Inside Pulse 12

Review: Hakuoki: Stories of the Shinsengumi (Sony PlayStation 3)

Hakuoki: Memories of the Shinsengumi
Developer: Idea Factory
Publisher: Aksys
Genre: Visual Novel
Release Date: 05/06/2014

It seems pretty feudal samurais have become a franchise for Aksys. When they released Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom, it seemed like a bit of a risky move, given it’s a visual novel and an otome. However, it apparently paid off enough for them to release the Musou-esque spinoff Warriors of the Shinsengumi. Then this past September, they released a second version of the original visual novel (with a few little extras), Memories of the Shinsengumi. This month, Stories of the Shinsengumi is the third version of the original visual novel, but it comes with the Zuisoroku fandisc and DLC, but does that provide enough new content to merit a triple dip?

Since the plot of the main game is unchanged, I’ll repeat what I said in my review of the 3DS version, with minor additions:

The story is the same as it was in the PSP (and 3DS) versions of the game. You play as Chizuru Yukimura (you can change her given name), whose father leaves for a trip and goes missing. After letters from him stop coming, Chizuru heads out to try and search for him, but ends up tangled with the Shinsengumi after being at the wrong place at the wrong time. She gradually develops a place with them and eventually a relationship with one of them (unless you go with Kazama). It takes place during the Bakamatsu, and major battles and political intrigue (the conflict between imperial nationalists and the shogunate forces, attitudes towards foreign influence) feature heavily in the plot. While some events are true to history, there’s also creative liberties taken to fit Chizuru and supernatural elements like the demons into things (and also to explain how certain people who should’ve been dead stay around after the event they died at in real life). Although you can get with one of the guys, the relationship aspect mostly takes a backseat to everything else going on and develops gradually. Some of the choices you make don’t seem directly related to getting closer with a guy, but they do develop Chizuru as a character and can end up impressing one of them. The romantic aspects develop gradually and come more into focus towards the end of a guy’s route, so that part is there for those looking for that.

New to the PS3 version is the Stories mode, which contains the content of the Zuisouroku fandisc and adds a hefty amount of content. They take place at different points in the main story, and there’s a brief summary at beginning of each that place them chronologically so you’re not lost on the context for them. For the main guys, they act as expansions for their routes in the main game (Kazama’s especially needed it since his route is so short) and yes, more sappy moments (this is an otome, after all). Other characters who don’t have their own route in the main game get further fleshed out as well. In addition to the six romanceable guys, there’s also stories for Yamazaki, Shinpachi, Sanan, and Kondou. Some of them mainly serve more to expand on what’s presented in the main game rather than introduce new information, but they provide more insight on how the characters who don’t otherwise get much focus relate to Chizuru and each other. There’s also a couple of scenes that expounds a bit on Chizuru’s background and ancestors. There’s a mix of serious and light hearted interactions, which help shape character development. A lot of the stories are essentially slices of life depicting everyday life during Chizuru’s time with the Shinsengumi and how they grow to trust and bond with her over time. If you haven’t played through the main story in any version, I’d suggest playing through at least once first (ideally all the routes, though I’m well aware not everyone will be patient enough for that), because the side stories contains spoilers, and you’ll get more out of knowing the full context behind those scenes. There was one scene in the anime I would’ve liked to see here, but given that this game was initially released (in Japan, that is) before the anime, it’s understandable why it’s not here.

In stories mode there are cherry blossom petals that can be found in each story. Instead of acting as indicators of a romance point gain like in the main game, they are used to bloom the Ephemera tree. More stories are be unlocked as you accumulate more petals and the tree blooms. However, you can only obtain petals from each event once, so no grinding one event to accrue enough petals. In addition to other side stories, at each level of bloom you unlock an episode for Sweet School Life (SSL). Sweet School Life a series of short stories that feature the characters in a modern day high school and starts out much like your typical high school centric anime, with Chizuru and Heisuke (who’s her childhood friend in this alternate universe) running late for anime school (complete with toast in mouth). From there it’s mostly lighthearted hijinks (and things like this). It might seem a bit strange to see these characters in a completely different context, but it is a nice reprieve from the heavier moments in the main story (and it’s amusing to see Okita can still be a master troll in any universe). Note that the SSL in this game is not the same as the SSL game released for the Vita – these are just short scenes.

There are a few scattered typos (e.g. “I’m sure they’ll fine something soon”,  “You can’t guaranteed that” “as I watched his receeding back”) throughout the text. The script in the main game’s exactly the same, including the typos there (like the Edo/Kyoto thing I mentioned in my review of Memories). However, those instances are few and far between, which is still a feat given the amount of text in this game, and even the spots with typos like those are still easy to understand.

The portraits and art are much the same as previous versions, but they look nice on a large screen. While the graphics don’t come close to pushing the PS3’s graphical limits, there are some touches that differentiate it from its portable predecessors. Thanks to a AAS (Active Animation System), character portraits are more animated and look more vibrant, with breathing, blinking, mouth movements. However, there’s little things I noticed. Kimigiku, Inoue, Itou, and Shimada’s portrait lacks mouth movement for some expressions (mostly ones with teeth showing like smiling), with none that I could see on Kimigiku and Itou. While these characters aren’t as front and center as the main six, and it ultimately doesn’t detract much from the overall presentation (given that there were no movements in the portraits anyway in the PSP and 3DS versions), it’s still noticeable when compared to other characters that do have mouth movements. Even with characters who do have mouth movements in all their portraits, some expressions make it look like they’re speaking through clenched teeth. While there were little effects in some CGs in the 3DS version, there are more effects in the background like smoke from fires and falling sakura petals in regular story scenes.

