Visual novels, a somewhat niche genre that's like the game equivalent of a choose-your-own-adventure book, are a bit like buses. You wait for ages for a good one, and then several come along at once. Over the space of a few weeks, we've had/will have online-RPG-missing-brother hunt Period Cube, hard-boiled detective drama The Silver Case and of course, the samurai-centric old-timey Japanese saga Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds. Marking the umpteenth iteration of the original Hakuoki game, Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds is a romantic visual novel which centres around the antics of the Shinsengumi, a group of samurais loyal to the ruling Shogunate family. Kyoto Winds - and it's upcoming sequel Edo Blossoms - are effectively two parts of the same whole, adding a whole host of extra characters, scenes and story segments, including six new romanceable bachelors to get to know, making it feel more of a Hakuoki 1.5 than anything. It's not quite the sequel we're all pining for, but a worthy redo at any rate.
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Hakuoki centres around Chizuru Yukimura, a young woman who heads to the rough town of 1860s Kyoto in search of her missing father. Dressed as a boy to avoid undue suspicion, she soon finds herself privy to a grisly murder, committed by none other than the Shinsengumi, who are supposedly sworn samurai protectors of the peace. Imprisoned by the organisation in order to keep her silence, she soon comes to think of them as her friends as they help her search for her father, as she in turn uncovers the deepest, darkest and murkiest secrets of the Shinsengumi in the process - including what exactly she witnessed that one fateful night. What follows is a gripping tale of samurais, demons and betrayal, all set against a backdrop of political unrest in a changing world that threatens to make the Japanese tradition of the samurai obsolete.
But that's not all Chizuru will encounter during her time with the Shinsengumi - living in such close quarters with such a large number of men, its only a matter of time before she starts to fall for one of them. Which one, however, is largely up to you, as in traditional otome/romantic visual novel style, the options, answers and responses you choose in conversations will resonate with one of the game's many bachelors, and see you grow closer. During the first four or so chapters of the story, anyone is largely fair game, with character-specific events and branches woven into the overarching narrative - but once you get to chapter five, you'll be locked into a specific bachelor's story, which diverge much more drastically as the Shinsengumi starts to falter and break apart.
Past Hakuoki games had only five different options for you to romance - the dashing Shinsengumi commander, known as 'the Demon' to his men, Toshizo Hijikata; Souji Okita a somewhat sadistic and sarcastic man, who enjoys winding you up and threatening to kill you from time to time; while the quietly intelligent and stoic Hajime Saito is a bit of a slow burner, taking a while to open up to the protagonist. The remaining two, Heisuke Toudou and Sanosuke Harada are your light-hearted nice guys, with the latter being the more traditional of the two, and together they make up two out of three of the 'idiot trio', the clowns of the group. There's also a sixth 'hidden' route featuring 'king of the demons' creepster Chikage Kazama, who repeatedly tries to kidnap you and make you his bride throughout the game, repelled by the lovely guys at the Shinsengumi each time (unless you pick a very specific set of options).
However, as Kyoto Winds is a kind of Hakuoki 1.5, the game that really pulls out all the stops when it comes to extras, giving you six new romance options to play through, three of which are existing Shinsengumi members, and three which are brand-new faces. There's the third member of the comedy trio, beefcake and general lad Shinpachi Nagakura, noticeable by his absence from previous iterations of Hakuoki, as well as the somewhat dark and studious Keisuke Sanan, and the Shinsengumi's stalwart spy, the mysterious ninja-alike, Susumu Yamazaki. New faces include Hachiro Iba, a long-time friend of the Shinsengumi men, and one that claims to know the protagonist from her childhood years'; Kazuo Souma, an eager-to-please Shinsengumi fanboy; and Ryouma Sakamoto, an 1860s Japan equivalent of Del-Boy, flogging weapons, intel and equipment to anyone who'll take them, regardless of their political leanings.
While it's nice that they've added so much new stuff, it's worth noting that Kyoto Winds is really only half of the Shinsengumi tale. Kyoto Winds, and it's companion coming next year, Edo Blossoms, are effectively the whole story split into two parts, each bolstered with a load of new routes and extra scenes, with Kyoto Winds dealing with the story in Kyoto, about five chapters or so through the story. Cutting off at the point at which the Shinsengumi leave for Edo, it does feel like a fairly natural break in the story, although some routes have a bit more of a cliffhanger to them than others. The half a dozen or so new guys to romance do help bolster the story somewhat though, and stop things feeling like you've been too short changed, buying into what is effectively part one of a two part saga.
As for the the new guys, Souma is an all around nice guy, if a little TOO into the whole samurai thing, and his route does give you a nice insight into the history of the Shinsengumi, whilst Souma himself sits more towards the light-hearted Harada/Heisuke/Nagakura end of the spectrum, personality-wise. Iba is a bit of a mystery to the protagonist, at least to begin with, allegedly knowing both the Shinsengumi guys and childhood Chizuru, not that she can remember him. A perfect gentleman and body guard for the ruling Shogunate family, his route deals more with the protagonist's father and the morally ambiguous experiments he was conducting. Cheeky chappy Sakamoto meanwhile is a bit of a headstrong charmer with a devil-may-care attitude; an arms dealer who sells to anyone willing to buy, getting him in trouble with many a faction, including the Shinsengumi, for those who want to live a little dangerously by fraternising with the enemy. All three routes give some interesting extra depth to various aspects of the existing story, as well as giving you some new faces from outside the original Shinsengumi group to get to know.
While it's not quite the brand new Hakuoki game we really want, Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds certainly does an admirable job of tarting up and expanding on the existing story of the Shinsengumi - we just wish the stories had their endings, and didn't finish on such a cliff hanger. With next year's Edo Blossoms set to see the stories through to their conclusions, it doesn't half feel like a long time to wait to find out what happened to your favourite guys. Still, as a well-written story of samurais, demons and betrayal, with plenty of twists and turns along the way, the extra content is simply the icing on the cake, making this the definitive take on the Hakuoki story, and still one of the best otome visual novels to date.
Format Reviewed: PS Vita