Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom
Developer: Idea Factory
Publisher: Aksys Games
Genre: Visual Novel/Adventure
Release Date: 02/14/2012
I know, right? Normally I review a game in the first week it comes out. Unfortunately for Hakuoki, it came out while I was on my honeymoon and when I came back I had other, more current games (tabletop and video game) to review. So too bad for Hakuoki. if only Aksys had sent us the review copy they said they were going to, maybe this would have been done by someone else on staff…
Out of the five known PSP releases for the year (This game, Growlanser, MLB 2k12, Gungnir and Grand Knights History, Hakuoki was the one I was most looking forward to. I love visual novels as they’re an offshoot of the adventure game genre I love so dearly. A visual novel just ditches the puzzles and hidden object scenes and concentrates solely on storytelling. The end result is basically a digital “Choose Your Own Adventure” with voice acting.
We don’t get a lot of visual novels in the states even though they’re quite popular in Japan. I’ve been playing these as far back as the Phantasy Star ones for the Game Gear, and some Sakura Taisen ones (If you want to be like Sony’s USA Dvision ancd count them here…ugh), but those are all imports. The last one to come stateside was Disgaea Infinite, and while I enjoyed it, I am still lefting wondering why this genre is so ignored in North America. Even with Hakuoki this is true, as only a half dozen or so sites bothered to review what is one of the last ever PSP UMD releases. Strange. Of course it took us two months to get someone to review this, so we’re not free from that finger pointing either…
So how was Hakuoki? Was it worth the money I dropped on the Special Edition version complete with CD and art book or did Aksys drop the ball n a genre that sorely needed to shine on this side of the Pacific?
Hakuoki takes places in the Edo period of Japan when there was a massive shakeup of the government going on. You had civil unrest, changes in how the shogunate and emperor did things, and a lot of wacky infighting. In this setting enters a young girl named Chizuru Yukimura who is looking for her missing father. Instead of finding her father however, she finds the Shinsengumi, a group of samurai working for the shoganunate. When they learn who her father is, they take her into their group as they are looking for him as well. What unfolds are roughly eight (between seven and nine depending) chapters of historical fiction and if you are lucky, romance with one of several potential love interests (All male, so no lesbian scenes for those of you hoping for that).
The core setting and storyline is okay, but the problem is that the plot doesn’t hold up if you actually pay attention to it. The father of the protagonists turns out to be a bad guy – but then his previous actions of helping the Shinsengumi or even raising Chizuru lovingly make no sense and are completely at odds with what he does throughout the game. Characters drastically change personality with little to no warning and without a satisfactory explanation, this should leave most gamers who care about the plot cold. This is unfortunate – as the entire game is all plot.
You go through eight chapters – most of which is a passive experience. However, at times you’ll be asked to make a choice that determines where the chapter goes as well as who your character does (or does not) begin to have a relationship with. After the first three chapters, the game checks to see who you have the strongest relationship with and the next five chapters are specifically attached to that character. From there, depending on how strong your relationship is determines if you get an ending or a game over. Rinse and repeat to see who you end up with next time.
There are lots of errors in the game as well – many of which I have to chalk up to a pretty poor localization attempt by Aksys. There are numerous spelling errors and typos throughout the game, which makes Aksys look pretty unprofessional. More than once I saw a date referred to as 1968 instead of 1868. I saw locations, names and more misspelled. We have things incorrectly translated or outright dumbed down from the original concepts, like demons instead of Oni or “furies” instead of Rasetsu. I understand that English to Japanese can be a bit tricky to do, but this is a company that professionally localizes games in 2012. This isn’t say “Jushin Liger Vs. Jushin Lyger.” This is a professionally published game, but the whole affair comes off sloppy.
Parts of the game are also excised from the English version – most notably the extra story sections that were in the Japanese once you finished a character’s storyline. You can get some CG, but none of the substance. Again, as a visual novel is all about the story, I found it odd and disconcerting that the Aksys would take out chunks of well…THE ENDINGS.
