While we’ve seen all sorts of titles make their way to Nintendo systems in recent years, one genre that’s been distinctly underrepresented - and largely confined to PlayStation Vita - are otome games: romance titles starring female protagonists and marketed to women. D3 Publisher’s The Men Of Yoshiwara: Kikuya is the first title on Switch to fill that role, and it’s an excellent and welcome start. An otome visual novel with a mature theme, erotic elements, and a well-rounded cast of courtesans to romance, it’s an enjoyable game and - occasional issues with the script and a bit of a budget feel aside - an easy recommendation if you've played something similar before.
The Men Of Yoshiwara: Kikuya opens as you, the heroine, sets out on an errand to deliver a package, on an island where all men work exclusively as courtesans, and women hold all other posts. On the way to your destination, you encounter a woman and her still-indentured lover attempting to elope to freedom on the mainland - a crime not met with leniency on this alternate-reality island. Moved by their plight, you help them find a boat to escape, and then take refuge in Kikuya, the titular house of ill repute where you meet the game’s six romanceable courtesans for the first time.
As well as starting you off on the lam, this intriguing setup also leaves you wide-open in terms of who to romance. There’s Takao, the tall, confident, and cocky courtesan who won’t let you forget he’s the house favourite; Kagura, a calm, refined gentleman skilled in dance, calligraphy, and other classical entertaining arts; Tokiwa, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and endlessly flirty foreigner; Kagerou, Kagura’s novice apprentice and the resident sourpuss; Iroha, Kikuya’s older, somewhat mysterious leader with a serious secret; and Hayabusa, the protagonist’s childhood friend and one-time boy next door.
There’s quite a lot of variety in the different courtesans at Kikuya, and it’s also easy to get to know them all. Unlike many otome games, where you’ll pick different ‘routes’ (and who your character falls in love with) based on in-game dialogue choices and triggering different event flags, in The Men Of Yoshiwara, you simply select your path from a menu. After completing the prologue, which sets up the story and introduces you to the courtesans, you’re free to jump around between all six routes as you like, with a bevy of save slots making it easy to bookmark your progress. As you read through each route, you’ll be presented with occasional dialogue choices. Your responses determine minor differences in the conversation, as well as your ‘likability rating’ with your current partner; higher levels of likability unlock more event CGs and different endings.
As you might imagine, this ends up being quite a lot of courting; each courtesan has a 13-chapter main story, an epilogue, and a separate ‘date event’ to his name. Chapters are bite-sized reads, between five and 15 minutes apiece, and each character’s route rounds off to a very respectable two hours or so - a nice length that doesn’t feel either drawn out or rushed. There are also a handful of extra ‘side stories’ that act as additional epilogues for a few of the bachelors, with the welcome feel of fan-service DLC.
Of course, as with any story, a visual novel is best judged by how enjoyable it is to read, not how long that reading takes, and The Men Of Yoshiwara (mostly) provides the quality to back up its quantity. The characters are distinct and well drawn, and each individual route features notable character development - either for your chosen bachelor, the protagonist, or both - as well as lots of steamy payoff throughout.
And it certainly is steamy! The Men Of Yoshiwara: Kikuya easily earns its Mature rating through prose alone, from suggestive innuendo all the way through to outright raunch, and there are scores of scenes engineered to make you blush. On the subject of blushing, it’s worth noting that the sex scenes tend to be written from the 'innocent heroine embarrassed at her lover’s boldness' perspective, so if that take-charge approach is (or isn’t) your kink, you may be more (or less) inclined to enjoy what’s on offer at Kikuya.
The writing itself is generally of a good standard, and while it’s not the most memorable or literarily ambitious visual novel we’ve come across, it’s still an enjoyable read free of the awkward wording or sentence structures that can plague poorly translated titles. The sole exception is that some of the side stories are of a significantly lesser standard, poorly written and puzzlingly phrased. It’s particularly notable since these side stories tend towards the more explicit end of things, and there’s no turn off quite like a lack of quality control. Apart from those unfortunate dips, we also encountered the odd encoding issue throughout - being introduced as 'SleeperMorgan' and once as '.', for instance - but overall, the main story is well written and error-free.
Aesthetically, The Men Of Yoshiwara relies on an appealing neon-and-sakura effect. It’s colourful and sleek, with both traditional Japanese and modern fantasy trappings. The character portraits are the main focus, and they’re very well done, with particular attention paid to the courtesans’ elaborate kimonos. The CGs you’ll unlock as you play are also impressive, with a warm watercolour style that fits the tone of the story. Less memorable are the generic-looking backgrounds, which feel sparse and distinctly low-budget. The game also suffers from characters beyond the main bachelors being completely invisible, which unfortunately highlights those backgrounds during many scenes.
The music follows the same modern-traditional style as the visuals: wistful melodies in pentatonic scales played on synth-kotos and backed by strings and digital percussion. It’s nice, but there’s not very much of it, and over the course of even a single route the soundtrack becomes rather repetitive; transitions between pieces are also awkwardly jarring. There’s no voice acting, which is a shame, and sound effects are minimal, but that also means you can play without audio and still get nearly the full experience — a boon for quick reading on a commute or lunch break.
As the first otome game on Switch, Men Of Yoshiwara: Kikuya is both excellent proof of concept and an enjoyable piece of electronic erotica in its own right. With a memorable cast of courtesans, a generous amount of content split over several discrete routes and sub-scenarios, and affection-based unlockables, there’s plenty here to keep you busy and blushing. The backgrounds and music give off a bit of a budget feel, and occasional text encoding issues and some steep (but infrequent) quality drops are blemishes on an otherwise well-written script, but overall, we’d certainly recommend a trip to Kikuya for otome fans.