Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds Review – Otome for everyone
Platform: PS Vita (reviewed)
Publisher: Idea Factory International
Release: 16th May 2017 (NA) 19th May 2017 (EU)
Disclaimer: Review Code provided by Idea Factory International
Frankly, I don´t have much experience with Otomes, visual novels in which you can date different men as a girl. In fact, I never played any, since I´ve never had the interest to do so. However, with the upcoming release of Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds I took the chance, to finally broaden my horizon. Maybe just because I love the Edo-time and classical japanese culture and it was worth it.
Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds is the first of a two part series, that retell and enhance the story of the original Hakuoki released in 2008. We experience the story through the eyes of Chizuru, a girl which came to Kyoto to search for her vanished father. One night, she encounters a group of demonic samurai but she suddenly gets rescued by none other than the Shinsengumi. A samurai mercenary unit, known and feared for their blood lust. Soon after, we find ourselves as a “guest” of said group, in order to keep the events of this night secret. Yet, the Shinsengumi´s intentions are not unfamiliar, they too, want to find Chizuru´s father, and it doesn´t take long until both parties slowly begin to trust each other.
What seemed like a boring and well known story about an innocent girl, that falls in love with the brutal but nice men, quickly developed into one of the most brutal and honest visual novels about that time. No one, except Chizuru, can be considered as a truly “good” person, not the rivaling clans nor the Shinsegumi. The fact, it´s not a typical hero tale but a story about the struggle of ordinary men to reach their goal, is Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds’ best aspect. Especially the later revealed dark secret of the Shinsegumi underline their anti-hero position once more. We´re thrown into a world that seems to know only darkness and are forced to participate in it. Therefore Hakuoki doesn´t back away at showing the consequences of the various battles, during the game. You will see (and read) blood, a lot of it … and it´s great. If there´s a fight there will be blood and consequences for everyone. For me, that´s how a serious story has to be told in this era, there were no bright heroes or good versus evil fights, only humans, Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds conveys this like nothing else.
Not only is Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds a great visual novel in terms of story and story-telling but also features a cast of 12 bachelors to fall in love with. All of them are pretty likeable and written to fit the message of the game, that they´re still humans not some sort of demons. Unfortunately they are Hakuokis biggest “weak point”, in my opinion. Every character just feels stereotypical with only 1-2 character traits each and nearly everyone has the “hard shell soft heart”-formula in common. The whole cast just feels like a collection of single character traits, from which we can choose one, we like the most. Even Chizuru behaves like a very stereotypcial weak girl, without much courage or guts, no matter which options you select. In my eyes, it´s nearly an impossible task to properly characterize 12 persons.
Speaking of selecting options, Hakuoki is a visual novel, so of course it offers a wide range of different answers throughout the campaign, for the player to decide. On the one hand, they influence your way through the story, like choosing to stay at the base or go outside, giving you somewhat control over Chizuru as a person and her character. At first glance, these options influence the events quite a bit but after some time in the 2nd playthrough I noticed, how little effect they actually have. Similar to Telltale´s approach you´ll often just have control over the next few minutes before the two strings join each other again but Hakuoki never lets you change anything drastically. Luckily, there´s one exception, the endings, of which Hakuoki features a whole of 30 to discover, giving it the replay value other visual novels lack.
On the other hand your formed relationship and outcome of your love life depend on these decisions, it´s an Otome after all. Strangely enough, that´s the part I´m unsure about the most, due to the shady system working in the background. During my whole playtime I tried to date one of the Shinsegumi in particular, Hajime Saito to be exact, but somehow ended up with no one, in the end. Where other games have indicators, when you reached an important moment, Hakuoki completly lacks such a feature, causing a system without any feedback to work with.
Last but not least, Hakuoki luckily nails its presentation as good as the atmosphere and story. The outfits and characters alone are excellent examples for the amount of detail and research that was put into the game. Every single one of them wears and looks completly different and perfectly symbolize the thematized era. Additionally the backgrounds are just gorgeous too, full of details and atmosphere of that time. Overall, Hakuoki´s artstyle and attention of detail are just stunning and really help at transporting the flair of the Edo period. Combined with various animations and fitting Soundtrack the way this visual novel presents itself is truly “top-notch”, if you allow me this word.
If you thought Otome´s can´t be good visual novels, Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds will proof you wrong. It´s not only an amazing visual novel, that understood how to present the Edo era, both visually and story-wise, but also features the possiblity to fall in love with the main cast. My initial fear, that the addition of romance would make the whole setting appear harmless or cute, was quickly debunked, when I saw how brutal Hakuoki can be.
The only complain I can think of is the lack of truly unique and deep characters, it all just feels so superficial and stereotypical, kinda disappointing for an Otome. Still, it´s a great game, that everyone, Otome fan or not, should check out, if the setting appeals to you.