Hakuōki: What a beautiful way to die
Platform: PS3 (special guest appearance by the PSP version on Vita)
So here’s the thing. I’ve had about 70% of Log Horizon sitting in my drafts queue for weeks. But I haven’t felt much like writing because Hakuōki was happening. (Also Gintama. For those of you counting, I’m on 190.)
So, since this is a Japanese game based in Japanese history, seems like a valid thing for me to report on. The subject is a major piece of cultural identity; if you’re Japanese, you know who these people are. You recognize the haori, you can name most (if not all) of the captains, you know when and where they operated. You know their values and what they stood for. You know how the chief died, you know the vice-chief’s nickname, you know the 1st division captain’s deal. But Hakuōki is an otome game, meaning aimed at women, meaning hot anime dudes abound . . . meaning the history must be taken with rock-sized grains of salt. As for mechanics, it’s a visual novel, meaning just what it sounds like—lots of reading (choose-your-own-adventure style), accompanied by static images and voice acting. And as for genre, it is primarily an historical fantasy with romance elements.
So. Yeah. Cheese factor? High. It diminishes over time, but in the end I still felt wicked uncomfortable when the roommates walked through the living room as I played. (I was lucky in that the chick roommate introduced me to this, so there were plenty of in-jokes and passionate discussions throughout.) Embarrassing, maybe, but this is nowhere close to a hentai title, and is in fact a worthy lesson in Bakumatsu history for the non-Japanese. With that salt lick in hand, of course.
The game’s name is translated as “demon of the fleeting blossom”, alluding to the enigmatic aesthetic ideal of wabi-sabi. This is, in a very thin nutshell (eggshell?), the appreciation of the beauty of transient or imperfect things, precisely for their transience. It is a bittersweet beauty, both moving and melancholy. (If you’ve ever wondered, this concept is the core of the Japanese love affair with cherry blossoms.) It is for this reason that the Shinsengumi, as a force active for only five years at the end of the Tokugawa shogunate (literally the end of an era), is particularly susceptible to romanticization in modern times. It is also particularly relevant in this game, courtesy of the “rules” set forth by the fantasy elements, which I will not spoil.
There are tons of releases for this game on several consoles, as well as some spin-offs like an action game and drama CDs. The version I played was the main game on PS3, a fancy new release with a few side stories to unlock. You can complete the game in any manner, but I used guides so I could see the most from each character and collect all the character graphics (CGs) because I’m a crazy person. A few miscellaneous notes:
Art: super pretty, because, well, that’s kind of what this is about. But you know what really caught my eye? Their hands. I frequently found myself clearing the text box from the screen so I could stare at the precisely and gracefully drawn hands; almost every character has multiple admirable images like this. Something about the poses and the angles and proportions is just gorgeous.
Music: blows. Oddly enough it’s slightly better through headphones where you can hear all the layers and not just the synthetic percussion and flute. But low-budget means the music comes from a Casio keyboard, and even if it were on real instruments the arrangements wouldn’t be all that impressive.
If you’ve wanted to play this game but haven’t wanted to invest the time to play through every storyline, I now present to you a small spoiler-free account of what you’ll find in each of the six routes, so that you may make a better-informed decision of who to pursue. Each route gives you not only a different dude, but a different perspective on the situation politically/historically, as well as a unique set of the revolving secondary characters. Here is the order I followed:
Saitō: because Saitō. He may have captured me initially by being the least ham-fistedly bishōnen of the options. (Hijikata is a distant second, and the rest are practically ridiculous.) Saitō’s is a slow burn but entails a believable building of trust that makes for a very delicate, subtly-told story.
Secondary characters: Amagiri (foil: the pugilist vs quick-draw master, a surprisingly well-matched mix of short-range tactics), Kōdō.
Seiyū: soft, calculated, and reserved without sounding insecure.
Tropes: The Stoic, Yamato Nadeshiko (in a
rare male example).
Okita: he drops off the face of the planet in pretty much every route but his own (so I had read), and I wanted to know his deal. There’s not a lot to it. His storyline impressed me the least (turning into a soap opera doesn’t earn the writers any credit) and I felt he had one of the most “meh” endings. The protagonist is actually the most interesting part of Okita’s story, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. He just isn’t an especially strong character, and feels underdeveloped even in his own route.
Secondaries: Kaoru, Yamazaki, Kōdō.
Seiyū: fittingly light and playful without going overboard; cheerful, and yet strangely devoid of emotion. Not quite in a good way.
Tropes: Would Kill a Girl (YOU, specifically), Deadpan Snarker.
Heisuke: he came next basically so I could get it overwith; his voice can be wicked irritating. But his route definitely holds some surprises, and the romance felt the most natural. As he is closest in age to the protagonist this one felt like a relationship between equals, and that was a very nice shift from the “distant admirer” and “admired plaything” she’d been in Saitō’s and Okita’s routes.
Secondaries: Kazama, Sen (and how), Sannan.
Seiyū: tough to bear with at times, but after a pivotal moment there was one line so perfectly delivered—both nervous and relieved—that it did more than any of the previous writing to help me understand the character, and indeed flipped me on him entirely.
Tropes: Keet, Pint-Sized Powerhouse.
