Review: Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds

Ladies Put Your Hands Up

Women are underrepresented in video games. In nearly every aspect, from development of games, to characters in games, the industry is firmly planted in the idea of being a “man’s realm,” and is struggling to break out of it.

Despite the fact that the ratio of men to women who play video games hovers around 50/50, very few games are actually created with a female audience in mind. Those that are tend to be more casual games, mobile games, or lean toward the stereotypical (like cooking and fashion focused games).

In the Japanese gaming sphere, though, there is an entire genre of games that are focused on female audiences – the “otome” game. Games under this genre are mostly visual novels or simulation games, and their heavy focus on romance may make them lean toward the aforementioned stereotypical content of games made for women.

However, much like how many other visual novels take the “dating game” aspect on the surface and use it to developed a deeper story underneath, some of these otome games do the same. The romance falls to the background, bringing the focus to a more intricate tale told from a female perspective, much like the game we are looking at today.

Developed by Otomate and published in the west by Idea Factory International, Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds was released on May 16th, 2017, exclusively for the Vita.

Samurai, Vampires, and Vampire Samurai

Hakuoki takes place in the Bakumatsu period of Japanese history, in the mid-1800s. The story follows Chizuru Yukimura, a young woman who has traveled to the city of Kyoto. She is searching for her father, a doctor, who has been missing for months.

While searching Kyoto, Chizuru is attacked by a number of crazed, bloodthirsty, white-haired men. Inches from death, she is rescued by two warriors – members of a special police force known as the Shinsengumi. As it turns out, this group is also searching for Chizuru’s father, leading to them taking her in to both protect her identity as a woman and assist in their search.

Aside from a few supernatural elements, Hakuoki is a historical drama, following the real-life Shinsengumi through their trials and tribulations. Much of the cast here is based on their historical counterparts, and the main plot covers a number of events and battles that took place in the time period.

As mentioned earlier, while this title is marketed as a romance game for women, the romance elements take a backseat to the battles and drama of the time period. Aside from graphics popping up telling me when I increased my affinity with a certain bachelor, I’d be hard-pressed to say I was playing through a romance game.

This game features a staggering amount of characters, with twelve “romanceable” men and countless side characters. It took me a few hours of playtime before I was able to keep track of them all. Hakuoki has a habit of introducing new characters by having them show up out of the blue, only to have Chizuru narrate their introduction a few minutes later. This led to a few moments of confusion where I thought I was expected to already know someone who’s just shown up, and I had just forgotten about them…but, no, they were a new character.

Once I finally had everyone straight, I was able to focus on their characterization, and I can say that I’m rather impressed with it. Despite the size of the cast, each member from main to minor has a distinct personality, and they feel realistic rather than leaning on anime cliche. Much of the cast here is based on historical figures, and it feels like the personalities of these characters were built off of the actions of their real life counterparts. The amount of development each character gets, both in their relationships with each other and Chizuru, is rather impressive. However, a few do get more focus than others in the main story, with a couple of characters getting pushed to the wayside unless you decide to pursue a relationship with them.

Unfortunately, Chizuru, a fictional addition to this tale, doesn’t fare as well in the personality department. She consistently becomes a damsel-in-distress, needing to be saved by the members of the Shinsengumi, even if you make dialogue choices to have her stand up for herself. Outside of action and historical scenes, Chizuru is essentially a window through which you see the interactions of the Shinsengumi, without her having much input.

Really, if it weren’t for the fictional additions to the plot, Chizuru as a character could easily be removed from the story. It isn’t until a number of hours in that the fictional elements really kick into gear and Chizuru becomes an actual player in the story.

Interestingly enough, the supernatural elements introduced are blended well with the historical drama of the Shinsengumi. The moments where vampiric super-samurai or powerful self-styled “demons” join battles never really feel out of place. Some of the supernatural aspects actually enhance the historical story, allowing characters who died early in real life to continue playing a role here in the game.

Of final note here, Kyoto Winds is a remake of a title originally released in Japan for the PS2. The game has received a number of ports and updates, many of which have made their way to the west. This release for the Vita introduces a number of new characters and routes, many of which are game original rather than historical. I wanted to make mention of this as, despite knowing that some of the characters here were new for this game, none of them stood out to me as tacked-on additions. I ended up having to load up the game’s official website to find out which characters were new to the story, which goes to show how well integrated into the original story said characters are.

Well Worn

Strong graphical design is always a hinge point for visual novels, and I can gladly say that Hakuoki doesn’t disappoint. Each member of the cast has a distinct and detailed design, leaning toward the realistic side of anime artwork. The biggest surprise to me is that the character sprites change outfits depending on time and place, rather than just reusing the same ones throughout the game, lending further to the feeling of realism.

I am a huge fan of the color palette used for this game as well. Both the characters and the backgrounds are colorful (but not to the point of gaudy) with a sense of some wear and fade. Just this choice in coloring further reinforces the feeling of playing through a historical plot, and I always appreciate subtle design choices like this.

The CG art stills sprinkled throughout the game are even more impressive, keeping the same slightly-faded palette but adding in some impressive lighting and shadow work. My only complaint here is that the facial expressions in some of these art stills feel…somewhat off. Some intense expressions seem like they’ve just been drawn on a canvas, rather than actually felt by a character.

I Love the 1860s

The soundtrack of Hakuoki leans strongly orchestral, with heavy eastern influences – a fairly standard choice for a game like this. I can’t say that I recall any real standout tracks, with most songs not doing much more than lending to the ambiance of a scene. I won’t say it’s unremarkable, but it’s not really much of a highlight either.

The game is also fully voice acted (aside from Chizuru) in the original Japanese. The actors here seem to take a more down-to-Earth approach to their performances, opting for a more realistic conversational tone as opposed to cliche anime voice acting. Given the serious tone most of the plot has, along with its historical origins, this style of performance is an apt match for the story. I can’t say there’s really a bad performance in the bunch, but, much like the soundtrack, I can’t name a standout performance either.

Something For Everyone

Overall, Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds is an intriguing and exciting historical drama with some well interweaved supernatural elements. Despite being marketed as a romance game, the romantic elements mostly take a backseat to the dramatic plot, which I am glad to see. It’s not so much because I’m not interested in a romance game focused on dating men, but more that I’m not a huge fan of romance-focused games in general, so curtailing this element helped to keep my interest.

Despite a large cast that can be tough to keep track of, and a player character without much personality, I had a great time reading through Hakuoki. If you’re hesitant to check this game out because it’s marketed to female gamers, I would encourage you to get over that stigma and give the game a shot regardless. There’s a well-crafted story hiding behind the marketing, and reading it from a woman’s point of view is a nice change of pace in the gaming sphere.

~ Final Score: 8/10 ~

Review copy provided by Idea Factory International for Vita. Screenshots taken by reviewer.