A Wonderful Tale of Love, War, and Political Intrigue
When the otome visual novel Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom was announced for North America by Aksys Games, I was ecstatic because it’s very rare that we get localized otome games. I’d heard from a few friends that it was very good. I’m not a fan of Idea Factory’s stuff in general, so I was a little wary, but I was eager to take the game out for a test drive.
A bit of background: I’ve played quite a few otome games (RPGs, VNs, etc) in the past few years; some good, some bad. I haven’t found the perfect otome game, and in my opinion, there aren’t a lot of games that do romance very well—even down to the otome games or certain visual novels. To be honest, half the time I burst out laughing at a line, shaking my head, and wondering if the writers were really serious when they wrote that particular line.
The meat of the game lies in its story, given that it’s an otome visual novel. Rather than being centred completely on romance, surprisingly, it’s centred on political intrigue, history, various factions, and battlesbattlesbattles. I love this kind of stuff! Even if you have no desire to woo a certain character in this game, you are adequately supplied with a very well-told narrative focusing on various points of the Edo jidai/Bakumatsu.
Throughout the visual novel, the game prompts the player to make various choices. They aren’t readily apparent the first time through the game, but most choices can enhance the attachment gauge for certain characters. Some choices will also unlock art in the media option on the title screen (which, if selected, will allow the player to revisit that particular scene again). Your save file will reflect which character is in the lead, and when the player hits Chapter 4, they will be on a fixed path for the character they have in the lead.
Nearly every character deals with the supernatural content in the game (there is one path that brushes the supernatural content aside in favour of a more natural path). The Shinsengumi are in possession of a drug which acts as a stat enhancer, but it comes at a terrible price. The user will slowly lose his or her sanity if he/she does not take certain medication, try to endure it, or drink blood. There is a dedicated meter to this called the “Corruption Meter”. This meter actually seems to matter somewhat. If the Shinsengumi member decides to drink blood, the meter is lowered. If the Shinsengumi member decides to endure it, the meter continues to increase throughout the chapters. This is obviously not a good thing, and if you’re not following a FAQ, it’s a nice way to gauge whether or not you’ll meet the good ending or the bad ending.
As for the narrative itself, as I kept playing through the routes, I ended up playing the game with less of a fixation on romance, and more with a fixation on getting to know the Shinsengumi better, and following the war through their eyes. Sure, the romance bit was icing on the cake, but I was more intrigued by the historical aspects of the war. I generally like games that play around with real-life historical events like Shadow Hearts, so Hakuoki doing the same while injecting a similar flavour of the supernatural is quite a treat for me. As you go on different routes, the war unfolds a little differently (ie: the character takes part in different battles a little later on). Thus, if you’re not really interested in the romantic aspects at all, the rest of the narrative from a historical/wartime standpoint is there for the player to immerse themselves in.
My favourite route continues to be the Souji Okita route. Historically-speaking, Souji Okita contracted tuberculosis and succumbed to his illness in Edo. It was interesting to see how that bit of history unfolded in Hakuoki, and how it was handled when the player decides to undertake his route. In fact, as I finished off the route, I ended up looking up health studies papers documenting the disease during that period in Japan. If anything, the route reflects that I got a kick out of the historical bits of the game more than the romance bit.
There is one thing that I’m a little wary of in Hakuoki, and that is unfortunately the main character Chizuru herself. Depending on your actions, Chizuru will be utterly helpless, or she’ll try to help out (and end up being utterly helpless in the future sometime). There was one instance when a pair of characters were discussing politics and she said something which implied that the discussion was too complicated for her (I cannot recall the exact line, but the fact that I remember the situation…), and I just put my head in my hands, thinking to myself, “Oh, Chizuru…” It’s the 1800s, but come on.
But with that said, I have to champion and defend how the localization crew handled Chizuru based on her Japanese counterpart. Chizuru was moreso of a doormat than she is in the US version, where she repeated dialogue (not unconventional for Japanese speakers, but rather jarring in English), described her romantic encounters as assaults, and was generally even more of a blank slate. English Chizuru by contrast at least seems to have a brain and reacts more to situations than her Japanese counterpart. She’s still written a bit like a blank slate, but I like using her as a method to get to know the Shinsengumi better.
