Hakuoki: Stories of the Shinsengumi is one of those rare video games that aren’t really video games at all. Actually, it’s a novel, cunningly disguised as something that you need a controller for. Occasionally the story will be interrupted with a choice for you to make, but largely the main goal is to keep on reading. It may be mainly directed at anime-obsessed women – it was all the men hitting on us that gave it away – but that doesn’t mean that it should necessarily be taken off your radar.
The adventure begins when Chizuru Yukimura leaves home after her father goes missing. Impressed with herself that she’s made it to the big city “unmolested” (their word, not ours), she promptly gets kidnapped by a gang of long haired samurai calling themselves the Shinsengumi, each with bad boy reputations and hearts of gold. Seeing them kill a trio of insane semi-zombies hungry for blood means that the gang can’t let the heroine go, but they are willing to help her find her father so long as she behaves.
Set in the 19th-century, during a massive upheaval of the Tokugawa shogunate, Hakuoki manages to be both interesting historical fiction and a decent reflection of Japanese mythology that doesn’t pull any punches for its Western audience – probably because it’s a small miracle it was ever localized in the first place. The main plot is loaded with twists and turns, betrayals, and odd allies of the sort that can only be fully realised in something that’s totally linear by design. It’s surprisingly good, although delivered in a way that can only be described as flowery.
It’s a blow-by-blow emotional rollercoaster in which we hear Chizuru Yukimura’s every thought and feeling, often described in terms of the roaring wind or blossoming petals. Written in the first person narrative, we get up close and personal with our heroine as she becomes more comfortable with the Shinsengumi and finds out more about herself. This can be like reading a page out of a teenage girl’s diary, but without the self-restraint. At its best, Hakuoki offers strong characters, amazing battles, and surprising reveals, but then it’ll slow down while the writer decides to point out, in painful detail, exactly how each event made Chizuru feel, a process that feels like someone was being paid by the word. This inflated description goes beyond character building, instead leaping headfirst into the realm of indulgence.
Funnily enough, all of this effort towards building a strong female lead is all too often knocked down by a random throwaway phrase displaying the sexism both of the time, and of certain facets of Japanese life today. You can sometimes do things with Chizuru that’s way above and beyond what would have been accepted from a woman 200 years ago, but then in her next breath, she’ll make a comment about leaving the men to do the fighting, or about needing to be protected. Maybe it’s just the protagonist's way of pulling the damsel card whenever her decisions lead murderous demons to her door – who hasn’t had to fight off denizens of the underworld two dates into a new relationship? – or perhaps it’s just uneven writing. Either way, it doesn’t happen often enough to undermine your choices or the plot, but it does lend a rather schizophrenic feel to parts of the narrative.
On the aesthetic side of things, every location and each character is gloriously drawn, and it looks fantastic on the big screen. Backdrops will pop up behind text and people will appear as they speak, but that’s about it for animation. As for length, seeing everything would take tens of hours due to the branching storyline, and then there are bonus mini-stories to unlock as well, but those hours may start to drag if you’re spending them all in front of a television. As such, those that are able to may be better off picking up the 3DS version.
The music deserves a special mention as well. While there’s really not enough of it to cover a full ten hour novel, what’s there can’t be knocked. It expertly punctuates what’s happening in the story, and, along with the artwork, really helps in setting the scene. It’s actually a rather perfect way to enjoy a good book, complete with soundtrack and watercolour backgrounds. No matter what choices you've made or which personalities are around you, they’re presented in the same top class way.
Speaking of which, it’s interesting how subtle the writers have managed to make the choices that are offered to you. There’s never a black and white decision: the men of the Shinsengumi may completely fall for you or be indifferent based on a series of completely unrelated decisions that snowball out into bigger consequences. We ended up dodging the affections of all possible romance candidates without really trying – nothing new there – and were, in truth, quite happy to get out with our reputation squeaky clean. With that said, it’s possible to come across some implied sexual content, although it’s the bad language that’s more likely to shock.
Other than the side-stories and the various versions of the novel, there’s an encyclopaedia that doesn’t really work and a timeline to help you keep track of things. But for such a long story delivered in such a strange way, it would have been nice to have some sort of catch-up option, or a more detailed explanation of events. Unfortunately, if you’re lost about something that happened several chapters earlier, your only real option is to replay it.
Hakuoki: Stories of the Shinsengumi isn’t for everybody, but you may be surprised by its appeal. It’s a decent, if slightly overindulgent novel that's presented in a way that’s hard not to love. It may be a bit rough to read all the way through while sitting in front of a big plasma screen, but those with no other choice could do much worse.