Hakuoki: Memories of the Shinsengumi combines standard dating-sim tropes with a captivating setting and fantastic writing to provide an experience that is surprisingly greater than the sum of its parts — even if it may fall far out of the comfort zone of most players.
When meek protagonist Chizuru ventures to Kyoto in search of her missing father and immediately witnesses a bloody murder, she soon finds herself the unwilling house guest of the Shinsengumi, an improvised police force comprised entirely of samurai. As both political shifts and supernatural occurrences threaten the Shinsengumi’s ideology, Chizuru must find her place within the group and co-operate with her pseudo-captors in exchange for assistance in locating her errant pa — whilst developing a serious case of Stockholm Syndrome in the interim, naturally.
Hakuoki is steeped in the rich history of the Japanese feudal era, making for a fascinating premise but immediately feeling somewhat alien to Western audiences. Thankfully, an extensive encyclopaedia regarding the setting and characters is constantly updated as the game progresses and new concepts are introduced, detailing everything from feudal Japan’s political structure to the many locales the story spans. This allows Hakuoki’s writing to flow naturally, permitting deeper character development and nuance in dialogue where otherwise further exposition and explanation would be required.
The writing in Hakuoki is exceptional; the plot unfolds at a natural pace, feeling neither forced nor belaboured, whilst the characters are unique and memorable. Each of the main cast is provided with a decent amount of character development, with Chizuru herself proving to be a likeable and interesting protagonist. Each setting is described in exquisite detail, each battle relayed with literary finesse. Hakuoki isn’t well-written ‘for a video game’, but well written period. The only ire to be drawn from the game’s story is from its linearity – Hakuoki helpfully provides a quick save/load function, effectively allowing save states, but in doing so highlights the lack of impact the player’s choices ultimately have on the plot. Beyond superficial changes the game’s sweeping narrative marches on regardless, with Chizuru powerless to have any worthwhile influence until the game’s closing hours. Resetting a decision made to find the result is the same regardless clarifies how little Hakuoki values the player’s input. This is not a huge point of contention for a first play-through, but anyone enamoured with the story the first time round may find themselves disappointed in how little they can actually change on a second attempt.
Hakuoki’s biggest flaw is that it relies somewhat too heavily on its laudable script; the accompanying visual imagery can be somewhat generic and unvaried in comparison, and presentation is clearly not the game’s forté. Characters each have a handful of different sprites displaying various emotions, sliding on to the screen lazily like an Edo-era Powerpoint presentation. Even the game’s introductory sequence is comprised entirely of still images; befitting of the game’s focus on the written word perhaps, but lacking in visual spectacle nonetheless. As a genre, the visual novel is not entirely conducive to wowing with visual flair, but developer Idea Factory has done itself no favours here. If Capcom’s rival visual novel series Ace Attorney were akin to a graphic novel, Hakuoki would be a thick textbook with very few, unimpressive pictures.
Hakuoki’s soundtrack is similar; entirely adequate, but lacking in polish and far from memorable. Worth noting however is the inclusion of full (Japanese) voice acting for the cast, which — whilst perhaps not immediately useful to the average Western player — does greatly assist in providing authenticity for the setting.
A player unfamiliar with this genre could be forgiven for having reservations on the premise of this game – as a Western audience our exposure to romantic visual-novel adventures is minimal, much less one where the player serves the role of the female lead. Thankfully, these misgivings are entirely unfounded; whilst the relationship-forging is obviously a focus in the experience, these aspects are presented in an unobtrusive manner with a light touch. Albeit lacking in overall impact, player choices serve to drive the gripping storyline and make sense in the flow of the plot, rarely feeling like a thinly veiled juncture for the player to decide which of the young warriors is the cutest. Chizuru’s decision may lack gravitas in regards to affecting the overall outcome of the narrative, but it comes as a relief that her quandaries come from her quest to locate her father, not her infatuations with the cast of samurai.
Beyond some minor technical issues (such as encyclopedia entries occasionally cutting off midsentence), ineffective use of the 3DS’ stereoscopic capabilities (understandably) and somewhat lacklustre extras (a photo booth where the player can have their photo taken with their chosen beau) there is very little to complain about with Hakuoki. Perhaps not a ‘game’ in the strictest sense of the word, Hakuoki excels when judged on its own merits, not on the things it doesn’t do. Those willing to set aside their preconceptions of visual novels might just find that Hakuoki is a thrilling, engaging, delightful experience. Gamers looking to try something new may just find this gem will become their favourite book on the 3DS, but those looking for an adventure wherein they can make meaningful choices may find themselves disappointed in Hakuoki’s rigid structure.