Love, Shinsengumi Style
In late September 2010, Aksys Games posted a curious survey on their website. The topic was otome games—a Japanese genre of gaming directed at female players who prefer the idea of attacking other characters with affection and romance instead of axes and rocket launchers.
Aksys created the survey to gauge interest in bringing games from this genre to North America, something no other publisher had dared to consider up to that point. Would players want to play otome games in English? Were there specific titles people would be interested in? Was the idea of bringing such games to our shores too crazy to be practical?
Nearly one year later, in July 2011, Aksys announced that something would actually come of their survey: They’d be bringing over the PSP otome release Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom.
Hakuoki’s story starts like something you could find in any other game based in feudal Japan. Chizuru Yukimura is the daughter of a well-respected doctor, and after her father doesn’t return home for a worrisome amount of time, she heads off for the dangerous streets of Kyoto in search of him. Concerned for her safety as a young, single girl in such a rough city, Chizuru disguises herself as a man, hoping that doing so will help her avoid trouble. Unfortunately, our heroine isn’t in the city long when she finds herself in the middle of a scuffle started by a pack of rogue ronin. After attempting to take refuge in a back alley, trouble ends up finding her—in the form of a bloodthirsty pack of white-haired warriors clad in blue. Even though she isn’t exactly sure what it is she just saw, Chizuru’s taken into custody by the Shinsengumi, a legendary special police force of samurai brought together to help calm outbreaks of violence in Kyoto during the waning years of the Tokugawa shogunate.
It seems that when Chizuru watched those half-men, half-demon samurai slaughter the ronin with bloodthirsty glee, she’d stumbled upon a secret the Shinsengumi meant to keep. As she sits captive in their compound, the captains of the group—a ragtag bunch of men who are as blessed in looks as they are in skill with a sword—try to decide if there’s any fate that can befall their prisoner beyond death that would keep word from spreading about these strange white-haired beings and their connection to the Shinsengumi.
Before a final decision is made, however, they stumble upon two shocking revelations: That Chizuru is the daughter of a man—the doctor—that they have desperately been trying to find, and that she is, in fact, a she.
Thus kicks off the main storyline portion of Hakuoki, and my first real adventure into a female-targeted visual novel from Japan. Just saying that line makes me realize how much of an uphill battle this release will have here in the States. As wonderfully diverse as my country of birth can be, it also has times when that scope of diversity seems far narrower than other places around the world. The reality of the situation is that our videogame market doesn’t have a lot to offer in terms of specifically female-targeted titles—beyond, I mean, horse-petting simulators or games when you babysit toddlers who love to cook or whatever else some publishers tend to proclaim as being “girl games.” We also—and I don’t mean to insult my fellow countrymen here—seem to be a country where shootin’ is way more desired than readin’ when it comes to our electronic interactive entertainment.
On that latter point—well, there’s no getting around the truth. Hakuoki is a “game” in the sense that you, as the player, will make choices every so often, choices that determine what path through the story you take and which leading man of the Shinsengumi you show the most interest in. Outside of that, however, Hakuoki’s a game where you read. And read. And read. Japan’s visual-novel genre is just that—the equivalent of a book where pretty pictures are put together with text in order to spice up the presentation a bit. If I were so inclined to make some cheesy comparison, I might say that Hakuoki is a historical Japan-themed Harlequin Choose Your Own Adventure for the iPad era.
But I won’t make such a cheesy comparison. Or, actually, I guess I just did.
The catch to Hakuoki is that while the game is that, it also isn’t. Yes, Hakuoki’s main interaction with the player comes via reading text on a screen, through which you’ll get deeper into the story it’s presenting. It’s that story, though, where some might have the wrong idea about the game. Is Hakuoki part of a decidedly Japanese genre whose main target is women who want to fantasize about making sexy time with a cast of too-hot-to-be-real studmuffins? Sure—but it turns out that that isn’t the only audience who’ll be able to enjoy the events presented here. This tale of the Shinsengumi, their new gender-bending recruit, the strange white-haired Fury Corps, and the mysterious rival faction who want Chizuru for themselves is filled with swords, conflicts, blood, demonic abilities, ninjas, political intrigue—subjects that boys everywhere have grown up loving for ages. Even if you have very little desire to chase after eligible bachelors virtually, Hakuoki’s story is still an enjoyable ride through this not-quite-realistic retelling of feudal Japan. It may seem like a no-brainer, but games where you spend 95 percent of your time reading text live or die by their story and the interest level they can maintain inside of the player. Though Hakuoki does, at times, feel either too fleshed out or not fleshed out enough, I was usually eagerly pressing the X button, awaiting to find out what would unfold next.
And what about those icky scenes of people being lovey-dovey or smooching or doing other such mushy things? Actually, I was quite surprised by how little of that kind of content I actually ran into through the course of my time with Hakuoki. Don’t get me wrong—there are romantic elements sewn throughout the entire game, and picking which guy you want to get to know better is an absolutely important part of the experience. If you go into Hakuoki thinking it’s going to be all pink kimonos and flowers and blushing and shy looks and making use of your character’s feminine charms to set Shinsengumi hearts aflutter, however, you may end up a little disappointed.
Indeed, the biggest surprise for me wasn’t that Aksys Games took a chance on release an otome game in America—it was how utterly tame of an otome game it ended up being. Thinking about it now, it makes a lot of sense; if you’re going to attempt to make inroads into a genre still mostly unknown in a particular territory, do it via a game that could introduce elements of that genre while also being broad enough in scope to attract a wider audience. For the part of me that loves Japanese gaming for its quirks and personality and dedication to even the smallest of fetishes, I’ll be honest—I was a little let down by the fact that Hakuoki wasn’t balls-to-the-wall hunk-hunting that people looking for such games could obsess over with devilish glee.
Or, hmm—maybe “balls-to-the-wall” wasn’t the best way to phrase that.
What Hakuoki is, however, is fun. A lot of fun. Yes, it’s a game that probably won’t find the same sleeper-hit success as other “will or won’t they make it here” Japanese games—like, say, a Demon’s Souls—and it might also not be the crazy super-ultra-niche example of the otome genre I was hoping to give a whirl. It is, however, something new and different in a sea of me-too games: a compelling storyline that both male and female players alike will be able to enjoy, and a release that, from beginning to end, exudes evidence that Aksys wanted to take a chance on bringing something special to their fans.
If this is the first—and only—otome game that the publisher translates and releases in the United States, then I’ll be glad that Aksys Games at least took that chance, as well as glad that we all got the opportunity to experience something like Haukoki. For the sake of gaming diversity—as well as my own selfish desire to play more underappreciated Japanese PSP releases in English—I hope this is just a beginning, and not an end.
SUMMARY: Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom brings the world of Japanese girl’s romance games to America—but is a game that both sexes could find a lot of enjoyment in.
- THE GOOD: A story you’ll want to experience until its end, filled with interesting characters, lovely artwork, and a great English translation.
- THE BAD: Main character Chizuru sometimes feels like a female character written for men, not women.
- THE UGLY: America’s favorite roster of manly gaming heroes when compared to these Japanese pretty boys.