a market here in the west, which is why Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom is the first game from Otome to be published in North America.
I’ll admit, I started off skeptical myself. The description of “game” is really a little misleading, despite the fact that it is a piece of software published on a handheld gaming console. Gameplay, as it were, doesn’t really exist. Rather, the person holding the PSP in their hands is mostly reading a story, and making choices every once in awhile.
Judging Hakuoki against other games developed for the PSP has it coming out on the low end of the scale. But if you take it for what it is, it’s fantastic.
So just what is Hakuoki then? It’s a visual novel, set in the late Edo period in Japan, in which a teenaged girl falls in with a group of samurai, gets swept up in the changing politics and (maybe) eventually falls in love with one of the samurai. It’s certainly part of a niche market, but I very much enjoyed the game.
The story line is absolutely enthralling. It does start off slow, though. The first hour or two of the game were hard to make myself play, as I did not yet know any of the characters well enough to get attached, and the game was still setting up the very complex background. As you continue playing, you get hooked. The characters feel real, and are much more than just their pretty faces. One game over that ended with a beloved character’s death had me completely in tears.
Despite the fact that you play a young woman surrounded by absolutely beautiful men, and your ultimate goal is to mutually fall in love with one of them, the story manages to be so much more from that. There were times when I went a good hour or two without anything romantic happening at all. Hakuoki is so much more than just a romance, as evidenced by the fact that its “M” rating comes not from the few sexual innuendos, but the blood, violence, and death that comes from being entrenched in the middle of a civil war.
That being said, the execution of the story has a few small flaws. For one thing, it’s written in first person. It may be a culture thing, but as a student with a love of the English language and its conventions, first person perspective makes me cry on the inside. It also detaches the player somewhat from the main character of Chizuru, or so I felt. Secondly, Hakuoki falls victim to what I like to call overeager translator syndrome. Both the dialogue and plot lines often have vocabulary in them that borderlines on ridiculous. These are words rarely used in normal conversation, which feel a tad ridiculous in an otherwise well-written story. There were even a few words that I, with my aforementioned love of English, had never even heard of.
Moving on to gameplay, as I said earlier, the only thing the player does is make choices every once in awhile, and there aren’t even a whole lot of those. If I had to guess, in the course of one complete playthough, which was about four hours at my reading speed, I probably made between roughly 20 choices, maybe a little more. Granted, my second run had a slightly higher number, due to a condition of the character I was with quite a lot of the time.
There’s not a whole lot to do, in the game, so it’s a darn good thing these decisions make such a difference. Unlike some choice-driven games, they really do completely change the story. A character who I met once in passing on the first run turned out to be very important in the second one, and actually ended up killing a character who was still living at the end of the first. Your choices don’t just give you different views of the same events; they give you a completely different story altogether.
This is what makes Hakuoki so great, as well as turning a game that would be fairly short otherwise (as I said, at my very fast reading speed I made it through in about four hours). If you want to fully experience the entire game and all of its endings, you could spend a very, very long time trying to find them all.
For instance, on the second playthrough I decided to focus on a certain character romantically, only to have him die in my arms minutes after we professed our love. There are currently a series of question marks after his name on the “Record of Service” screen, which lets you see how much of the game you have unlocked. The worst part is I can’t figure out what I did wrong: I’ve gone back through his specific route three or four times and I can’t find the turning point, so I may have to start from the beginning.
Between clever use of save files and the handy-dandy “skip previously viewed text” AKA square button, you can shorten the time you spend reading things you’ve already seen in order to make different choices, but the fact remains you may still have to start from the beginning again anyway. Fortunately, the game does let you know what choices you’ve made before, which helps in finding new strategies. It’s just the right blend of frustrating and challenging to completely lure me in.
Other fun and/or helpful things about the game include the encyclopedia feature, which helps to keep things in the convoluted political plot straight. The game has a fair amount of historical accuracy, as its set during the late Edo period in the changeover to a more Western-influenced society, which I found fun, as I am currently taking a Japanese history class. Also, the voice acting is in the original Japanese, which is not only superb, but I actually understood some of it, as I am currently in my second semester of Japanese language classes at college.
Last but oh-so-certainly not least is the art in the game. It’s arguably the best part. The artist, Kazuki Yone, has done a fantastic job. Everything is beautifully done, from the main characters to the various background scenes. The opening movie shocked me speechless, and is worth the watch on Youtube, even if you’re not planning on buying the game. Also, the limited edition version of the game ($39.99 MSRP) comes with a 72-page artbook I desperately want to get my hands on.
In conclusion, I absolutely adored playing Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom. It is very easy to see how it spawned an entire game and anime series, and I can only hope they continue to import both. Despite a few small flaws and a lack of true gameplay, I have very much enjoyed the title, and I am not done with it yet. However, it is most certainly a niche title that will probably only appeal to a small percentage of gamers. I am not sure how well it will be received in North American, but I guess we’ll see.