Visual novels are rare in North America, especially the dating game types. Recently, Aksys took one hell of a risk to localize Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom, the first of the Hakuoki game franchise from Idea Factory. Hakuoki, however, isn’t like most dating games that most people might associate as one of those hentai or sex games for males. Instead, it's geared towards the female audience and is closer to a young adult romance novel than that graphic best selling novel, Fifty Shades of Grey. So, no graphic scenes or dialogue in this game; instead, it’s simply filled with gorgeously drawn men and a story that draws out tears. more in the vein of a romance tearjerker.
Hakuoki follows the career path of the Shinsengumi, a group fueled by samurai traditions and a deep loyalty to the Shogunate, in terms of protecting the streets of Kyoto from ronins and other rouge soldiers that are terrorizing citizens. It’s main setting, however, is during the end of Japan’s Edo period, more known as the end of the 200-year rule of the shogunate. Therefore, the storyline focuses on the fall of the Shinsengumi and the dark supernatural secrets it holds.
Players play as Chizuru Yukimura, a young woman who is looking for her missing father in Kyoto. During her search, she stumbles upon the Shinsengumi and meets six eligible bachelors. Five of these men are actually commanders of the Shinsengumi, and the sixth is one of the antagonists of the game. (Yes, that’s right. You can even attempt to woo the bad guy.) There are plenty of other men to ogle at too, but sadly they’re not available for romancing. In some cases, it makes sense since a few of them are married men or players who are visiting the red light district for some "fun." Can’t have a home-wrecking protagonist or an unfaithful man as part of the main romance story.
Aksys smartly chose to keep the original Japanese voice acting. Also, the artwork quality is also impeccable and gorgeous, which is a must. (Who wants to go through a dating game with ugly drawn men?)
The main concept of the game, or any otome game in general, is to end up romancing one of the eligible men. In this case, the options are: Toshizo Hijikata, the man who is more in love with his work than anything else around him; Souji Okita, the Joker who is terminally ill; Hajime Saito, the loyal emo; Heisuke Toudou, the Justin Beiber meets visual Kei (but in the end. actually more of a Justin Timberlake character); Sanosuke Harada, the frat boy who is always being cock-blocked by his best friend Shinpachi Nagakura; and Chikage Kazama, a psychotic maniac douche-bag when you’re “pursuing” the others, but a gentleman if you’re not.
Interestingly this game doesn’t really have much of a romance aspect to it. Players are not really romancing a man, but rather choosing certain decisions that ultimately decide the fate of the men and the Shinsengumi. The men just happen to fall in love with you, as you tag along in their battles and deal with other issues that the Shinsengumi have to handle -- one of which consists of them becoming demonic vampiric zombies.
[Minor spoiler alerts ahead] One of the biggest surprises within the game, besides the subtleness of the romance, is how utterly tragic the entire story can be. Even the happy endings are not exactly happy-go-lucky. The Grimm fairytales have more happy endings than Hakuoki, which consists of two different endings for each of the eligible men. One is the “good ending," which has both you as Chizuru and the man of your choice (or just happen to end up with) alive in the end. The other is the “bad ending,” where you both end up dead. I originally expected the endings would fall more into the “end up with the guy or not” scenarios, but instead got mixed up in a horror survival story, rather than a simple romance. The only romance aspect that has any relevance with your mortality are the love meters that determine your fate. If the meter is high, regarding how much he likes you, then you’ll end up surviving, but if not, well you end up dead.
But even if you end up alive at the end, it doesn't mean that all is well. The big reveal about Chizuru and the men in the game who become vampiric zombies is that they all pretty much have a death sentence of some sort. In other words, immortality doesn’t exist in this world. Men either die in the civil war in Japan between the loyalists of the Shogunate and the Emperor’s Imperial Army, or they end up dying due to the curse of becoming real demons themselves. There are even some cases where literally everyone perishes except for the protagonist. [Minor spoiler alerts over]
Overall, be prepared for a game that is filled with tragedy and sorrow. This isn't a game where the worst thing that can happen is that you end up alone and broken-hearted. On one hand, it’s a fairytale, where a young woman is trying to find not only her identity, but also love. On the other hand, this love doesn’t have a happy-ever-after ending; instead, it still tells an unexpected, bittersweet, and action-packed war story that is just as encompassing as any best-seller novel.
Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom was released in North America on February 2012.
The third series of the anime adaptation, Hakuouki Reimeiroku, will be released in Japan in the Summer 2012, and two films are scheduled for 2013. For more information, go to Hakuoki's official English website.