By Meghan Ellis.
There are two things that jump out at you when you first play Hakuoki, whether you’re familiar with the visual novel genre or not; firstly, that it’s been made by people who obviously really love what they’re doing, and secondly that this game is going to school players in 19th century Japanese politics.
This doesn’t seem like an obvious premise for a dating sim, but that’s what Hakuoki is at its core. As somewhat of an otome game connoisseur (otome or otoge being a genre of story-based games aimed at young Japanese women), Hakuoki blew me away with its seamless blend of attractive young samurai and the difficulties an outcast militia would face in the strict world of late Edo-period Japan. Yes, you can romance these handsome samurai, but what kept me playing until 3am on multiple occasions was genuine concern over the rising tensions between the Imperialist and Shogunate factions, and how my ragtag warriors were going to be caught in the (literal) crossfire.
And don’t worry if you’re not an expert in Japanese history: the game features an excellently in-depth encyclopedia which features both insightful information into the overall situation as well as motivations for important characters’ actions and behaviour. It’s really easy to switch between these tidbits of knowledge and the main game itself; as a whole, Hakuoki runs really well on mobile devices, with easy to grasp touch screen controls and an uncomplicated UI. An added bonus over previous iterations is the screenshot function, allowing you to take a sneaky snapshot of your favourite warrior to set as your wallpaper, or lockscreen if you’re really daring. Or, you can capture some of the comedic relief scenes, which are a welcome tension-break in the world of handsome young ronin. I won’t spoil what’s going on here in the picture at right but it’s a familiar set-up for any anime fan.
I think that’s the real appeal of this game: the ease with which it navigates different, sometimes clashing genres to bring together a plot that’s both deeply political and capable of evoking real emotion. There are gentle scenes of characters enjoying conversation juxtaposed with the violent reality of samurai life, and it never feels awkward or unnatural. Be prepared to get emotionally invested in the life of the Shinsengumi; your character spends years with the leaders, and the bonds you develop with not only your chosen beau but the wider cast (including my unsung hero, Susumu) feel both significant and founded on your history together, aided of course by the unmissable Japanese voice acting.
As anyone who plays visual novels is aware, you primarily interact with the game world by making decisions on what to do or say, or where to go at a given juncture in the narrative. Hakuoki has mastered the art of putting weight behind each of the suggestions and making them feel both essential to make and tough to choose. For example, most of the early decisions are given importance by putting your life at risk from disobeying orders, and later choices are affected by your in-game and personal relationships with the characters and factions. The gradual shift from making a selection based on threats to genuine concern for the characters wouldn’t be possible without the masterful storytelling that accompanies each outcome, and rarely did I feel I’d made a “wrong” choice.
A good example is my first playthrough, where I played it completely straight. For the most part this meant the poor protagonist spent about two years in her room behaving impeccably, but the game never makes you feel as though you’ve made an incorrect choice. In the second playthrough, I threw caution to the wind, disobeyed pretty much everything I could and revelled in seeing how people reacted differently to the character based on my actions.
It’s therefore almost essential to play the game multiple times; aside from the obvious “romance all characters at least once” goal that’s a staple of the genre, Hakuoki has legitimate replay value for players who want to experience shifting relationships and the consequences of your actions, especially the dynamics between the Shinsengumi leaders themselves. It’s a game that caters well to different play styles, allowing both the gamers who set their sights on one suitor, and those who go with the flow to enjoy the story and its outcomes in their own way.
Rather surprisingly for a dating sim, Hakuōki can end without a significant romantic encounter, which is indicative of the time period and a nice added touch. While this happened to me on my first playthrough, it didn’t feel as though I’d played the game poorly or been cheated out of an ending, a testament to the solidness of its plot overall. I do however definitely recommend aiming for a romantic experience on at least one playthrough, not least of all for the sense of achievement, enjoyable dialogue and unashamedly beautiful samurai visuals.
Hakuoki is an excellent example of the genre, making it an ideal gateway game for people interested in both visual novels and the otome niche in particular. Placing equal importance on the romance and the plot, Hakuoki shows a Western audience what the future of visual novel localisation could look like. As a bonus, you’ll also become an expert in Bakumatsu Japan (or at least, enough to watch most Edo period anime with confidence).