Regarding the localization, I think it’s quite good. I’m very pleased that there seem to be some liberties with the translation. I’m a fan of Working Designs’ old translations, and I have a very soft spot for Woolseyisms, so I really appreciate that kind of stuff. The addition of the Japanese dialogue is an absolute treat, so having to listen to the voicework and then read the localized text afterwards was fun for me. There are a few spelling and punctuation errors here and there (and admittedly, I’m a stickler for that sort of thing, so they jump out at me immediately), but they’re rather subtle, and I don’t think a lot of players would fixate on them since they’re few and far between (though there was one instance where the same stylistic error was made 2-3 times in sequence, but again—stickler). The lack of honorifics in the text (they are still obviously in the Japanese voiceovers) was an interesting move, but in the end, I thought it was a good idea in order to make the text less wordy and more accessible since there are a ton of loanwords and foreign terms being used already.
There is one little detail that I had a few gripes with in the dialogue, and that’s the majority of Hijikata’s route. I don’t mind profanity at all, and I think I get the reasoning behind making English Hijikata the way he is, but listening to the Japanese dialogue and then reading the script underneath was a little jarring at times. English speakers will not notice how jarring it is, but if you pay attention to the Japanese dialogue and then read the different dialogue underneath, it’s a bit strange. Hijikata struck me as someone who strove to be more elegant given his status in the Shinsengumi, so giving him exceedingly crass English dialogue was a tad jarring. Other than Hijikata, I have little problems with the localized dialogue in general. I’ve seen people complain about the changes to the dialogue and not translating the script word-for-word, but this is a localization for the western market, not a translation for a limited audience. Be reasonable.
I’d read criticisms regarding chosen lexical items for the script and storytelling being rather… complex and consisting of underutilized English vocabulary? I’m not seeing it here at all, and it seems like natural conversational vocabulary to me. Perhaps some thought that the Japanese loanwords were too much? This situation, especially considering the game revolves around Japanese history and involves Japanese voicework, is absolutely unavoidable.
The music is rather average. Kenji Kaneko has composed a score that isn’t bad, but it doesn’t stand out. With that said, I haven’t played a lot of visual novels with fantastic scores. The music in visual novels generally act as background noise to the voice acting and the sound effects. Unfortunately, the music is rather repetitive (there are 17 tracks in all on the official 新選組奇譚 soundtrack), and the lack of looping is… well, it’s unacceptable in this day and age. It’s something I would have expected many years ago in Sonic CD with inadequate looping, but the lack of looping can sometimes take away from certain scenes. It’s quite unfortunate.
The sound effects, however, are very good. There are certain games where sound effects stand out to me, like Chrono Trigger. Here, they’re very good, or rather, true to life-like sound. Swords meeting each other in combat and ricocheting off each other, the wind blowing, and steps taken in a forest are rather nice to hear. It’s a bit refreshing after hearing footsteps sound like horses' hooves meeting pavement in other games. Really like the sound effect direction here.
The voice acting is also rather superb. They got some really good people to do the VA here like Shotaro Morikubo, Kousuke Toriumi, and Koji Yusa, so it was nice hearing their voices in this game. Even Hiroyuki Yoshino (Heisuke Toudou) grew on me after a while (my only experience with him was from Baccano). All of the VA sounded natural and well-directed. All of it fit the characters, is what I’m trying to say. Retaining the Japanese VA was a good idea, and I don’t think the characters would have the same effect had they been revoiced in English.
However, with that said, I have an issue with this game’s sound mixing. Sometimes the voices are quiet (for good reasons, but Saito is the biggest culprit here), and sometimes the voices are boisterous and loud (ex: Okita, Heisuke, Shinpachi). I ended up having to turn the music waaaaay down and the voices and SFX way up so I could hear the voices clearly. It’s really too bad, but if you’re going to play the game and you want to hear the voices, turn the music down to a rather low point to hear the voices.
