September 9, 2012
Set up in a fashion similar to the old-school "choose your own adventure" novels, Hakuoki is set in ancient Japan during the country's Bakumatsu period (1853-1867). The main protagonist, a girl named Chizuru Yukimura, sets out on a journey from Edo to Kyoto to find her father who went missing. She attempts to blend into the crowd by masquerading as a boy, but when night falls she is attacked by a rouge group of samurai who attempt to steal her kodachi (short sword), a family heirloom. A group of zombie-like men viciously kill the attackers but they then turn their attention on the young protagonist, when two men from the Shinsengumi (a special police force that keeps the peace but is mistrusted by the populace) take care of them. Since Chizuru was a witness to the events they decide between killing or releasing "him" until they realize she is a woman and the daughter of the person they are searching for.
Due to the game's genre, what comes next is largely up to the player. Initially the Shinsengumi aren't as trusting of Chizuru, so the player's actions will affect how they open up to her. While there are multiple ending routes with each of the guys as expected for the genre, this isn't the "pretty boys" style that's par for the course for the otome genre. Instead, the Shinsengumi men have their own personalities and generally aren't as open as Chizuru is initially, so when the player is able to open up their emotions it leads for a really well done payoff. Add to this the wartime setting where drama and political intrigue take center stage and it's clear that this isn't your typical love adventure. And of course, there's a plethora of bad endings that lead into Game Overs, so if you dislike games without a challenge you'll love Hakuoki as it makes the player work for those good endings.
One thing that's striking about the box art is the game's M rating, which is most assuradely warranted in Hakouki. The blood and violence isn't show in the pictures displayed during the game, but they are described fairly vividly in the game's text. This is also accompanied by a sizable deal of swearing, most notably the use of the "f-bomb". Taken into consideration the time period and the events going on during the game, however, and this isn't as much of a issue as one would think. Aksys Games did a great job in their localization in grasping the feel of the characters and the events that really draws the player in, even if there's some slightly syntactical errors that pop up occasionally. One minor negative, however, is the game's choice of font which fits in well with the game, but becomes slightly hard to read at times. Due to the game's inherent text-heavy nature, this isn't really possible to overlook. Also, if you aren't that well-versed in Japanese history you might need to brush up at times using the game's built-in encyclopedia.
In terms of the visuals and music, Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom is a mixed bag. The art style very much fits the time period and Idea Factory doesn't pander to the fanboys and fangirls with oversized breasts and girly-looking men as all of the characters very much look human in that respect. But on the other hand the music, while getting the job done, doesn't have any real staying power outside of the scenes its intended for. That isn't to say its bad, but it isn't anything to write home about.
Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom is a surprising title both coming from its developer and the genre itself. Unlike most other otome games, Hakouki has enough variety to appeal to both genders by wisely taking the road less travelled with its mature and involving narrative. It has its faults, but Idea Factory has been able to create a game which does a great deal to turn around people's perceptions of them. If you haven't given the genre a try before and you have any interest in an "choose your own adventure"-style game, you'll do yourself a disservice if you don't give Hakouki a try.
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