The Hakuoki series is a very interesting case in which the same game has been localized repeatedly, with only minor additions each time. The series has played a highly important role in the growing popularity of otome titles in the West, and this latest release is easily the best version of the game – despite one notable issue.
Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds is a pure visual novel that shares the same plot that could be experienced in past localizations of Hakuoki on the PSP, 3DS, PS3, or mobile devices. This time however, the game features an updated script. This new script introduces a few new scenes, adjusts the character routes that were previously available, and adds six new routes to play through (for a total of twelve).
At its core, the game is about Yukimura Chizuru, a young girl who comes to Kyoto to find her missing father. After a run-in with the Shinsengumi, Chizuru begins to live with them; helping the organization, and getting to know the people in it. While previous releases of Hakuoki included the full story of Chizuru and the Shinsengumi from the first half in Kyoto to the second half in Edo, Kyoto Winds only features the Kyoto half of the story. Luckily, even just half of the story is quite good, though none of the routes end conclusively and instead leave the true resolution for the second half of the game.
Chizuru aids the Shinsengumi as a page in their compound and occasionally heads into battle alongside them. This creates nice, regular changes of pace between calmer day-to-day life and the quick, brutal battles that take place in the game. Throughout the four years that Kyoto Winds covers, the choices made by the player affect where Chizuru goes in the story and to whom she grows close. Because the Shinsengumi were a real group of people in Japan during the late 1860’s, and the characters are all fictionalized versions of real people, it lends a heavy weight to all the battles and events that take place since – for the most part – they actually happened. Because of the weight of the story (especially if you are familiar with the real history of the Shinsengumi), many of the routes in the game are pretty bittersweet. The beautiful men and the quiet day-to-day life scenes juxtapose the tragedies and gruesome fights, and this is the heart of what makes it stand out from other otome titles.
As in any otome game, one of the most important things to consider is how good the potential love interests are. The older Hakuoki games included six character routes that were all quite good and Kyoto Winds adds six more. Three of these center on characters that were in the games previously but never had their own routes, while the other three add completely new characters to the game. The new routes for the returning characters are fantastic as they finally allow fans to romance characters that were previously important to the story but never got the attention they deserved. In addition to this, the three new love interests add interesting and unique perspectives to the story with their individual opinions and allegiances.
Every one of the new routes feels well thought out, with the characters integrating nicely into the story that many people already know. The guys themselves are all beautiful and fit nicely into most of the classic otome archetypes. Each route changes the story, sometimes pretty dramatically – but there is no “true” route or unlockable final route, as each path features different information. While many visual novel fans will want to explore every route, if you’d rather just pick one guy and play through his route exclusively there will definitely be at least one who appeals to you.
Because the game is cut in half, the story seems to end just as it begins to get really good in every route. It also doesn’t include any of the end-of-route kiss CGs as these are – of course – saved for the end of each route, which are located not here but in the sequel/second half of the game (that has yet to be announced for localization). This is easily the largest issue with the game, as while the story is still good, it hurts that the end of the game is currently being withheld.
Mechanically, the game isn’t very different from any other visual novel. Reading text and making decisions from a list are the only gameplay here, but handy inclusions like a rewind feature and history map (which enables hopping into the game at any point) make the experience hassle-free. When the right choice is made to increase a character’s affection a symbol appears and a sound plays, eliminating any guesswork about what the right decision could be. On the flip side, this option can even be turned off if you enjoy that guesswork. The home menu features genre standards such as the ability to listen to music from the game, view previously unlocked CGs, and re-watch the opening or any unlocked ending credit movies.
When it comes to visuals, Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds is absolutely gorgeous. Every character portrait and CG is crisp, expressive, and well-drawn. Backgrounds are detailed and beautiful. Everything from the smooth font used in the game, to the thematic and easy-to-navigate menus show a lot of attention was put into making Kyoto Winds as attractive as possible. When characters talk their mouths even generally match what their voice actors are reading! The only thing not coming forward from past releases is the live-2D effect featured in the PlayStation 3 version (that made the characters appear as if they were breathing), but that’s not too big of a loss.
The soundtrack for the game is pleasant, though sometimes it can come off as a bit too emotionally heavy. Even in simple scenes where Chizuru walks through Kyoto, a piece might be played that sounds too somber for the scene. This isn’t a major issue, but it does happen occasionally. The Japanese voice acting featured in Kyoto Winds is absolutely stellar. Each voice actor brings out the life in their character with their performance, producing equally stellar work in the calmer romantic scenes as well as the more serious fights that tend to be filled with yelling.
All in all, Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds is easily the definitive version of the Hakuoki story. This is a beautiful port of the game with more content than the series has ever seen. It’s unfortunate that the overall story was split in half and the second half has not yet been announced for localization, but the split did not make the game only half as valuable. If anything, the doubled number of routes mean that Kyoto Winds will take even longer to complete than any previous Hakuoki game.
If you’ve never played Hakuoki before, this is absolutely an ideal entry point to the series. Keep your fingers crossed that the sequel is localized as well! If you have played the game before however, you really only need consider whether you would be interested in six brand-new, quality routes before jumping in.