One area I really liked was how much history was left intact in the game. You get dates, names, and events that actually happened in real life. I think if they had just stuck with that, the game would have been a lot better. I didn’t care for the added “OMG! I’m like a vampire/ghoul/zombie hybrid now. Behold my angst” that was thrown in unnecessarily. The time period and characters stand on their own and the events in the era as so tumultuous that the added Oni/Rasetsu relationship bit feels cheaply tacked on. The game would work just as well if everyone just stayed human.
All in all, even though this is one of the lesser visual novel titles, what’s here is…okay. Under another publisher that didn’t half-ass the localization (Which is odd as Aksys usually does an amazing job)or cut chunks of the endings out, the game could have been okay. I’d have probably with a different title from the genre to start things off, as Fleeting Blossom is very slow and dry compared to the others.
All in all, what here is decent. It’s not very good, especially compared to a lot of other visual novel or Otome titles and Aksys did a truly terrible job with the translation and localization. Unfortunately, we don’t have many other options for visual novels in English unless you are a PC gamer. I didn’t hate it, but I know the whole affair could have been a lot better than what we got. It’s releases like this that ensure visual novels will stay a niche genre in North America for some time to come.
Story Rating: Decent
As this is a visual novel, don’t expect any real animation in the game. You get static backgrounds, static character portraits (although a lot of these) and occasionally a full screen beautifully rendered static image that designates something important has happened. This is not unlike many old school point and click adventure games, but even those have some animation or interactive backgrounds. This means almost all of Hakuoki is reading, reading and more reading, with images as an afterthought. Now as far as static images go, what’s here is quite pretty. Every character gets multiple portraits and the artwork is exceptional. It’s just too bad there isn’t more substance to what’s here, especially since Idea Factory is the company that pushed away from static images in favor of animated characters that move rather than just sit there on the screen as talking heads. So visually, while what’s here is nice to look at, it’s a few step backs from what Idea Factory has been doing for well over half a decade now.
Again, what’s here is decent, especially if you’re new to Idea Factory or visual novels, but fans of either with notice this is a bit lackluster compared to what all is out there. Again, a little more work could have made this significantly better. What’s here is fine, but the genre and especially the developer are known for better.
Graphics Rating: Decent
I was quite pleased that the game kept the full voice acting cast intact from the Japanese release. Hakuoki has some pretty big name voice actors attached to it and they all do a pretty good job here. The audio on the voice acting can be quite low compared to other PSP titles, so unless you turn it up (either in the options or with the volume button) it may come off a bit muffled or like they are mumbling. Unfortunately for people that like English voice acting, that’s not an option here. If you can’t understand Japanese, you’re stuck reading the text and listening to the voice acting merely for emotional emphasis . This is a pretty long game and nearly every line is voice acted (save for the protagonists), so the lack of an English voice acting cast may be a deal breaker for some – I get that. For everyone else, you’ve got a strong cast that you might not be able to understand, but at least it provides ambience.
The soundtrack to the game is okay. It’s nothing amazing, and I’m surprised Aksys pushed the soundtrack as a big bonus with the special edition, but it’s serene elevator music. Nothing more, nothing less. I can’t say any of the tracks grabbed me or that the score enthralled me in anyway, but it was decent enough background music as I played through the game a few times, trying to decide what to do and who to hook up with next. All in all, another decent job, but this could have been better. I’m fine with the Japanese cast, but an American cast could have brought in those that want dubs instead of subs. The catch is that it probably wouldn’t have brought in enough new purchasers to offset the cost however…
Sound Rating: Decent
4. Control and Gameplay
There really isn’t a lot to take about here. Most of the game is just pressing the X button to move the text on after you’ve read it. Occasionally you get a more active role by making a choice from two or three options. The choice then dictates what part of the action you’ve seen and may also raise the Romance or Corruption levels of a character if it is appropriate. Now because the game is so passive, some gamers might find the entire affair boring. I can’t blame them. I like visual novels a lot, but I understand the need for something a bit more immersive when it comes to a video game. However, the best advice I can give for those people is to view the game as an electronic “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. If that doesn’t interest you, don’t get it. It’s that simple.
