Ah, Valentine’s Day. So sugary-sweet, so commercialized. After all the chocolate, flowers, and jewelry, surely a lot of people are thinking “Why do we put so much emphasis on love and romance on this one day? Shouldn’t your love of someone be shared and celebrated year-round?” Well, yes. Definitely. But historically, Valentine’s Day originated when a guy (that’d be Saint Valentine, though he wasn’t Sainted at the time, obviously) married Roman soldiers to their girlfriends before they went off to war. That was totally forbidden, but hey, the guy was a romantic! And so we have Valentine’s Day. How lacy hearts and chocolate got involved, I’ll never know, but Valentine’s Day is about to become historically famous for another reason: the release of the first English-language otome game for the Playstation Portable.
That game is Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom, and Aksys Games, in conjunction with Idea Factory, Design Factory, and Otomate, released it on February 14, 2012.
Hakuoki is a visually rich, interactive novel-like game with the sole challenge of replaying to get different endings with various unlockable images.
First off, some clarification: Hakuoki is a best-selling franchise in Japan, part of a series of games in the “otome” (lit. “maiden”) genre. While these games are generally targeted toward female players, Hakuoki features an engaging blend of history, adventure, horror, drama and romance to please players of all persuasions. The game “plays” like a linear visual novel; you adopt the perspective of protagonist Chizuru Yukimura, seeing what she sees, hearing what she hears, and making decisions as her. Those decisions, big and small, alter the ending you’ll get, whether that ending means Chizuru lives happily ever after, Chizuru goes it alone, or Chizuru winds up dead. And therein the challenge lies: you might think you’re going to get a particular ending based off the handy in-game Romance gauges in the Status sub-menu, but events can change rapidly and lead you down an entirely unexpected path, fraught with danger and bloodshed.
Think what you might about otome games, but Hakuoki is no singing teddy bear: it’s rated M for Blood, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, and Violence. While it does feature a bevy of handsome swordsmen, they are swordsmen of the Shinsengumi: one of Japan’s notorious “police forces” during the chaotic Tokugawa period, when much of Japan was prone to violence over who should rule–the emperor or the shogunate–and how to deal with American and European naval forces that had recently breached Japan’s self-imposed isolation.
Still, the game’s rating actually seems a bit extreme in hindsight; there’s more blood, sex, and foul language to be had in an episode of CSI. The blood seen in-game is purely cinematic, and in fact, pretty much only seen during special scenes with “unlockable” artwork. You hear people scream, swords slash and clash, and blood spurt, but that’s about it; you never actually see any death-dealing blows or gory corpses (undead or otherwise) onscreen.
The limited edition of the game, which includes a 72-page artbook and soundtrack, is a worthwhile buy if just to peruse the beautiful art of the game in a bound edition. Unfortunately, the artbook has its glitches too; two character descriptions are repeated from previous characters, leaving you wondering how those they should have been summarized, considering there is no in-game character description beyond the included Encyclopedia. The artbook is also fairly spoileriffic–I wouldn’t recommend a player look at it before going through the game for at least a few chapters. Handily, the artbook gives players goals to strive for: it shows all the possible images that can be unlocked in the game’s Media menu, under Gallery and Theatre.
Hakuoki keeps it simple, graphics-wise; the anime-inspired artwork is pretty, with only facial expressions, stance, and clothing changing. There are no full-motion graphics or CG movies, but Hakuoki doesn’t suffer for it; it only adds to the novel-like feel of the game, which is likely the point: as the first major otome game of its kind published in English, there aren’t a whole lot of other visual novel-style games on the market to compare Hakuoki to.
The only visual glitch I came across in my multiple play-throughs was on the Status screen, where the player can check on Chizuru’s current Romance rating with any of five of the Shinsengumi (note that a sixth character’s ending is possible, but only after at least one other play-through, whether it ends good or bad). The screen is sometimes initially black with faint outlines, preventing players from reading the page until it fully loads. However, this only happened a few times, on my very first play-through.
The soundtrack is 12 tracks long, and is an ambient, pleasant blend of Japanese-esque instruments blended with modern-day instrumentals. It unfortunately does not include the game’s opening and closing themes, “Yami no Kanatamade” and “Omoide wa Soba ni” both by Aika Yoshioka. Being a visual novel-type of game, the music is actually vitally important to the mood of the current story events, and gives distinct cues to the player as to when a situation might turn ugly or have the potential for romance.
Because the voice acting is entirely Japanese (a plus in my book, since it only heightens the authentic feel of a game rooted in Japanese history), the “foul language” part of the rating is mainly due to the translation given in the text boxes; sometimes it’s accurate, sometimes the text seems far more long-winded than the character’s actual speech. At times, the dialogue is actually difficult to hear; while the characters accurately laugh, shout, and scream when Chizuru’s narration calls for it, there are times when whispered or softly spoken dialogue isn’t mentioned, and yet that’s what the player struggles to hear. While audio settings can be modified in the game’s Settings menu, it doesn’t seem to help very much, even with the BGM and Sound Effects far lower than the Voices. Only once in my multiple play-throughs did the character voice speaking not match the dialogue box’s character tag.
Fans of particular voice actors will be pleased to hear that many popular VAs took part in Hakuoki, including Shini’chiro Miki (Toshizo Hijitaka) Showtaro Morikubo (Souji Okita), Tohru Ookawa (Isami Kondou), Kouji Yusa (Sanosuke Harada), Hiroyuki Yoshino (Heisuke Toudou), Kenjiro Tsuda (Chikage Kazama), and many others. Many of these same voice actors reprise their roles in the two anime releases of Hakuoki, as well as the sequel games, which may or may not see an English release (possibly based on the success of this initial otome game).
Having little experience with visual novels or otome games, the linear play of Hakuoki initially frustrated me, as it seemed as though there were very few choices early on that altered my story path. However, after my first play-through (which was an absolute failure), I learned that the little decisions you make, while not having an obvious effect (such as increasing your Romance gauge and indicating so on-screen with a blooming-flower effect) can spell the difference between life and death, good endings and bad. For that reason alone, the game is replayable, at least until you unlock all of the different endings with their associated still images and ending theme “movies.” Thankfully, the game has a built-in method for speeding up re-plays: pressing the Square button enables you to Fast Forward through already-seen chapters, until you get to a decision point. You can also re-read the narration and dialogue that has led up to the current point, by accessing the History option via the in-game menu.
Players can also gauge where they’re at “romance-wise” by re-starting from Save points (Quicksaves are possible by pressing the left shoulder button, and loading them is possible with the right shoulder button) and paying attention to the graphics displayed at the start of chapters; a partial image of the guy Chizuru’s romance values are currently highest with will show, with his face actually being revealed by the Final Chapter. An actual portrait of the same guy is shown attached to all saves. The benefit of using traditional save files is that you can retain your decisions and the Romance values they affect; if you restart from the main menu option Record of Service, you can pick what chapter you want to start in, but all your Romance values will be reset.