The art is satisfactory, and Kazuki Yone did a good job with the character design. It’s better than some other Idea Factory art I’ve seen. The character designs and their different outfits throughout the game are nice, but the art itself is just okay. The Shinsengumi have really nice design and art (ex: Okita, Saito, Harada, Heisuke after Chapter 4, etc)… enough to encourage me to purchase the official art book (though the art book that comes with the LE is very nice and comprehensive too). The environments aren’t anything to write home about sometimes (but I generally expect this out of VNs), but it’s too bad that they don’t change depending on the season or scenario so you get a lot of repetition here.
Replayability & Conclusion
Regarding replayability, this game has a wonderful feature: the auto-scrolling. You can automatically skip the prologue, and automatically skip text which you have already read during other playthroughs, or even text you’ve read after making a decision and then opening the menu, opening up the history and then rewinding to the decision point again. It’s a little too bad the game is rather repetitive until you hit Chapter 4 (where the story unfolds differently depending on the person whom you have the highest attachment to). You may also replay certain characters’ chapters using the Record of Service option from the title screen. It’s a rather convenient way to relive chapters you enjoyed.
A special note about Idea Factory: they should really stick to this kind of thing. I’m very surprised by how much I enjoyed it given that I don’t care much for a lot of Idea Factory’s content. The artstyle employed in this game is much better than their standard artwork as well. Do more of this, IF, not… that other stuff.
Overall, Hakuoki is one of the better otome visual novels I’ve played. The presentation in terms of voicework, script, and overall narrative is quite engrossing. It’s clear that this game is not exclusively for a female audience, since it clearly did not gain its M-rating for romantic aspects. There is a lot of action, references to blood and gore, historical aspects, and references to war scattered around this game, which makes the game transcend gender. To be honest, I was a little surprised by how little romantic content I ran into with this game, but I ended up not seeing that as a bad thing since there were other narrative aspects within the VN that I could embrace. I had a lot of fun with this game. I’m glad that Aksys took a chance with Hakuoki and brought it over here. Whether or not their experiment was a success, I’m very happy that I had an opportunity to experience the rare English localized otome game… and it was a great one at that.
- A tale for all genders, emphasizing different aspects to appeal to a broad audience as opposed to a single gender
- Well-written dialogue, with different characters demonstrating different speech registers (sociolinguistically-speaking); some formal, others not so formal
- High replayability, with several routes to choose from in order to fill out the Media and Record of Service sections
- Easy to go back to a decision point if you notice you’re not getting the dialogue you want by selecting the “History” option and rewinding back to it
- Chizuru isn’t exactly a doormat, and at least seems to think of the war and her relationships forged during it, and the repercussions of her--and the Shinsengumi's--actions
- Romance doesn’t necessarily feel forced in most cases; some routes end up making it feel rather natural
- Oh look, an Idea Factory game that I genuinely like
- Sound effects are awesome, as is the voice acting. Character design is nice.
- Different paths reward the player with different and well-told scenarios, sometimes focusing more on the supernatural aspect, others focusing more on the wartime aspect, and other focusing on both
- Different paths will not take the same amount of time to clear. Some routes are longer than others
- Some of the character designs are enticing
- Music is okay, and does its job
- While multiple endings are nice, it’s unfortunate that there aren’t more
- The art here does its job, and it’s better than a lot of the IF art I’ve seen
- Not a lot of emphasis on romance, but your-mileage-may-vary on this
- While Chizuru is improved from her Japanese counterpart, she still strikes me a bit of a lacklustre character
- Music doesn’t loop properly, which is unacceptable in this day and age
- The disconnect between one character’s Japanese dialogue and the English text can sometimes be jarring
- Reuse of environments even through different seasons. Repetitive.
- Sound mixing is rather poor. It’s hard to hear some voices sometimes, but at least the player can tinker with the mixing. It’s very unfortunate, though.