The game keeps track of a lot of terms, phrases and other assorted jargon specific to this era of Japanese history in the glossary. You can press triangle at any time to read the Encyclopedia and get a definition of a term, name or location. You can also choose the next option down to see how you are doing with each character. You’ve give a rather simple line that tells you how each character is progressing in terms of falling in love with the protagonist or going insane with undead bloodlust rage (Depending on the character). All in all, a very simple game to play through and understand. There’s not much too it, but then there really doesn’t need to be.
Control and Gameplay Rating: Good
There are well over a dozen endings to Hakuoki. These are based on the various relationships you form and how close said relationship is. If it’s too low, you’ll get a game over, but if it is high enough, you’ll get a nifty ending – albeit it one noticeably edited from the original Japanese version. Once done, you can either replay from the beginning to try a new route, or go back via the “Record of Service” to start from a specific point and perhaps see what you missed by trying different branches. The game is quite long and very wordy, so action oriented gamers probably won’t be playing this several times in a row. Visual Novel and adventure game fans may get a lot of use out of Hakuoki after all. I myself played through three endings before I felt it was time to review it. I can honestly say Hakuoki isn’t my favorite visual novel and it’s not even a game I’ll consider keeping in my permanent collection, but it is one that offers a ton of replay value if you enjoy the cast and characters.
Replayability Rating: Good
One would probably assume that a visual novel is a well balanced piece of work, but oddly enough, that isn’t the case. Much like an old Roberta Williams adventure game, you can easily get stuck to where it is impossible to proceed any further on the path you’ve chosen. If your romance level with the character you are paired with is not high enough, you’ll get a game over bad ending and thus be forced to start at the very beginning of the game. You can try the Record of Service option, but without knowing how far back you need to go to fix things, the same issue might come creeping up over and over again, causing you to waste time in perpetuity. Even weirder, each potential love interest has a different Romance threshold you might need to be at(or beat) in order to get a proper ending. Some characters only require a rating of three while other might require as much as six points of Romance. As there is no way to tell when you will be able to raise romance without a FAQ, the game becomes little more than trial and error when you go back a little ways to see if that changes something and, if not, then you go back a little further. So on and so forth.
All in all, if you’re not prepared for the possibility of being stuck in a no-win situation where your only option is which way to die horribly, Hakuoki will probably be quite frustrating for you. That’s an odd thing to say about a visual novel, but it is in fact so. Just be prepared to backtrack and possibly even have several save files going if your goal is to “beat” “Hakuoki.”
Balance Rating: Decent
Let’s be honest. Hakuoki doesn’t really do anything to separate itself from the large pack of visual novels over in Japan. It’s roughly the same format but without the bells and whistles many of them have. There are many better choices out there – but only if you speak and/or read Japanese. In the US this is a bit of a novelty, although an overpriced one compared to things like Disgaea Infinite that have actually made it stateside. That said, there aren’t too many visual novels with a dating sim aspect where you are playing as a female protagonist that have made it stateside. That’s for sure.
At the same time, Idea Factory has re-released Hakuoki more times than Capcom has done some Street Fighter games. It’s on the PS2, the PS3, the DS, the 3DS and the PSP. All roughly the same game. Sure it’s neat that it’s available stateside but man, Aksys should have gone for a version that would allow a larger user base as the PSP is pretty much dead. Either Nintendo handhed could have opened the series up to a much larger audience. So many odd choices by Aksys here.
So, this is yet another version of a game that has been re-released to death and it’s one of a zillion other visual novels out there. I can’t really give it too high of marks here.