Kazama/normal: he piqued my interest in Heisuke’s route. This one is a little more realistic in the sense that you watch the Shinsengumi crumble from afar, instead of from within witnessing their (not-quite-) demises. But it is definitely the most bummery storyline, and I don’t just mean the normal ending (in which the protagonist doesn’t “end up” with anyone). By this point I’d finished three Shinsengumi routes, so it really sort of hurt to abandon them all and follow blondie for the protagonist’s whims. However he offers some interesting insights, and certainly the most disparate perspective, so it is worth a go-through.
Secondaries: Sen, Amagiri.
Seiyū: channeling Koyasu, are we? I’m okay with this. His cadence is a character in and of itself. Really, though. Headphones.
Tropes: Humans Are Bastards, Just Toying With Them. And, for good measure, Blond Guys Are Evil.
Hijikata: having seen him pop in and out of every route thus far and knowing his would be the longest, I didn’t save him for last. Figured if I did I’d end up not wanting to do it at all. The romance here was the least . . . romancey. He is so bullheaded and independent that there is little to suggest he is interested in the protagonist at all. (Ugh, the number of times this man told me to shut up.) I get it. You’re the boss, you have responsibilities and shit. At least pretend like my existence doesn’t piss you off?
Secondaries: Kazama (foil, of the lead-vs-lead variety), and everyone really—though most notable are father figures Kondō and Inoue who appear in some very sweet scenes that don’t occur in other routes. Additionally, some of the informed plot points from other routes are fully expressed here, so the main historical throughline, which feels somewhat disconnected in other routes, is most complete thanks to Hijikata’s position and panoramic view of events.
Seiyū: a bit hammy at times, but also offers cathartic emotional performances. However his volume varies so drastically that sometimes he sounds like he’s walking away from the microphone. Come back, Miki-san. (And yet, like the music, the voice volume is less of an issue through headphones.)
Tropes: The Leader, Jerk With a Heart of Gold.
Harada: oh, you. I played one of the extras (the second of the “Shinsengumi Stories”) before I went through his route, and it had me instantly hooked on him because oh shit, this guy. This fucking guy. Like. He says some things. He is the most forthright with his thoughts and concerns, and is by far the most suave and sensual of them all. Saitō will always be first in my heart . . . but you know Harada would rock your world in the sack.
Secondaries: Shiranui (foil: pistol vs spear), Nagakura.
Seiyū: a casual and cautious tone that skillfully conveys the character’s general ambivalence and uncertainty. (Go ahead, think of this guy next time you hear Ichimaru Gin.)
Tropes: The Charmer, Humble Goal.
Favorite route: when presented with choices, it always pained me not to pick options that clearly led to interactions wih Saitō. He’s quite unassuming and that may be why he stands out to me. And the seiyū?—he often sounds like he’s reciting poetry, so fluid are his stops and so light his flaps . . . ahem. (Please pardon the linguist, she’s quite a nerd for this stuff.) (Also this guy is in Danganronpa, which is likely next in my hefty game queue. Looking forward to that.) The writing can be quite funny too, apparent in descriptions like “[He] let out a small noise I took to be a laugh”—a little detail that deftly demonstrates his character—and adorkable lines like “I am pleased to receive your snow bunny.” According to a poll on the (English-language) wiki for this franchise, I am not alone—Saitō and Okita are neck and neck as favorites.
Best route: ugh. I hate to admit it, but it might be Heisuke. Great character development and a finely-crafted story. However Harada also deserves mention here for being unique among the Shinsengumi paths. While the other routes focus mainly on the conflict between loyalist (shōgun-supporting) and imperialist views, Harada’s is the only one that delves into that third thing, the elephant in the room: the era’s anxieties about the intrusion of foreign influence. In fact his is a route full of “only”s: he never ****** ********, he XXXXXXXX XXXXX XXX, and they even [redacted]! And around Harada the protagonist is at her most battle-ready, becoming quite the little badass in her own right.
Favorite secondary character: Kondō. He’s kind, sort of a dope, and a total geek when it comes to leadership and its responsibilities. His optimism gets him (and the whole of the Shinsengumi) in trouble on occasion, but he stands firm in his convictions. And he gives you sweets when you look sad!
Seiyū: awesomeeee, one of the best in the game. But come on, what did you expect from Ōkawa Tōru?
Tropes: Good Old Ways, Honor Before Reason.
Best secondary character: Amagiri. Some of the secondaries shift roles and even personalities quite dramatically depending on the route, but his character is steadfast in his honor each time he shows up. No matter what’s happening, he’s fucking great. (It helps that he is at his badass-est in Saitō’s route.) I’d romance this guy in an instant if he were an option.
Seiyū: a bit flat, even for such a poised character, but overall well-done.
Tropes: Reluctant Warrior, Noble Demon (lol).
Are you yourself a dude, and feeling adventurous? Give it a shot. Kazama is the most cold and aloof of the men, so if you want to be a pussy and avoid the romance bits like the plague, go with the normal route (the journey is the same between Kazama and normal, diverging only at the very end). Hijikata might also work for you, especially since his is the most expansive as far as the historical stuff, but there is quite a bit of fawning about how manpretty he is. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Hakuōki is a decent primer on the Shinsengumi and the period, as the basics fall in line with reality: who the captains are, what battles they fought and when, the group’s relationship with various factions and domains. Even the captains’ most prominent personality traits and formative experiences mostly match up with the historical record. If you want a timeline for the downfall of the bakufu, or to get better acquainted with this most legendary of Japanese military sects, this is your game.
Also, vampires? Did I mention vampires.