The soundtrack is also much the same as in the previous versions. They’re easy on the ears and suited to the contexts they play in, but they repeat a lot. After a while, they faded into the background, though I still like the main menu theme. I think I heard a new track in some of the stories (at least, I don’t remember it from the previous versions), but that’s about the only difference I could detect. The voices are also the same as in the previous versions and Japanese only. Even without understanding the language, emotion (and drunken slurring) still come across. At the end of a guy’s stories route a letter from them unlocks, and Chizuru’s name voiced in letter. However, it’s not voiced anywhere else since normally you get the option to change her given name. There are no voices in SSL, which might seem odd given the rest of the game is fully voiced acted (Chizuru aside), but it does really set SSL apart from the rest of the game, and those episodes are short enough that it doesn’t make much of a difference (though it would’ve been funny to hear some of those lines voiced, like the third episode).

Since this is purely a visual novel, the only gameplay involved is reading through text and choosing from a set of options at certain points. If you’ve played the PSP version the controls are essentially the same, save for the additional two shoulder buttons. L2 quick saves while R2 quick loads said save. Start toggles auto advancement of the text. L1 opens text log so you can review prior text if you miss something or want to read something again. Square fast forwards or skips only read text (select toggles between the two), X advances text, O hides the text box, and triangle opens menu. When a new term comes up you can press down on the d-pad to see it in the encyclopedia, which is a convenient shortcut if you don’t feel like opening the menu to get to the encyclopedia to look for that new entry. In the 3DS version there were truncated entries, but that problem does not exist in this version, probably thanks to there being a lot more screen estate on a TV than the 3DS screen.

There are two galleries and theaters, one for the main game and one for the Stories portions. You’ll need multiple playthroughs to unlock everything in both galleries and theaters as well as to see what’s in all the routes. You’ll also need to play though the first two Shinsengumi Adventures multiple times to unlock the rest. That’s not as monotonous as it sounds, as you do get very different scenes depending on the options you pick, and I happened to really enjoy those (watching normally gruff and tough warriors chase a cat and react to Chizuru being gussied up as a geisha are quite amusing). If you’re a completionist (and want that platinum), it should keep you busy for a while.

Like with the previous versions, Hakuoki is a fairly niche title given it’s purely a visual novel and it involves wooing pretty feudal boys. That being said, it does have a few things going for it that could appeal to demographics one might not initially associate with an otome – it does have the romance (moreso later in the routes when the guy’s warmed up to Chizuru), it follows some key events of the Bakamatsu period, and there’s also fight scenes (some which involve blood). If you really need something with more action than pressing a button to advance text and make a decision, there’s Warriors, though that’s far thinner on the story than the visual novel iterations.

There’s not a lot of ways you can irrevocably screw anything up – you can even toggle the little sakura petal animation on and off (keeping it on does provide a handy indicator for when you did choose well). Even if you do make a wrong decision, you can always go back and choose differently. A good rule of thumb is to make a save (at least a quick one) right before a decision. Do note that in the main game, you do need the romance level to be maxed (and corruption level for certain routes to be low) to get the good ending for that route. Even if you do mess up to the point you don’t know where you chose wrong, fast forwarding the text makes backtracking and getting back to where you were faster.

The photo booth from the 3DS version is not present here, which is kind of a given since the PS3 doesn’t have a camera (unless you have a PlayStation Eye, but I don’t know of anyone who does). The short stories in Memories are available as DLC for $2.99 per story. While charging for content that was free in another version of the game doesn’t sit right with me, they are at least available for those who don’t have a 3DS and/or don’t feel like shelling out for two versions of the game. However, if you have the 3DS version of this game, I’d recommend just viewing them in that version instead of shelling out for them here. If you go for any of the DLC, I’d recommend prioritizing the ones that are exclusive to this version. Some might feel that the DLC is a bit too rich for their blood, but even without the paid DLC, there’s plenty of content between the core game and the free DLC, especially if you’re playing this for the first time. Even if you did play a previous version, this version has a lot of new content to justify picking it up, especially if you’re coming from the PSP version (and even the 3DS version, though a little bit to a lesser extent). Still, I’m glad to see that releasing visual novels like this has proved lucrative enough for Aksys that they continue to do so. Perhaps Reimeiroku (which also has a PS3 version) or the Toki no Kizuna spinoff?

Short Attention Span Summary:
While it might seem a bit much for the same game to get three different releases (two coming out within six months of each other), Hakuoki: Stories of the Shinsengumi has enough new content that it feels like two games in one (OK, it is, but you get the point) instead of a simple rehashed port. While the overall presentation remains the same, the character portraits get a bit of life breathed into them through AAS, which makes them seem less static with blinking, mouth, and, well, breathing movements. If you haven’t played any version of Hakuoki, I’d strongly recommend this version over the others because of the additional content (and if you can swing it, the Limited Edition does have some nice extras if you’re into those sorts of things).