REVIEW - Hakuoki: Romancing The Vampire Samurai

Still a better love story than Twilight.

I've mentioned before that we can always count on Aksys to license, localize, and publish great games we wouldn't otherwise see from Japan. They take chances on games that may not become huge hits for the American public, but there's always at least a small market for more obscure Japanese games. Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom would be one of these. After months of it being out and stores like Gamestop having no reason to order more, I was able to find only one copy in all of Maryland in the beginning of May.

Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom follows Chizuru's arrival to Kyoto in her search for her father where she witnesses a group of white-haired samurai in blue coats gone mad slaughter some people. The Shinsengumi, who wear the same blue coats (or haori), save her and keep her in their headquarters. While this is an otome game where you increase your relationship with the men in the group and eventually go off on a specific game route according to your romance level, I wouldn't say this game is only for women. The game isn't overwhelmingly filled with romance; quite a bit of it is action. However, this is a visual novel, so if you are a person who needs to be controlling the action, I would not recommend this game for you.

Unfortunately, it is rather frustrating to be Chizuru: a girl with very little knowledge of swordfighting while being in the middle of years of fighting that eventually tore apart the Shinsengumi while Japan's political climate became extremely chaotic. The majority of the story involves some demons trying to kidnap her from the Shinsengumi while the captains of the Shinsengumi nearly kill themselves (and sometimes sacrifice themselves) to save her. (This becomes even more frustrating when learning about Chizuru's background. She could be much stronger than she lets on.) If I was going to live with a bunch of samurai more dedicated to learning how to protect others than serving the elite, I'd want to learn how to wield a sword to defend myself. According to Saito, Chizuru isn't bad, but she's at the mercy of others nearly every time in every storyline.

But aside from the fluffy (and often hilarious) romance in Hakuoki, learning about the Shinsengumi is my favorite part of the game. The characters are obviously not exactly like their historical counterparts--especially as the story becomes more supernatural--but there are plenty of references to Toshizo Hijikata being the "demon" commander of the Shinsengumi, Isami Kondou as the friendly and idealistic chief, Hajime Saito as the quiet and extremely skilled swordsman, Souji Okita as the fearsome captain, etc. Even more overlooked people such as Genzauburo Inoue, Susumu Yamazaki, and Kai Shimada. Real battles are included as events, and there's an encyclopedia of names, places, battles, and terms as they arise in the text.

The way Hakuoki blends the historical with the supernatural is remarkable. At first the idea of a samurai, who isn't just a fictional character, whose hair turns white and feels the need to drink blood seems weird. But after a little while, you just accept it as part of the story. Their exhaustion during daytime reminded me of vampires (partly as a joke), but in-game they are referred to as "fake" demons. With incredible strength and stamina, and with wounds that heal quickly, the Shinsengumi take on harder and harder battles. Picking the right dialogue and action choices become key to avoiding a game over.

This game isn't one of my favorites, but it is fun to play if you like visual novels and Japanese history. The translation read well other than a few proofreading mistakes I caught, and I enjoyed being able to read the dialogue in English while being able to listen to it in Japanese. I always appreciate being able to play these games in my own native language; and it's all thanks to Aksys once again!

A budding market for otome games in North America?

Aksys takes many chances on niche markets, which is one of the many reasons I love them. Now they're taking on Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom, a game in a series from Japan in which you play as a woman among many men during the Edo period.

An otome game, in the most simplistic way I can think to describe it, is a reverse harem. There was a hint of this to Persona 3 Portable from the female protagonist's perspective, as well as in western RPGs such as Dragon Age, but there's very little of that available here.

But this game isn't only about romance. Because it's about the Shinsengumi, there's quite a bit of violence (a part of the reason why the game is rated M).

Chizuru Yukimura is the protagonist. In her quest to find her father, she'll meet many attractive samurai vying for her attention. With a game that blends action with romance, and caters toward a female market, Aksys can count me in on this game. But I don't think men should shy away from playing this either. As someone who's romanced plenty of fictional women in games, it's a different, and still enjoyable, experience. More often than not, it's just hilarious.

Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom releases in NA for the PSP on February 14. I know I wouldn't mind getting this for Valentine's Day...

(In reality, I hate paying for shipping to the UK, so I'll wait until I'm back home to play this. And believe me when I say that I WILL buy this game.)