Those outside of Japan may be forgiven for not recognising the Otomate sub-genre of Visual Novels, because it is produced almost exclusively in Japan. It is a female-centric genre, within which the many player motivations include romancing varying (usually) male suitors. Within this genre we find Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds, the latest retelling of the first half of the Hakuoki story that was originally released in 2008. The tale spans four years through the Japanese Bakumatsu period, where political and ideological tensions were boiling between the Imperialists and the shogunate forces. It loosely follows the historical events leading up to the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate from the perspective of the Shinsengumi, who are the elite police force that support the shogun and keep the peace in and around Kyoto.
You play as Chizuru Yukimuru, a young woman from Edo, who travels to Kyoto in search of her father, who is a prominent doctor. She travels disguised as a boy to protect herself from unwanted attention on her travels, but in a cruel twist, she finds herself in even more trouble. On her first night in Kyoto, she bears witness to a gory murder at the hands of a rogue group of Samurai from the Shinsengumi. Chizuru cannot catch a break as she is confronted by other, more attractive, members from the Shinsengumi. They cannot risk this ‘boy’ telling people what he may have seen and take Chizuru as a hostage until they can decide what to do with her. After deliberating over whether to reveal her identity or to try and escape, her poor guise is revealed anyway and when they discover who her father is their demeanour changes. From this point, Chizuru is a ward of the Shinsengumi; no longer a threat to their order, but not allowed the freedom of a guest either.
Everything about this game, including the story, is fantastically Japanese. The game intro looks and sounds like a classic anime-style opening sequence, introducing us to the main cast in action shots; animated to a dramatic theme song. Luckily, games such as these age really well, so the painterly backgrounds and anime art style carry well to the Vita. All dialogue is spoken in Japanese and subtitled in English, which offers a more authentic feel given the game setting. Furthermore, we are given additional insights into Japanese culture and history throughout the game, with fantasy elements peppered in that spice up events. Those who are unfamiliar with Japanese history are not left to suffer in ignorance. The encyclopaedia gives references and context for unfamiliar terms, people and places to keep players informed as they progress, and the Rewind option allows you to reread missed dialogue.
The story is driven by character interaction, designed to pull you along one of the branching romance routes. When you begin to integrate with the Shinsengumi, new routes will open up through the narrative leading to more romance options. In order to woo one of the bohemian thugs, you will need to learn all about them. The choices you are offered over the course of the game are not always dressed as romantic options. Some will directly influence how the members of the Shinsengumi view your character, and others are simply a set up to whether you will be in the right place during their time of need. You will need to learn to read the subtle signs and signals from prospective love interests, which makes a nice change from the explicit declarations from similar western games. The warrior record screen shows your relationship status with the other characters through the metaphorical blossoming of flowers on the cherry blossom tree.
Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds doesn’t try to straddle the genre lines with arbitrary puzzles or interaction. This text-heavy visual novel has very little interaction, so the developers can get away with some drastic restructuring of the narrative based on the player’s choices. This remaster includes six brand new romantic conquests on top of the original six datable men. You can look forward to some interesting variance between the different character romance routes, but not a huge amount, as all story streams lead to the same sea as a foundation for the second half of the Hakuoki story that will be released as a sequel.
If historical dramas interest you, but a romance game doesn’t – fear not! You are not guaranteed a romantic partner by the end of this game. If you also like to play visual novels as yourself as opposed to chasing a romantic partner, it is possible to play through this game, oblivious to the romantic routes the narrative tries to guide you down. Unfortunately, if you would like to become a warrior of the Shinsengumi, you can’t. Chizuru herself is bland, with very little personality to speak of and thus, you cannot pursue any meaningful development of the main character.
The overarching narrative is quite involved, delving into politics, history and faction loyalty. It is also consistently well paced - unless you fail to aim for a specific romantic partner and miss some of the more compelling events. At which point, you may go some time without any significant plot changes. The only disappointment with this title, is that the story doesn’t seem to really get going until right at the end, due to this only being the first half of the Hakuoki story. We will have to wait for the second half of the game to be released at a full game price at a later date. With the addition of more romance options and new characters, this game has seen a near doubling of its original content; Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds is easily an 80-hour experience now, making the hefty price tag more acceptable. This is probably the best version of the Hakuoki story to date.