Genre: Visual Novel, Otome
Platform: PS Vita, PC via Steam
Release Date: May 31, 2017
Disclaimer: The game is divided into two parts, this one (Kyoto Winds) and its sequel (Edo Blossoms). It’s advised that both reviews are read together.
Hakuoki is an extremely popular visual novel developed by the well-known otome branch of Idea Factory, Otomate. It’s the result of real historical events and characters being adapted into a fictional world that appeals to its target audience, females, by allowing them to play as a self-insert character and romance the handsome members of the Shinsengumi.
Although the original game was released back in 2008, this first part of the series’ remake was released in Japan in 2015, and was later translated into English and released in 2017.
I actually played the mobile port of the first Hakuoki in 2015, thanks to the hype surrounding the game in the otome game community. Although its popularity isn’t as big internationally as it is in Japan, it’s worth noting that Hakuoki is such an iconic presence in the visual novel market that it’s been adapted into anime, manga, movies, CD dramas, and musicals, among other types of media.
I believe the success behind Hakuoki has to do with the fact that it appeals to both the players looking for romance and the ones looking for a deeper narrative in a visual novel. Hakuoki as a whole has a lot of selling points, seeing that all of its resources are of the highest quality.
Unfortunately, the mobile game wasn’t my cup of tea and I can recall how lacking and boring my experience playing it was. I will slightly elaborate on the problems surrounding that game throughout my review to evaluate if these flaws were resolved, but I just want to clarify that I didn’t have high expectations about this remake because of my prior involvement with the original Hakuoki.
The overarching historical plot is the same throughout the entirety of the visual novel and all of the routes are basically a long common route with some scenes of the guy you choose to pursue thrown into the mix. Because of this aspect I wish there had been a “skip to next option” feature like in other recent otome games, since skipping through the same scenes 12 times was exhausting in the end.
I liked the story this time around and I feel like it wasn’t as overwhelming as the original, which had made me feel like I was bombarded by unknown and complex names and historical events that I couldn’t really recall in the long run. Much of the first Hakuoki felt like mindless reading because it was 80% complicated political background and 20% romance; on the other hand this remake has new character-specific scenes that help build attachment to the cast and give the player a breath of fresh air among all of the serious war plot.
[spoiler]The main plot is the same in every route: Chizuru Yukimura, the main protagonist, is a girl from Edo who travels to Kyoto dressed up as a man in order to search for her missing father, Kodo Yukimura. Unfortunately she runs into a group of thugs who try to steal from her, but as she tries to run away, she witnesses them being brutally murdered by warriors with white hair and red eyes. Soon after, the members of the Shinsengumi kill the demonic-looking men and threaten to kill her too, since she had seen these events that involved secret matters about the Shinsengumi. Chizuru convinces them of giving her a chance and thus she’s taken to their headquarters, where Isami Kondou, the chief of the force, would decide her fate.
In the end, both Chizuru’s true gender and her reason to be in Kyoto come to light. Thanks to the fact that Kodo was once the Shinsengumi’s doctor, they agree to help her look for him but in return she must stay in their headquarters and never reveal anything related to the white haired beasts.
Over time, Chizuru gets deeply involved with the Shinsengumi and learns more about their secret and her father’s work for them – the white haired men were called Furies, and they were humans that drank a substance named the Water of Life, which was developed by Kodo. Whoever drank the Water of Life acquired superhuman strength and healing powers, however they got weakened by sunlight and often became mindless monsters that yearned for human blood.
Although Chizuru is horrified by the revelation, for she believed her kind father would never create anything that could potentially hurt people, she is still determined to find him and ask him what his motives were.
After the Fury key points, actual demons are thrown into the mix. Chikage Kazama, a high ranking demon, starts trying to kidnap the heroine because he claims that she’s a demon too, and he wants her to become his wife. Chizuru is doubtful about these claims, yet she admits to herself that her extremely fast healing capabilities have always been suspicious.
Our main character eventually meets Sen, a kind demon of high social status, who explains that female demons are extremely rare and Chizuru is the last pure-blooded female of the prestigious Yukimura Clan. Despite the fact that Sen offers to take Chizuru to her village, where she will be safer, the heroine ultimately chooses to stay with the Shinsengumi thanks to the attachment she had acquired towards them over the years.
