In the bustling capital of ancient Japan, walked one brave traveller; a girl dressed like a man. An unseen destiny that she would carry, pulled her onwards and compelled her to tarry. Mere moments later two monsters were shorn, by figures in light blue haori adorned. The were the Shinsengumi and they had but one task, to maintain peace in the city and destroy the monstrous creatures that secretly prowled the streets at night and lusted after the blood of the innocent.
Meet Chizuru Yukimura, a down to Earth girl who has made the trek to the big city of Kyoto and is looking for love. And by that I mean that she is searching her father who mysteriously disappeared whilst away for work. With nary a clue to go on, Chizuru’s investigation, however, is limited to simply asking around town if anyone even knows who her father is. Though he is a doctor, so that does narrow the search down some. And yet, this game does not truly focus on this personal quest, nor the trappings of discovery, deduction or accusation. Rather, a completely unexpected plot charges in from left field and decides to take residence smack bang in the centre of our perception until the credits roll.
On a night just as unsuspecting as the one that came before, poor Chizuru is almost forcefully shuffled off this mortal coil by a particularly ravenous group of samurai. A particularly ravenous, literally bloodthirsty group of samurai. But, as luck would have it, the Shinsengumi arrive and save the day, beginning the long tradition of Chizuru doing absolutely nothing while events transpire around her. Immediately after their appearance, the Shinsengumi detain Chizuru and make it known that she has seen too much, which is code for, “Now we have to kill you.” Luckily however, the Shinsengumi turn out to be a fairly chill bunch of dudes and are content with letting her live, even before they discover she is a girl. After they discover said fact, as well as the identity of her apparently important father, Chizuru is nicely ordered to maintain her gender secrecy and join the Shinsengumi, in the loosest of terms. And thus Chizuru firmly places herself directly within earshot of the actual plot of this game, this historic accuracy of which is suspect…maybe. My knowledge of the ebb and flow of the Shinsengumi’s power is a little iffy, I’ll admit, but boy are you in luck if you wanted to learn.
Before we traipse into the more expected romantic aspect of this game, let’s take a brief moment and discuss the intricate sociopolitical angle that is completely unavoidable. With the Shinsengumi as her self proclaimed saviours, friends, allies, captors and fellow father finders, Chizuru is at the absolute whim of the wheelings and dealings that occur daily in Kyoto. From shifts in power, changes in leadership, betrayals, war and the ever encroaching threat/benefit of foreigners, the story which we originally believed we would follow is almost immediately put on the backburner…or the backburner’s backburner. This only becomes more evident as the game progresses, with its overall story spanning years, months passing in between simple mentions of Chizuru’s father, a character who was somehow important enough for the Shinsengumi to make exceptions for his daughter. Which is even more noteworthy given the time period…kind of.
Despite the aforementioned series of Shinsengumi events and the history heavy hand with which they are lobbed, the characters in this game are still very much visual novel in execution. From the mysterious Hijikata whose cold heart can only be thawed by the compassion of a special someone, to the energetic Heisuke who seems to enjoy friendship as much as he would girlfriendship. So pick your favourite, brush off those conversation skill and prepare to dialogue tree your way to love…if you’re really lucky. You see, a majority of personal interactions in this game are walled behind plot decisions meaning that more often than not you simply cannot progress relationships as far as you may wish. Though a handy game option allows you to backtrack to any moment of dialogue passed, it is still quite a choice to negate minutes of content in the hope that the guy you want to speak to lay down another path. Say, for example, Saito is your cup of tea, choosing to remain at Shinsengumi HQ rather than venture out into the city may prevent you from bumping in to him, from learning where his interests lie and seeing that oh so telling butterfly flit across the screen, symbolising the deepening of a relationship. Thus, you may find yourself with an ending that involves Chizuru finding a new group of friends, but nothing more. Not…not that that happened to me or anything…
Since discussing the gameplay of Hakuoki would amount to little more than, “Press X every once in a while,” I’m going to take this time to mention the (perhaps spoilerish) fact that this game also contains a powerful supernatural element to it. Why? I have no idea, but it sure is there. Though it is not all that surprising considering the game near begins with Chizuru’s assault by not-quite-human samurai, the demonic subplot that appeared much later in the story was a little unexpected. Especially the role Chizuru plays in it all. So, if the chance of romance and an onslaught of historical facts don’t entice you, perhaps learning of a secret demonic war, which runs in tandem with the battles currently dotting Japan, might just do the trick. And if it doesn’t, well then I just don’t know how to please you…or anyone else in this damn game.
Look, whilst taking a spin in the male heavy wheelhouse that is Hakuoki may not be to my personal tastes, I cannot deride this game for being what it is: A fairly solid visual novel. Though the plot is a skosh on the unexpected and complicated side, and ends before actually reaching its conclusion (stay tuned for part two, coming in a later game), it carries with it enough intrigue to warrant clicking through dialogue boxes. Certain characters also have their moments and the variation in how relationships unfold between the members of the Shinsengumi is interesting. And I’m not just talking about the lovey dovey stuff here. Sometimes it’s just about bros being bros…before one bro betrays all the other bros…and then one bro gets tuberculosis.
Do you feel the Kyoto Winds of change?