When it comes to visual novels, especially those of the otome variety, I consider myself somewhat of a connoisseur. They’re such a mixed bag, but I actually find that to be part of the fun; sometimes, you get something that’s eighty cliches in a trenchcoat, others, you’re gifted a story that makes you scratch your head because it feels so off the rails, and every once in a while, you get one that manages to have it all.
But I’m a simple man; if you give me a romanceable character that I can get excited about, I’ll sit through almost anything. That said, Winter’s Wish: Spirits of Edo really tested the limits of that last statement.
Winter’s Wish is a historical visual novel that takes place in the Kyoho era, centered on the isolated and lonely Suzuno (or insert your name here). Due to her special ability to see Threads – an aura that reveals a person’s emotions and intentions – she was run out of her village after her father’s death and has been living alone in the mountains. One day, two samurai named Tomonari and Kunitaka arrive and announce that she’s been summoned to the city of Edo by the shogun himself. Due to her ability to see Threads, she can detect when monsters (known as blightfall) will form.
Upon arriving in Edo, she meets a group of other samurai who are all part of the Oniwaban, a special group formed to take care of the blightfalls that appear throughout the city. Her power makes her an invaluable asset to the Oniwaban, but perhaps just as important, it brings her into the lives of six dreamy guys who need to be shown how to love again, as their hearts have been sealed away (literally.) Choose a district, choose a fella, and set out on a mission to keep the blightfalls at bay.
There are three main routes: Samurai District, Entertainment District, and Castle Town. Each one will give you the opportunity to choose between two character routes. The Samurai District will allow you to play Kunitaka or Tomonari’s routes, Castle Town lets you play either Yoichi or Genjuro’s routes, and the Entertainment District gives you the chance to play either Ohtaro’s or Kinji’s route. I highly recommend saving when the game asks you for this choice so you can just skip back there each time you want to play a new route. Thank me later.
Despite being an otome with an impressive amount of endings (about 3-4 per character,) decisions are few and far between. You’ll be spending most of your time reading text, with each chapter having 1-3 decisions to make that either move the story along or raise the affection level of a certain character. You can check these levels at any time by opening up the menu, which is a nice feature, especially if you’re looking to play a certain route.
Moment of truth, I played Kunitaka’s route first, because I was immediately attached to his character. This was a very fortunate choice for me, because I came to find out later that if I had tried to do Ohtaro’s (my other character of choice) route first, I would have gotten the bad ending no matter what options I chose. This is actually an issue with both Ohtaro and Tomonari; you have to complete one of Kunitaka, Kinji, Yoichi, and Genjuro’s routes before you can navigate to Tomonari’s good ending, and you have to complete a route from every other character to get Ohtaro’s good ending. Considering Tomonari is the first character you meet, it’s a very strange choice to lock his good ending behind a completion wall.
As someone who enjoys historical fiction, I think the story of Winter’s Wish is interesting. It has a great glossary feature that defines important historical and cultural terms. It brings up a lot of fascinating concepts, such as Threads, Vessels, Formfolk, and other supernatural phenomena, and that helps tie together the story’s themes of loneliness, the pain of being othered, the connection between the animate and inanimate, and what truly makes a person human, and it takes the time to establish all of this in the world.
The problem is that it drags.
It took me nearly eight hours to make it through the first route. This isn’t because I didn’t like the story; it was because it tells so much and shows so little. The first chapter is all exposition for the story, and there’s nothing to break up the monotony of it, so I found myself putting it down constantly. Even when I made it to the chapters where I could make decisions, I still had to sit through so much to get to each of the few decision points. It would have been nice to see a bit more opportunity to choose dialogue (or literally anything else); this usually helps the “telling, not showing” issue otome novels run into from time to time.
Winter’s Wish: Spirits of Edo has a lot going for it in terms of visuals and worldbuilding, but often stumbles with its otome elements and storytelling. With four endings effectively locked until you’ve played four to five routes (possibly for characters you don’t care about,) a strange lack of decision points, and a story that feels like it’s hours upon hours long for just one chapter, this visual novel feels more like a chore than a treat, no matter how pretty the boys are. If you don’t mind all of that in order to get to a pretty standard historical romance, this might just be the tale for you. Otherwise, this is one that probably doesn’t need to take up precious library space.