The political narrative grows more prominent past this point, with the Shinsengumi fighting loyalist rebels (most prominently the Choshu Domain) and their allies. Western guns are among the enemy’s arsenal, and thus the defenseless Shinsengumi get pushed back by the superior force of guns and artillery against swords. At the end of most routes, Chizuru goes with the Shinsengumi to Edo, where they will continue protecting the shogunate.
If you understood everything I just wrote then that’s great, however I’m pretty certain it’s clear why the historical plot can be a bit overwhelming. I actually left out many details because the amount of different groups and political standings are very complex and hard to remember. If it weren’t for the fact that Kyoto Winds added new scenes for each guy, Hakuoki would be an unintelligible snooze fest.
Chizuru as a character is mediocre at most. Even though it’s mentioned that she received self-defense classes and she’s a pure-blood demon, she can never stand up to anyone and always depends on others to save her. In some routes she at least tries to be a meat shield as she knows she has incredible regenerative abilities, but in others she is just a pitiable witness to everyone in the Shinsengumi being thrown around and murdered trying to protect her.
In several stories her expertise in first aid is showcased and she could be a valuable asset in the last conflict, yet this only happened in very few plot lines and in most cases she couldn’t do much of anything to prove herself to be useful. It’s true that Otomate often has brainless and weak heroines, but considering that they also wrote great main characters like Lulu from Wand of Fortune and Nadeshiko from Clock Zero, all of the wasted potential on Chizuru is tragic to watch.
Leaving aside these negative aspects, the story as a whole is intriguing and nearly all routes were interesting. Each guy’s personal conflict was nice to see, although I personally felt like Yamazaki’s route could’ve used more work. He severely lacks scenes to make the player feel any kind of attachment to him and his inner troubles were mentioned in a rush instead of gradually building up to them through events in the narrative.
To elaborate further, Yamazaki’s struggle was related to his role as a spy/informant of the Shinsengumi. He mentioned that he felt powerless whenever he had to leave his comrades behind since he wasn’t allowed to fight and had to prioritize delivering vital information that could turn the tides of any war. Regrettably, this conversation with Chizuru is the only build up to his inner debate, and nothing happened in the game to make me as a player witness an example of a harsh situation that would deeply hurt Yamazaki and also persuade me to relate more to his feelings.
Besides the sloppy development of Yamazaki’s story, the writing is consistently good in all of Hakuoki. I like every love interest, nevertheless my favorite guys are Hachiro, Heisuke, Shinpachi and Sanan. The list is bound to change once I play the sequel but these are the most interesting routes so far. I remember Souji was my favorite in the original because both his narrative and romance were on point, but he’s a tough nut to crack so all of his lovey-dovey moments happen later on – I anticipate seeing them in Edo Blossoms.[/spoiler]
Although I praise the narrative in general, I must admit that the abrupt ending in all of the routes has both good and bad points.
Taking into account that this is a two-part remake, Otomate decided to split the story and in this game you only get to see the beginning/build-up to the key plot, which will be unveiled in the sequel, Hakuoki: Edo Blossoms. Regrettably, thanks to this approach the hype diligently builds up as a route progresses, yet the last chapter ends right as the most interesting part of the narrative is about to start. This probably played a big part in keeping the player from being oversaturated with historical plot –since the rest of the serious revelations are locked until the game is finished and the next entry is begun–, however it simultaneously kills all anticipation the player has as they have to play through other stories and forget the excitement built by the previous routes.
Based on everything I’ve mentioned before, I consider that instead of adding half of all 12 routes in Kyoto Winds, the better choice would have been to put 6 complete routes in this game and the next 6 routes in Edo Blossoms. I presume they didn’t want to add too much content in just one entry and that’s why the cut was made, but the approach I just mentioned would have been a much better option.
As someone who decided to wait for Edo Blossoms’ release before playing the first entry of the remake, my experience with the narrative won’t suffer much, but taking into account that many people played Kyoto Winds right as it was released over 9 months before its sequel, in this time span it’s very easy to forget a lot of the plot and only remember the most memorable details. No matter how I look at it, the story split seems to be significantly more negative than positive.
The art was gorgeous and I have no complaints whatsoever about it. Kazuki Yone is the one behind the character designs and the illustrations, and she’s certainly great at what she does. Her unique style can also be seen in other notorious otome games like Hiiro no Kakera and Kamigami no Asobi, and whatever project she participates in is guaranteed to have excellent aesthetics.
