Monday, June 11, 2012

Hakuoki Part 1: Introducing the Visual Novel and Hakuoki Itself

When I really enjoy a particular work, be it book, movie, or video game, it tends to spark something of an obsession that will last for several days while I devour any and all secondary information I can get a hold of.

Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom passed into that territory.

In trying to figure out why I like it so much, I decided I’d break my thoughts down into parts, including reasons why this game flies far enough under the radar it’s difficult to find reviews of it, how it handles game elements uncommon in western gaming, and why it’s worth caring about.

Today’s post is Part 1, and will deal with the the visual novel genre and a bit about the game itself.

In terms of mechanics, Hakuoki is very simple. It’s a relatively low budget game, belonging to the visual novel genre (which is practically non-existent in the US). The story is told almost entirely through text and beautiful anime-style stills of key events, with voice acting (all dialogue save the main character’s is spoken) likely being the highest expense.

Hakuoki is closest to being a electronic choose-your-own-adventure, but with 1000% more text between choices. The player cannot affect the outcome of a battle if they are not presented with a choice, and most of the times they won’t be because the fight is part of the narrative. It is a shocking thing to a western gamer, playing a “game” with so little control over anything that happens.

And generally speaking, western gamers are not predisposed towards reading mountains of text. But I am a reader already, so reading mountains of text is fine by me as long as I enjoy the story. For a visual novel, the story is the selling point, because even the best artwork isn’t going to do a thing for it if the player is not invested in what happens.

Hakuoki is the story of a teenage girl named Chizuru Yukimura during the Bakumatsu (see my previous post) who disguises herself as a boy so she will not be harassed as she searches for her missing father. Shortly after arriving in Kyoto she nearly gets killed by some men inflicted with a supernatural madness, only to be saved by Captains Souji Okita and Hajime Saito of the Shinsengumi (a special police force that existed during that time period).

Realizing that she has seen something she should not, the Shinsengumi take her back to their headquarters and try to decide whether they can trust this “boy” not to talk about this event or if they should kill him. Before long, Chizuru’s real gender comes out as well as why she is in Kyoto. It turns out that the Shinsengumi are also looking for Chizuru’s father, so she moves in with them (still disguised as a boy, to avoid wagging tongues) so they can combine her knowledge with their resources.

The first half of the game (three chapters) covers the four years leading up to the Boshin War, so there are a lot of time skips. In them, Chizuru gets to witness multiple events in real world history that the Shinsengumi participated in, but Hakuoki is not solely historical fiction. It’s a historical fantasy, and secret history as well. Though the events play out more or less according to real world history, there is a supernatural undercurrent to everything going on.

It makes for an entertaining read, and there is an in-game encyclopedia that tracks events, locations, and characters for anyone who doesn’t understand who the Aizu are or what it means to be a nationalist or what a wakazashi is.

After the first three chapters the story branches into one of five distinct paths (six if on a second playthrough) based on Chizuru’s relationship with the different members of the Shinsengumi and these remaining three to six chapters cover her and her chosen companion’s path during the Boshin War itself.

The translation could have used some proofreading as there are a number of minor typos, but the story itself is engaging. The battles in particular are amazing considering the game is working with nothing but still images, voice over, and sound effects. There is one scene in my first playthrough where Hajime Saito is protecting Chizuru from the primary villain and even though I can’t see the blow by blow details of the fight I hear everything. The narration talks about how Saito is drenched in blood and gore, and I’m thinking to myself after hearing each slash that lands on his body “How can he still be standing?!”

Even the part that would be considered the last boss fight in most every other game was still riveting despite having minimal player input. It wasn’t just a question of whether or not Saito would win, but how. (Since there are game over scenarios for making cumulative poor or not-good-enough choices, this was still a possibility in the back of my mind.)

I have a friend who thought it was a waste when I finished my first playthrough of the game in a couple of days. I replied that I often finish novels in a day. Ah, he said, but games cost more. True enough, but because of the multiple game paths and the incredibly handy fast forward option that skips text the player has already read, there’s a lot of replay value. I figure it took me around 40 hours to see and do everything (all six endings and unlocking all the artwork), which is fine for a video game.

The different second halves of the game will likely appeal to different people, as will the companions whose story the player can follow. I think I was fortunate in that I ended up with Saito’s path first because it wades hip deep into historical events, which was a huge draw for me, and it hit all the plot points that were important to me. The other endings I got different amounts of satisfaction from, but Saito’s is by far my favorite and I don’t think it’s just because it was my first.

For history buffs, Hajime Saito or Toshizo Hijikata are the best paths to take, since their real life counterparts made it to the final days of the war. For those who really like the fantasy elements and can’t get enough of Japanese demons, Souji Okita and Heisuke Toudou, who died early or were otherwise incapacitated in real life, go down different story paths only possible because this is a work of fiction and they are given means to survive the circumstances that otherwise removed them from history. Sanosuke Harada’s path is kind of in the middle of the others, but if you’re a hopeless romantic, you’ll probably get a kick out of it.

Aside from Hakuoki being a heavily text based game set in a time period unfamiliar to most westerners, there is one other element of gameplay that likely limits its audience. Romance is well integrated into the game, and it is not possible to play through and avoid it. I think men who are fine with playing a female protagonist who is going to enter a heterosexual relationship with a male character can enjoy the game, but it’s rare in western gaming to have only a female protagonist option with a required romance, especially one that is not aimed at elementary school girls. Yes, this is an M-rated game aimed at older teenage girls and young women.

It’s the romance and how it’s handled that I’ll get to next week.

[Note: The game translation is inconsistent with how it treats elongated vowels. This makes little difference to the English speaker, since “Saitou” versus “Saito” sounds much the same to the untrained ear. However most of the material on the web for Hakuoki is under “Hakuouki” (with the extended “o” sound) if a reader would like to look into more of it. The game itself is unfortunately inconsistent with some names getting shortened (like Saito) and others being left alone (like Toudou). For this series of posts, I’ll be using the Aksys localized names.]