In the last few generations, the world has finally started to embrace the video games as a way to convey messages and tell a story. From classics like Bioshock and Shadow of the Colossus to newer indie entries like Bastion and Braid, this new outlet has swept the world over and created a new canvas for writers and artists to play with. Finally, we have a place where theÂ audienceÂ can immerseÂ themselvesÂ in the experience personally, but whenÂ there’sÂ too many restrictions on a player’s freedom of choice, how could a game still manage to engage?
Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom is from the visual novel genre, which is popular in Japan. While this genre is underÂ appreciatedÂ in the West, some games like Heavy Rain still manages to shine. With a complete lack of gameplay, Hakuoki has to stand up entirely on its story’s merits to carry the game’s experience. How well does this romantic, distinctly Japanese novel fare under close critical scrutiny? Read on for the HOTs and NOTs of Hakuoki below.
Unlike other self-insert stories aimed at the typical anime fan, Hakuoki manages a sense of quality writing. The dialog keeps from being silly and the occasional well-written description of the surrounding setting or a poignant detail may be enough to draw some readers in. Ultimately, this gives the entire game a strong back-bone without causing any problems. With the story’s course set, you’re in for a well paced story that doesn’t rely on cheap gimmicks to impress readers. Anyone looking for a story with at least passable writing to get them through a long plane ride will find it here.
The ragtag band of handsome boy samurai involved may fill the spectrum of Bishonen tropes and pass the buck with flying colors for a young Otaku girl’s heaven. However, beyond the niche appeal, the characters can sometimes be endearing enough for you to actually care about them. While nowhere the quality of the most famous classical literary characters, these boys never feel too off-kilter or unreasonable to break your immersion into the story. With themes like responsibility and maturity as opposed to brash, rebellious or off-putting characters, it’s rare for any of the characters to feel unreal or annoying.
Earnest Attempt At Historical Fiction
While Hakuoki is by no means entirely realistic, there is at least an attempt to not devolve into anime cliches. While the classic tropes are involved like improbable hair colors, inexplicable supernatural powers (toned down significantly here) and other numerous examples, the world is still crafted to give a distinct feel of historical Japan. The political intrigue of the time is given strangely close attention and when a gun is introduced, it’s treated as a strange and alien concept. This all goes toward creating a believable setting for this unlikely romance story to take place.
Blank Main Character
As with many self-insert otome games, the details of the main character are left intentionally blank as to allow the player to role play and bring their persona into the story. However, this is an extremely fragile writing device that needs to balance characterization with blank-sheet development. Sadly this game fails by giving the character a custom first name and a selection of choices, but with a fixed last name and fixed spoken audible dialog. If you aren’t able to become the character, she will become a mindless drone, adept to only the most obvious observations and repeated dialog. The flaw comes not in the presentation, but rather the core concept of a blank character. Rather than allowing you full control over your character or at least creating a believable facade of control, Blank-name Yukimura becomes a lifeless corpse through which the player must halfheartedly commandeer through the game.
Awkward Tonal Shifts
This game simply cannot decide on a tone. This flaw is always apparent whether it’s skipping about from dreamy love-interest character development to intense political drama and samurai warfare, or deciding whether it wants to be a light-hearted romantic romp or a somber trip through a tough period in Japan’s colorful and sometimes restrictive history. While there’s certainly no problem with being an extravaganza of a story playing through multiple emotions and settings, the tonal shifts never feel quite right, whichÂ disconnectsÂ you from the story.
Even when not being held up as an example of its genre, HakuokiÂ fails to excel. There’s enough substance here to carry some readers and gamers through the experience, but never enough to amaze or astound. The presentation doesn’t allow itself to become dynamic, simply because of its restrictions as a classical visual novel. The model only allows for text, dialog, backgrounds, character models and the occasional stiffly painted portrait of its characters. The game simply refuses to break the mold and become something better as a result. Overall, the game feels stiff, in addition to being boring. In layman’s terms, rather than an improvement on its genre, it prefers to wallow in its own inherent flaws.
While never outwardly offensive as a story, this is not the game that will change the way people look at the visual novel genre. Even when not put up with the task of glorifying the medium, it manages to be boring and un-compelling, yet never reaches a painful or campy range. The existing crowd for the medium of girly visual novels should absolutely check it out. They’ll find a group of characters just believable enough to fall in love with, but all others need not apply. For the rest of us, a small romance novel may be more entertaining and certainly cheaper.
[Editor’s Note:Â Hakuoki: Demon Of The Fleeting BlossomÂ was reviewed on the Playstation Portable hardware. The game was provided to us by the publisher for review purposes.]