Review: Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom

Otome games, or “maiden” games are hard to come by in the US. Most visual novels and dating sims tend to cater to the young male demographic, presenting a harem of women to befriend, date, and otherwise form relationships with. So the English-language localization of Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom, a PSP release, is a pretty big deal. Its play style reflects that of a “choose your own adventure” story and packs in plenty of bishounen for its intended female audience, plus an engaging narrative that sticks with you long after the journey comes to an end.

Gorgeous anime portraits and still frames accompany mood-fitting music as you step into the role of young Chizuru, searching for her father in Kyoto. He’s gone missing, and the only alternative to waiting around fretting and hoping he returns safely, is to leave the safety of home, dress up as a male to avoid conflicts, and seek him out herself. Of course, what should have been a simple personal search-and-rescue mission for the brave Chizuru quickly morphs into something more complicated. While searching the streets of Kyoto for her father, Chizuru ends up mixed up with the Shinsengumi, a secret society that exists within the shogunate. It turns out the Shinsengumi and her father have met before, and the intimidating pack of male warriors are also searching for him. Under the Shinsengumi’s protection, Chizuru embarks on an even bigger adventure to find her father and get to the bottom of a politically-charged puzzle rife with supernatural occurrences and mysterious circumstances.

Fortunately for players looking to find romance in the late Edo period, Chizuru also finds love. The various bishounen of the Shinsengumi are potential suitors and offer a wide range of personality types and “looks” to please most audiences. The men are dangerous and lovely, and the duality that exists between their hardened “battle” side and softer personal moments is thrilling. Character development is hugely satisfying, and it’s an adventure in itself to slowly uncover each layer of the troubled members of the Shinsengumi. Chizuru is a role that both male and female players could easily insert themselves, and despite her slightly irritating nature (indecisive doesn’t even begin to cover it) is shown in an encouraging, positive light. Since the game revolves around the conflict unfolding rather than the blossoming romances, it never feels overly bogged down by the aspects of most dating sims that turn players off.

It’s a comfortable, well-paced adventure with fan-service for any of us who prefer our men tall, dark, and dangerous (or short, sexy, and silly, as it were) but requires a certain amount of patience. These types of games certainly aren’t for everyone. Quite often you’ll be left to read blocks of text, without any input or decision-making for long periods of time. It requires commitment from the player to tell its story, and if you’ve got the time and an open mind, you’ll unravel a satisfying tale of political intrigue, supernatural weirdness, and romance that wouldn’t be out of place in any dating sim/visual novel fan’s collection.

Original Japanese voice actors and a fantastic localization team go the extra mile to make Hakuoki come to life, but from then on it’s up to you to make things happen. Replay value is immense, and thankfully you can speed through previously-read segments since you’ll be going back for each character’s route. Quick saves, galleries, and helpful gauges at the game’s menu are all helpful tools as well for discerning which character you’ll be pursuing and which save you want to reload in case of any risky business that goes down – say, choosing the wrong dialogue option. It’ll happen.

Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom is an addictive slice of what the otome genre can offer, so if you’re curious about the whole Japanese dating-sim scene or maybe just looking for something a little different yet still engaging and satisfying, pick up this gem and support future releases.

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