Originality Rating: Bad
I neither enjoyed nor disliked this game. I was happy to see another visual novel get localized, but there were dozens that I’d have wanted before Hakuoki ever would have sprung to mind. Toradora Portable maybe>? I found myself more annoyed than anything due to the poor localization, missing ending content and other strange things in the North American version, but at the same time I was happy to see something like this make it stateside. It’s something I’m glad I’ve played, but it’s not something I’ll ever actively seek out to experience again. It was forgettable and uneventful, but hopefully a sign that bigger and better visual novels can succeed in the US.
Addictiveness Rating: Mediocre
9. Appeal Factor
As I said earlier, Hakuoki was an odd choice to bring over, especially the PSP version. The PSP has been all but dead for well over a year and Sony’s focus is the PS Vita these days, although that’s going down the same dark road the PSP travelled too…
A visual novel feels more at home on either of the current Nintendo handhelds, if only because there is a proven track record of success for the genre here. In North America, the PSP really doesn’t have any stand out successes in the genre unless you count Disgaea Infinite and I don’t even think Nippon Ichi does. I do disagree with some people’s assessment that bringing over an Otome game (dating sim oriented towards female gamers) was a mistake. After all, how is playing as a girl and developing a romance with a male character odd? It’s doable in most Bioware games. Hell, no one complains when you play as Lara Croft or some other female protagonist when they develop a relationship with a male NPC. How is this any different? I’m glad that Aksys brought some Otome game over as it’s nice to see someone trying to court the female audience, even if I’d have picked a different game to test that market with.
At the end of the day Aksys has brought over a horribly done localized version of a game in a genre that is all but unheard of in the US to a system that is all but dead to developers and gamers. How successful did they think this undertaking would be? Unless you’re blindly loyal to Aksys or the visual novel genre, you’re probably not going to have a reason to pick this up. Again, there are better Aksys titles, better visual novels, and hell, even better Aksys published visual novel titles out there for current systems. I suppose if you really want a dating sim full of static pictures where nothing romantic or sexual happens, here’s your fix.
Appeal Factor: Bad
Sadly, as much as I was hopeful about how this game would go, Hakuoki is a failed experiment on nearly every level. If Aksys had tried a little harder or done a better job with the localization and they had chosen one of the other forms of the game, it might have sold better or made a bigger splash. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen and other publishers are going to look at this and say, “Visual Novels don’t sell in America” even though the correct answer would be, “Badly done localizations for a dead system don’t sell.” That would be like someone saying, “Dux for the Dreamcast didn’t sell over 100,000 copies so obviously traditional shooters don’t sell anymore.” even though we’d be talking about a indie game released for a system seven years after its official demise.
So props to Aksys for selling to the people who are still faithful to the PSP, to the Otome audience, to the visual novel audience and to the Idea Factory audience as this is one of the rare games Nippon Ichi didn’t publish stateside for them (Doubly odd as there is an anime of the series – something Nippon Ichi also publishes.
At the end of the day, Hakouki was a nice idea, but the follow through was messed up in multiple ways. Here’s hoping next time a visual novel is brought over, it’s a better title and done with more care.
Miscellaneous Rating: Mediocre
Control and Gameplay: Good
Appeal Factor: Bad
FINAL SCORE: Decent Game!
Short Attention Span Summary
Hakluoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom was definitely an odd choice of a game to localize. There are better visual novels out there, even ones for an all but abandoned system like the PSP. Hell, there are even better versions of this game for other systems out there. Aksys bringing over a niche genre to a system that even Sony stopped supporting is an odd choice; doubly so when you realize that Aksys did a pretty bad job with the localization, filling the game with spelling errors, grammatical mistakes, incorrect translations and even outright typos. They even cut out some of the end game content for some non-understandable reason. If you’re a visual novel fanatic, you can at least rejoice that another of these games made it to North America but you’ll also be disappointed in the end product if you pay enough attention. I’m glad I got to experience this as I’m a fan of the genre, but after having played through it I can safely say there are better and cheaper choices in the English language out there -so you may want to go with one of those instead.