Rather than the art itself, I don’t like some of the scenes that were chosen to be drawn, but this isn’t a choice that the artist can make so nothing much can be done about it. I’ll set Heisuke as an example of a problem concerning the CGs of a few characters – out of 10 CGs, only 3 show the main character with him. Another negative aspect is the distribution of illustrations among the characters. I mostly feel the need to point this out because of Yamazaki Susumu: the poor guy only has 6 CGs with very few variations.
The aesthetics and overall visuals of the game deserve special recognition for how fitting they are to the tone of the story and for its special effects that accurately reflected battles or abrupt character movements. The sprites move and change their expressions very smoothly, which makes the otome game not be as static as others usually are. The transitions and attack effects during fights were especially useful to portray the heat of the moment, and combined with the sound effects the combat was very immersive, which is usually hard to achieve in a visual novel.
Hakuoki as a series has some highly recognizable names for otome game fans and anime watchers in its voice acting department, such as Morikubo Shoutarou as Okita Souji, Toriumi Kousuke as Saito Hajime and Yoshino Hiroyuki as Toudou Heisuke. However, many of my personal favorite seiyuu were among the new characters introduced in the remake, thus I was positively surprised, flabbergasted even – there’s the amazing Kaji Yuuki as Souma Kazue, the legendary Ono Daisuke as Sakamoto Ryouma, and even my mother-flipping god Miyano Mamoru as my also new favorite character Iba Hachiro. Not going to lie, I might have screamed after hearing Hachiro speak for the first time. Give me anything with Fukuyama Jun or Miyano Mamoru in it and I will literally die.
Thanks to the highly skilled seiyuu involved in the game, the voice acting is very enjoyable and I often found myself waiting for the lines to play entirely even though I had already finished reading the text.
Funny note, they got Koyasu Takehito to voice a side-character (Takeda Kanryuusai). It was inevitable to picture Dio Brando whenever Takeda talked.
The music is shockingly good, especially so if it’s taken into account that it’s from an otome game. Usually visual novels don’t really have note-worthy soundtracks but this is not the case with Hakuoki. The ambient music was fitting but not repetitive, the combat and suspense tracks fed the player’s hype and both the Opening song and the one played in the main menu were lovely and pleasant to listen to. Ruri no Sora e by Aika Yoshioka is definitely a new addition to the best OP songs I’ve heard in visual novels.
Finally, the UI is aesthetically pleasing and easy to navigate, and among the system’s memorable features I recall being thankful for the easily accessed glossary with definitions for complex terms and the “Record of Service” option, which lets you start the story from any date of a chapter. After picking a date, you can choose which route you want to enter and at what level will the romance meter be (you can pick to have high romance or low romance, something incredibly useful when you want to replay a certain scene or bad ending).
As I already mentioned before, a “skip to next choice” feature would’ve been highly appreciated because of the amount of text shared among the routes, but the lack of it isn’t game-breaking anyway.
Hakuoki was a title that I continuously called overhyped because of my negative and forgettable experience playing the original game. For a long time, I considered any time invested playing Hakuoki to be a waste and advised my friends against trying it whenever they inquired about it. The joke is on me now, as the remake is highly promising and drastically improved the overall tone of the game to offer a far more entertaining experience for its players.
Although I can’t confidently judge the entirety of the remake yet, in view of the fact that I still need to play the sequel –which contains the more depressing and unrewarding parts of the game that I hated in the original–, I can state that Kyoto Winds was a very solid entry and its overall quality was much higher than that of the original Hakuoki.
Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds is a promising beginning to the two-part remake, smoothly introducing its main cast and building up to the plot’s main conflict, which will be explored in its sequel. With twelve different routes, it gives the player the option to romance all of its most appealing characters. The drawing style in the illustrations is gorgeous and both the textures and soft coloring are very fitting for the game’s historical setting. The voice acting is pleasing and includes many notorious seiyuu. The music is good and doesn’t get repetitive, unlike the lacking soundtrack of most visual novels. As a whole, it was an enjoyable experience but it’s hard to give it a high score because of the lack of content. After completing the first run of the game, each following route is only 3 hours long at most, since nearly all of the text is common historical narrative. The actual juice of the story is contained in Edo Blossoms, thus Kyoto Winds was pretty uneventful and its abrupt endings were lethal to the player’s immersion.