Before we get to the review, a vocabulary lesson is needed first, the following game is the first of its kind to be reviewed here on the site (as far as I know) and it’s a type of game readers here normally don’t know about or are exposed to. The game in question is Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom, an otome game from Idea Factory published by the good people of Aksys Games.
You may be asking: “What is an otome game?” Otome is literally translated as ‘maiden game.’ An Otome game has a female as the main lead character who is usually romantically involved with one of the male characters. They are generally marketed to a female demographic. In other words, this is a game for girls who are in the pre-teen to teen/young adult age. The closest thing the West has that is comparable to Otome are Harlequin romance novels. Why would Aksys Games take a huge gamble, on a genre that even is more niche than JRPGs? Why are demons fleeting blossoms? Why am I reviewing a maiden game?
Good Introduction to Otome - In general, visual novels are a relatively new genre of game showing up in the US. With minimalistic gameplay and a focus on characters and story, it can be a bit intimidating to try to find the right game to start out with. With the release of Hakuoki, potential players and the curious can try out otome or other VNs.
Historical Fiction - What I really like about historical fiction, especially of Japanese history and culture, is that events like the Bakumatsu and groups like the Shinsengumi are real. In fact several of the men, including the six men that Chizuru Yukimura can fall in love with, are based off historical members of the Shinsengumi. While the characters’ mannerisms are a bit exaggerated for the sake of the fantasy elements to the story, each of them retains the historical characteristics that they really did have. From their stoic nature to their medical conditions, they are represented as accurately as possible with some creative flare thrown in.
Japanese Audio - With VNs, audio is very important. Every syllable spoken, every clang of swords, flesh getting sliced and the war cries of the cast must be heard for the player to feel like they are not just reading the action, but that they are in the action. For a PSP game, Hakuoki does this very well, provided that you have a pair of headphones. As an added plus, the original Japanese VO audio has been kept intact with no dub version.
Something for Everyone - Just because the game is mainly geared towards a female demographic, doesn’t mean that it’s strictly just for them. Both guys and girls will find that Hakuoki has a lot to offer for both. Romance, pretty looking men, samurai, bloody battles, the supernatural; a mix of all of the above awaits players. Not to mention an engaging story with multiple endings that will have you wanting to see each of them.
Lost in Translation - Sometimes Japanese mannerisms don’t translate very well into English and leave those who are not familiar with the culture scratching their heads a bit. For instance, those new to VNs will notice that all the game’s narration uses first person instead of third, and is only from the view of the main character, which in this case is Chizuru. There is also the fact that Hakuoki is an otome game and is the first of its kind on a portable console. Most players new to the genre might either be a bit intimidated or discouraged by it to give it a chance. The most notable thing some will notice is Chizuru herself. Although she is a girl, the Shinsengumi and the rest of the cast address her as a male since she is in disguise. While not a new plot device by any means, the way Chizuru is written feels lacking. You would think she would put up a more tougher or believable act.
For the very first US-released otome out on the PSP, Hakuoki Demon of the Fleeting Blossom is a really good introduction to the genre. Despite being a romantic maiden game, it has enough action and suspense such that even male players will enjoy the story. There are a few downsides of being the first otome game on a portable system, though. The obvious one is that it’s a niche sub-genre in an already niche genre to begin with. There might be some things that those not familiar with otome or VNs might find a bit confusing, but that doesn’t detract from the story that much. Otaku and non-otaku alike should give Hakuoki a shot so hopefully more VNs will make their way to the US.
*This review was based on the PSP version of the game with a review code provided by the publisher.*