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EGM Review:
Hakuoki: Memories of the Shinsengumi

Posted on October 23, 2013 AT 12:30pm

Giving Edo-era romance more dimension

A little over a year and a half ago, I reviewed the English-language release of Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom. In my time as a fan of Sony’s PlayStation portable, I’ve seen a number of Japanese releases brought to us here in the West that I never, ever expected to make it. To this day, Hakuoki still stands out in my mind as one of the must surprising of those.

Hakuoki is one of many examples of a genre of Japanese gaming known as otome—titles directed at female players who prefer the idea of attacking other characters with affection and romance instead of axes and rocket launchers. Few had even considered giving otome games a try here in the States, but Aksys Games decided to buck that trend with Hakuoki. The result was a release that saw a surprising amount of success, leading to more attempts at bringing such games our way (such as another recent Aksys PSP localization, Sweet Fuse: At Your Side.)

Now, here we are, and Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom is getting another chance in English—this time as its 3DS incarnation, Hakuoki: Memories of the Shinsengumi. While otome games aren’t exactly the next first-person shooter for the freedom-loving populace of the good old U.S. of A., more gamers at least understand what they are now. And, this time, the game is getting a shot on a platform that actually has a proper install base in our home market. (I love the PSP to death, but I’m also honest.)

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—a description that emphasized just how much of an uphill battle games like these can 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 wants 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 B 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 originally 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 initially 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. It’s 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 when they decided to test the waters of bringing otome games our way.

So what of the 3DS release? As I mentioned earlier, there’s little different here, meaning that you won’t be missing anything that those original PSP players experienced—but if you’re one of those players, there also won’t be much new for you here if you want to give the game another go. Memories of the Shinsengumi gets its name (I’m assuming) from a Memories mode where you’re presented with short stories told from the perspective of each of the game’s leading men. It’s a nice bit of bonus content, but not something I think would be worth spending money on a second copy of the game for unless you’re a completionist. The other included bit of 3DS-exclusive content is a photo mode, where a number of fun Hakuoki-themed design templates can be used when taking photos.

In fact, the thing I was impressed most with Hakuoki on the 3DS was a thing I never gave much thought to going into the game: the 3D itself. Playing a visual novel with the 3D effect turned on almost seems like a crazy idea, as your focus is on reading text, and what visuals there are are flat, hand-drawn art, versus the impressive three-dimensional landscapes of titles such as Animal Crossing or Super Mario 3D Land. And yet, the 3D effect here is really well done, thanks in part to not only some obvious effort put into layering the game’s backgrounds characters and dialogue boxes, but smartly layering them. You won’t miss anything if you play Hakuoki on the 3DS only in 2D, but you’ll get some nice enhancement to the game if you do crank that 3D slider up.

Memories of the Shinsengumi does include a couple of negatives, but they’re minor, for the most part. For one, the text wasn’t as comfortable to read for me on the 3DS as it was on the PSP; this could come down to what seems to be a difference in fonts used between the two versions, but more than that, I’m sure it’s the result of the 3DS’ screen simply being both of a lower resolution and a smaller physical size than on Sony’s handheld. As well—and this is being super nitpicky—that difference in screen sizes and dimensions between the PSP and 3DS means character art has to be repositioned in some cases for the 3DS version, altering things like character-height differences at times.

Personally, my preference would still be to play Hakuoki on the PSP—or, more specifically, playing the PSP version on the Vita. Don’t let my choice in platforms dissuade you if the 3DS is your only option, however. The move to a smaller screen is offset by great 3D visuals and the new bonus features, and what’s most important—the core narrative itself—is remains just as good as it was before. I can’t promise you that Hakuoki: Memories of the Shinsengumi will be your cup of tea or not, but thankfully, more players will now be able to find out the answer to that question.

Developer: Idea Factory • Publisher: Aksys Games • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 09.13.2013
Hakuoki: Memories of the Shinsengumi brings the world of Japanese girls’ romance games to English-speaking 3DS owners in a game that’s a fascinating experience into typically uncharted gaming territory.
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.
Hakuoki: Memories of the Shinsengumi is available exclusively on Nintendo 3DS.
Eric L. Patterson, Executive Editor
Eric L. Patterson got started via self-publishing game-related fanzines in junior high, and now has one goal in life: making sure EGM has as much coverage of niche Japanese games as can realistically be crammed in. Eric’s also active in the gaming community on a personal level, being an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming and consumer rights. Stalk Eric on Twitter: @Eric_EGM. Meet the rest of the crew.

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