Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds Review
Release Date: May 31, 2017
Developer: Idea Factory/Design Factory
Platform: PlayStation Vita
Well, this one certainly is a niche title. An otome visual novel, Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds places you in the shoes of Chizuru Yukimura, a young girl who comes to the big city in search of her father, but gets tangled into something much more sinister. After nearly being killed by a couple of viciously insane individuals, she is saved by a couple of samurai. She falls into more trouble when she realizes their intent. In order to keep their secrets, they have no choice but to capture her. Her quest gets thrown off course, as she deals with her new captors, and, of course, befriends and hopefully becomes romantically involved with them.
Released on The PlayStation Vita, Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds is a retelling of the original Hakuoki, released on the PS2 in 2008 and in America on the PSP and 3DS in 2012/13. This new edition is the same story but adds a few more romantic options, bringing the total up to 14. Chizuru's main goal is to reach one of the myriad of endings wherein you find true love amidst the chaos of war. During the game, you witness the samurai becoming stronger in defending what they feel is right. If you play your cards right and win the heart of your suitor, they will be more prone to fighting for you instead. The gameplay is entirely reading and choices, deciding who to visit or what to do changes your relationships with the men that lead to the romantic options.
The game plays out like a live action, real time "Choose Your Own Adventure" book. Whether you choose to go with the samurai on a raid or stay back at the compound, the story chugs along without you. I tried several paths and saw, much like real life, that you are not the be-all center of attention, and this war is going to happen no matter who you are visiting with.
For me, this was an odd duck to review. As a heterosexual male that has never seen any inherent value in romancing multiple suitors at once, this really threw me out of my comfort zone. I'd say my biggest beef about it, though, was the extreme gender stereotyping I found. There are plenty of games that are guilty of physical stereotyping/bias by doing what all of media does, hypersexualizing. Hakuoki does this to the male suitors, of course, but it is harder to directly do that to a male physique. What I noticed most was how Chizuru was slotted into her role. She came to town looking for her missing father, and she falls right in with these samurai who basically kidnap her to protect their own interests. She eventually befriends them, but going against any of their rules quickly puts her in a position to be reminded to know her life and all choices of what she could do were limited to what the samurai deemed okay. As I played, I noted that any time Chizuru had a chance to stand up for herself, it ended up offending the person involved. If a commanding officer gave an order, I could choose to follow, or question why. If a friend was in danger in battle, bloodied and weak, standing up for them was insulting, while allowing them to protect you resulted in them feeling respected, and increasing your potential for romance. In fact, the closest I ever got to any sort of relationship was when I went through the game opting to stay in my room as much as possible instead of actively doing things that would lead to me finding my father.
While the story was interesting, and definitely held my attention, I really felt that my decisions didn't do much to push it along. In fact, I did two playthroughs, and even willingly pushing for different answers on almost every question, I ended up getting the exact same ending, and never romancing a single samurai, not for lack of trying. Every ending I got led to the leader shipping me back to my hometown without even finding my father. I would be offered mundane choices, then be forced to follow the story against my will on some things that looked like obvious branch paths. I looked forward to unlocking the "Record of Service" that I assumed would unlock at the end of the game, allowing you to go back to any point in the story branch you completed and try different tracks to see where they led, but I guess "shipped home without a suitor" does not give you that privilege, as it's still greyed out despite two playthroughs. The game's control scheme is focused around warping to find your ideal timeline, with quick save and load buttons and a history that allows you to rewind a couple conversations back in an instant, but I never knew what would be beneficial. Sometimes it felt like dumb luck, as staying at home meant meeting certain people, while going out meant meeting others, and I was never sure where the particular individuals were. With no branching story map, it started getting frustrating. Add in when I would see a scene I've seen before, as the "Choose Your Own Adventure" style sent me to the same "page", only to fast-forward and suddenly see that I'd started a new section I hadn't seen, so I'd have to rewind again, just to see more story that no matter how hard I tried I ended up at the same point.
I wholly admit I must not be good at these games. Why else when I try so hard to do two separate play throughs, do I end up with the exact same depressing ending and no romantic partners? The storyline was very captivating, and made me genuinely care about the individuals therein, but I felt like the only way to make a difference was to play the stereotypical damsel in distress and succumb to Stockholm syndrome. In researching, I have found that this game has been made several times before, and has been a graphic novel and anime as well. If the story is meant to revolve around romancing one of twelve men, why in my most intense attempt did I only get up to 30% compatibility with one suitor (who wasn't even the one I was aiming for), which still didn't change the endgame of the storyline? And regardless of my sucktitude, shouldn't a game with times where you have upwards of 30 minutes of reading between choices have a more fluid set of options to retry and find your way to your desired samurai's heart?
Overall, Hakouki: Kyoto Winds is an excellent story. I note that within the options menu there is actually a "Romance: Off" setting. I did not mess with that directly, as my goal was to try to experience and review the title for all it's gameplay features. I'm not sure how the story would branch without it, but I am curious as to how the story would finish. Many times I tried to impact the romance story, and simply got nowhere, but I really think that this is beyond simply me not knowing how to woo a samurai suitor: I literally saw no way that my conversation choices actively changed the story in a way that I could predict. It's definitely exciting to see the story unfold, I just wish that our heroine could stand up for herself and change her own destiny, rather than rely on being humble to the right person.
-Genuinely captivating storyline
-Story flows whether you are part of the action or not
-Dynamic action shown very well for a story-based game
-Terrible gender roles slot your character into "maid mode"
-Confusing romance options reliant on luck, guessing, and submission
-A desire to fast forward old scenes that don't transition to new ones well
-30 plus endings? I got one. Twice.
Special thanks to the developers for providing a copy for review.