Have you ever wanted rise to the upper classes and date a Samurai? Well now here is your chance to come in to close contact or even rub elbows with nobility in Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds, a Visual Novel from Idea Factory.
Genre: Visual Novel, Adventure
Developer: Idea Factory, Design Factory
Publisher: Idea Factory International
Release Date: 24 Aug, 2017
I have to admit, I’ve played quite a few Idea Factory games to date. It all started back in the day when a friend gifted me Hyperdimension Neptunia: Re;Birth 1 on Steam. At that point in time I had never really seen the point of Visual Novels. To me they seemed to be just a stream of dialogue from beginning to end with some choice points scattered through it to make it interactive. The Neptunia series balances Visual Novel style story delivery with JRPG style gameplay. Due to the creative story-telling and magnetic characters, I actually got to the point where I was looking forward to the next long story segment just to see what the characters would say and get up to next. Sometimes I even found myself rushing the gameplay sections just to get to the next pieces of the story. It was at this point I realized the charm of pure Visual Novels that I had missed seeing before. The real appeal of a Visual Novel is that it gives you the ability to just enjoy the story unfolding before you without the interruption caused by other gameplay. That led me to play Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds, which is actually the first Idea Factory purely Visual Novel I have ever played.
About the Game
The concept behind the game starts out rather simple, you are a young woman who is looking for information about her father who suddenly stopped sending her letters while visiting the dangerous city of Kyoto. Knowing the risks would be even greater for a young woman traveling alone, she donned clothing to make herself look like a man to avoid being accosted as she wandered the streets. Unfortunately, her unique family sword drew the attention of the prowling Ronin. In her attempt to escape their unwanted attention she witnessed something she really wasn’t supposed to see. This set her on her path to meet the man she would fall in love with assuming he didn’t kill her first! Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds is a Visual Novel, a “choose your own adventure” style story that is impacted by the choices you make. Each choice you make can impact your relationship with the various samurai and will ultimately set you on the path of perhaps falling in love with one of them. Care must be taken in your choices though because each Samurai’s path has multiple endings depending on which romance path you are on. Luckily once you complete a Samurai’s story you can replay key bits of it to see the other endings thanks to the records system in the game.
The story elements you witness change based on your choices in the game. Everything else still happens, but your influence only falls onto the parts of the story you actually see yourself. This means that while the overarching story will remain constant, how you work your way through it will be different. For fun, I would occasionally roll back the story and take the other choice just to see what would happen. Things you don’t witness personally that are important are usually commented on either in the month/chapter changing story bits or through the conversations the samurai are having. Due to the fact that the alternate scene options play out differently, often in completely different settings, it gives Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds a lot of replay-ability. You could easily find yourself engrossed in the story of the underdog band of samurai trying their best to make a name for themselves while serving the Shogun. As mentioned earlier, your decisions also influence the feelings each of the samurai have for you. Having focused on a specific one in my first play through, I could see him slowly warming up to my character which showed that my decisions were having a natural feeling influence on the characters in the game. Originally cold and quick to temper, he slowly began to enjoy my character’s presence and would find her originally annoying foibles to be something to smile about instead. Unfortunately the game ended right when it seemed like their budding relationship might start going somewhere and may have had a greater influence on the overall story.
The art style of the game is a fairly static image on the screen that shows the various Samurai that are talking or interacting at the moment. The backdrop sets the scene for where they are currently located. Dialogue is displayed at the bottom of the screen and is often spoken aloud by the characters. Dramatic actions are taken as flashes or splashes on the screen such as a sword swing or blood spray. When you first look at it, the backgrounds might not really appear to be anything special. The insignificant people in the background lack any real features (they don’t even have faces!) but if you take a closer look, you will see that the backdrops are actually beautifully made in the Japanese style to look like water-colour painting on fabric rather than just an image. This actually really added to the historic feel of the game and became a detail I particularly enjoyed. The less detailed backgrounds help prevent distraction away from the much more detailed characters in the game that you will actually interact with. In more dramatic scenes the game shifts from characters overlaid on top of a back drop to the characters drawn directly into the backdrop.
One nifty feature is the fact the game doesn’t assume you know what every regionally specific word means but also doesn’t waste your time explaining it if you do already know. It will show certain words in a different colour the first time they are mentioned in the game, and if you are interested in learning more you can press a button to view a brief description of what that word is referring to. It also records those key words and persons in a log that you can refer back to any time you need a refresher on what it means.
The game leaves itself open for a sequel, which actually exists already but has not yet been ported over. I’m sure if Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds does well the other half the story will be released. With how many romantic interests there are for the heroine to pursue you will likely find yourself playing this game for quite some time, assuming you are a completionist. Fortunately the game includes a feature that lets you skip over previously read text in order to speed up your replay time. Your first time through the game will take about 8-10 hours (or less if you are a speed reader!), with subsequent playthroughs either being roughly the same if you reread everything, or shorter if you just skip to the new parts.
The voice acting in the game is done quite well. It isn’t hard to imagine that could actually be the character’s own voice due to the fact the voice actors seem to do remarkably well portraying the personality each of the characters looks like they should have. The enthusiastic looking person has an enthusiastic and cheerful tone to their voice. The cold and commanding person similarly has a cold, quick tempered sound to his voice. It goes so far that you can tell by their voice when something bad has happened and is about to be said before it is even said even before the text is displayed on the screen just because of the tone of their voice. Similarly the music in the game enhances the oriental atmosphere and assists greatly in bringing the overall feel of the late 1800s Japan setting together.
The controls in the game are something I should make note of. When the game first launched the game would break at a certain scene early in Chapter 1. At that point, my Xbox 360 gamepad and keyboard worked perfectly with the game. All the buttons were configurable and worked fine. After the fix for the crash was applied, some of the control settings went a bit awry. For example, the message log button that would let you view previous message boxes would no longer appear if you pressed the buttons the settings menu said would open it. It was now bound to my mouse wheel. I poked around trying to change that but never did have any luck with that. There is nothing wrong with it being bound to the mouse wheel, and it actually worked quite well there especially when I switched to playing the game with the keyboard and mouse, but it would be nice if the settings menu wouldn’t suggest it was bound elsewhere when it wasn’t. With that minor gripe aside, I can say the game’s controls work quite well. The ability to save anywhere you want to and as often as you want made the game easy to pick up and leave when needed. Personally, I would recommend using the keyboard to play the game simply because the gamepad seemed to offer very little advantage to controlling the game.
Overall for a game that has no real gameplay other than the pseudo choose your own adventure style storytelling, it actually was quite interesting to get through. The characters are compelling enough that you start feeling their pain as they struggle collectively in the changing world as the long era of the Shogunate quickly comes to an end. The story is interesting enough that you occasionally want to press on and see where the story is going rather than stopping to get busy with other things away from the game that you should be working on. Admittedly, I have not played many visual novels, but I did enjoy this one and would happily play the sequel to Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds if it is released for the PC just to see where the story goes once the characters reach their destination.