Rising star Games has made its name over the last decade or so for bringing to European shores games that would otherwise never find their way here due to their very "Japanese" nature. XSEED Games or Aksys Games would often be the North American counterpart for the exact same kind of thing. Examples to cite include games such as 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors or the even more excellent Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward in the visual novel department. Hakuoki: Memories of the Shinsengumi, while not at all affiliated to the aforementioned two games, falls in the same kind of category as it is also a Visual Novel at core, albeit with a much different kind of story.
Where it differs is in the fact that it is a port of the first episode of a broad series of games by Idea Factory, over in Japan, that started on the PS2 in 2008 and is very much ongoing there. It is now counting ten different episodes over a large panel of consoles (primarily the Nintendo DS and Sony's consoles) with more announced for the future. It even sparked an animé series adaptation that's passed several seasons already. The game at hand is a port of a PS2 version, which had already been ported in the past to PSP and the original Nintendo DS... but only arrives now in Europe while North America already got the chance to try out the PSP port thanks to Aksys Games. It is now time to dive in and see what all the rage is about over in Japan with this series.
As the game opens, the player is presented with the lead character of the game, Chizuru, a teenage girl who arrived in Edo to search for her father who hasn't come back home in a long while and was supposed to visit someone in feudal Japan's capital city. The whole game, or rather the story, is told from the perspective of the young lady and the story narrated in first person. Arriving in Edo, she finds that she will not be able to stay at the doctor's where she hoped to find her dad, as he himself is away on travel, so she has to find an inn to stay at. Unfortunately, night falls on the city and the young lady, disguised as a young man to avoid attracting attention of ill intentioned men, finds herself in trouble as Ronin roam the streets at night in search of prey to loot. That's when those same Ronin are slaughtered by a gang of monster-like characters who then run after her. She would have died if she wasn't saved in-extremis by the group of Samurai called the Shinsengumi, who despite the bad reputation have been getting of late, are actually helping maintain order in the city, yet in the greatest secrecy. Sadly for her, she found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time, and saw things she wasn't supposed to see, so she's made prisoner by the Shinsengumi warriors and taken away until they decide whether to let her live or not.
As one would guess, obviously, the game wouldn't last long if they decided to kill her, and so the game revolves around memories of the young girl, staying among the Shinsengumi. As a visual novel, the experience relies very heavily on still images with character portraits drawn on top and the dialogue being served through lots and lots of text, as the player is only occasionally offered to make choices that will more or less influence how the story unfolds. However, contrary to something like Virtue's Last Reward, as the player is allowed to save before making key decisions to see how different the outcome will be, it becomes quickly apparent as he or she will try to do so... that those decisions don't have any major impact at all on how the story unfolds, so in that sense, Hakuoki: Memories of the Shinsengumi is a much more linear experience, spent mostly reading text and only occasionally making decisions that don't seem to weigh much in the balance until much later in the story, as it will influence who the lead female character finds herself most bound to. Yes, the game borrows elements of the dating simulation genre as she is the only female living inside her very own harem of all good-looking butch guys who keep talking of whether or not they should let her live... and in a very Japanese way, she will obviously develop either deep friendships, or even love for her own captors.
Her situation as a prisoner is kept in vague territory for much of the story as well, and one cannot be really sure that she's still being considered a prisoner or not.
These elements may well put off the average Western gamer at first, but the experience should not be dismissed too quickly, as the story is still incredibly well written. The plot is certainly interesting, characters are well-developed, and the translation removes nothing of the Japanese flavour of the story, which is undeniably very exotic for Westerner audiences. Indeed, elements of Japanese history are aplenty in this game, and loads of weird Japanese vocabulary is used throughout, which is where an encyclopaedia built into the game, that fills itself as new keywords are encountered that may pose problems for Western gamers are added into it for the player to read about, helping ease their introduction to a foreign culture that would be otherwise quite hard to get into. Sadly, the encyclopaedia comes with its share of layout errors, where some text will appear cut off from the screen, but this is not so prominent or catastrophic as to ruin the experience, thank goodness.
Visually, it's not very impressive, either. Little is moving on the screen and the only real improvement over previous incarnations of the game comes from the stereoscopic 3D effect, which helps give some depth and presence to the otherwise bland scenery.
It is certainly not ugly to look at... but more variety would have been appreciated, and the same kind of environments are reused a bit too often. It shines much more in the sound department, though, with the soundtrack being incredibly well-done, and most of the dialogue receiving full Japanese voice acting. Indeed, in a rather safe approach, Rising Star Games didn't include any English voice acting, just as it did with Virtue's Last Reward. While some may have appreciated an English dub, to relieve the player of having to read too much, easing the way for those who simply don't like reading too much, it might have been risky indeed to do so, as a bad dubbing could leave a negative impression, too.
On the whole, Hakuoki: Memories of the Shinsengumi turns out to be more of an interactive novel than a game, which is obviously more pertaining to the genre that Western folk haven't been exposed to, too much, yet, as gamers have been perhaps spoiled a bit too much by the likes of Virtue's Last Reward which incorporated far more interactivity into the mix to drive a very impressive narrative forward. However, with that being said, it should not be dismissed too quick for being what it is, as the story is certainly very interesting. On a final note, this final 3DS port does bring some new story development on top of bringing everything that the previous incarnations already had, so it's an even better deal than, say... the PSP version titled Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom by Aksys Games in North America.
The fact that it is a visual novel in the stricter sense of the term, unlike games such as Virtue's Last Reward, which contained much more interactivity than most games of the genre, may put off certain players. However, those same people should not dismiss it too quickly as it turns out to be an incredibly well written story to read through, albeit not allowing any big input on the player's part. The fact that the main character is a young girl in the middle of a harem-like group of male captors may not go well with the male audience that would have preferred it to be the other way round. The female audience with a strong liking for Shojo Manga literature, though, should find here something that's right up their alley as their input into the game will steer the affections of the young girls towards one or the other of the vast cast of males in the game. With that being said, this background dating sim part of the game does not take the lead over the main narrative, which in itself can be perfectly appreciated by both genders. For those who are still hesitating, watching a couple of the first episodes of the anime adaptation should seal the deal once and for all as it follows quite closely the story of the game.
It really is like reading a book, with a good story behind it, with choices on the player's part more or less only impacting which guy Chizuru will become closest to Adam. From what I gather, choices in 428 have a perhaps more interesting outcome behind them .
Looks pretty interesting ^___^
Lol I love the character design the guys look hot! XD