I’ve been playing nearly all of the Hakuoki games ever since their debut Stateside, and I’ve learned one thing during my time with them: they’re often re-releases of the same types of content, albeit in different wrapping. In the case of Hakuoki: Stories of the Shinsengumi, I hearken back to the original PSP version I enjoyed so long ago, and find that this PS3 version is actually a re-release of Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom, generally speaking. It’s been scaled up for a better-looking visual novel for the PlayStation 3, but it’s curiously devoid of any real extras.
For the uninitiated, players 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.
It’s just a shame, then, that this is largely the same game that released for PSP owners two years ago without any real extra content or animation. This would have been an excellent opportunity for the game to have changed up the CG scenes, added additional animation since there’s an accompanying anime series, or add some kind of incentive for players to take the plunge again, because let’s face it: once you finish it up, there’s not any real reason to go back unless you’re just that enamored with the story and characters. If this is your first go-around, pick it up — otherwise, wait for the inevitable next entry.