Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds
Genre: Visual Novel
Developer: Otomate
Publisher: Idea Factory
Platforms: PC, PlayStation Vita

A review by Matthew Codd

On paper, Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds is a game about romancing handsome samurai men. Playing as a girl called Chiziru who falls in with a group of dangerous warriors after getting lost in 1860s Kyoto, the ultimate goal of the game is to win the heart of your chosen bachelor by making all the right choices over the course of the story. In that sense, it closely follows the mold of most romance-oriented visual novels—in fact, the original release of Hakuoki back in 2008 is one of the games responsible for popularizing this whole genre outside Japan.

As cute as the romantic endings are, though, they’re not what stands out most about Kyoto Winds, though. This is a game that’s all about the journey, and the story that unfolds through the game is an engrossing one, regardless of the route you take and regardless of whether or not you get the “good” endings.

Set over the course of the 1860s, Kyoto Winds follows the turbulent period of Japanese history that led to the Meiji Restoration and the end of centuries of feudal governance. People were unhappy with the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate and sought to restore political power to the emperor, whose position had become purely ceremonial. This conflict boiled into all-out war, until the Tokugawa regime was eventually toppled in 1869.

Amid this conflict, the Shogunate still had its supporters, the most famous of which was a group called the Shinsengumi. They formed with the goal of keeping peace in Kyoto, where much of the anti-Tokugawa sentiment was brewing, and they’re remembered by history as both proud heroes and ruthless villains.

That’s a slice of real Japanese history, and Kyoto Winds is very much a historical game. It casts you as Chizuru, a young girl who travels to Kyoto in search of her missing father, and finds herself in the custody of the Shinsengumi after witnessing a secret execution. Unable to come to an agreement on what to do with her, the Shinsengumi’s captains decide to take her on as a page, with the not-too-subtle condition that if she tries to flee, she’ll meet a swift death. It soon becomes apparent that the group are acquainted with Chizuru’s father and are also looking for him.

Naturally, Chizuru starts to form bonds with her captors, most of whom are quite friendly despite their fearsome reputation. As she gains their trust, she gets to be more involved with the group’s activities, helping out around their barracks and accompanying them on patrols. Through her eyes, Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds takes the player on a tour through a fascinating period of history: one of violence, deception, and mystery, one with no easy answers or clear heroes, and one that laid much of the groundwork for forming a modern Japan.

The game’s attention to detail in its retelling of this history is meticulous. I don’t want to go too in-depth (because we’d be here for hours), but this particular period is one I’ve been fascinated by for years and have studied extensively. Kyoto Winds spares no expense in getting the most minor details as accurate as possible. That probably won’t matter to many, but it’s good to know that almost every detail of the roller-coaster of this game’s story is lifted straight from the history books. Each one of the bachelors that you see before you is based on someone real.

I say “almost” every detail because this is still a work of fiction. It adds some supernatural elements, and Chizuru herself is made up. Even so, these fictitious elements are there to augment the historical story, rather than replace it; they mean that, say, a character can “die” when their real-life counterpart did, while still remaining a part of the story. It’s all implemented very cleverly.

Romance may not be that driving force of the story, but it’s still a big part of it—after all, this is a dating sim. Depending on the person you choose and the ending you come to, the game moves between cute flings and bittersweet tragedy. With 12 bachelors there will always be those that resonate with you and those that don’t, but each route is enchanting in its own way, and it all helps build up the complete story of the Shinsengumi that Kyoto Winds seeks to tell. Most importantly, each one of them feels real and relatable—in part because of the excellent writing, and in part because of the gorgeous character portraits and hand-drawn stills that accompany each line. But most of all, it’s the story itself and its historical background that puts everything into perspective and brings each suitor to life.

The original Hakuoki: Shinsengumi Kitan came out in 2008 for PlayStation 2, and has been ported to a number of other platforms since. Kyoto Winds is the first half of a two-game effort to extend and re-imagine that game for a modern audience (Idea Factory are in the process of localizing the second). If you’ve played any of the previous games, you’ll find much of this one familiar, but you’ll also find a handful of new bachelors and a greatly expanded story. Even though this is only the first game, it feels complete; the endings have a sense of finality and closure, even though we know there’s more to come.

Kyoto Winds first came out on PlayStation Vita earlier this year, but its recent release on PC brings to a much wider potential audience. I have to admit that the PC port isn’t great, but it’s not bad, either. It’s clear that this is a game made for console first and foremost, and it’s best played with a controller. It works fine with mouse and keyboard, but the default keybindings are odd because they’re mapped to replicate the buttons of a gamepad—for example, the key to bring up the main menu is “I”, rather than Escape like you’d expect. It also lacks a lot of useful shortcuts that have become common in visual novels in recent years, like being able to go straight to the save menu at the touch of a button or having handy icons on the UI to open the text history.

Play it! Assuming you’re happy with a lot of reading and little action (this is a visual novel, after all), Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds has an exciting story to tell you. It’s got a dozen handsome men to date and some 30 endings to uncover, but the real draw here is the journey the game takes you along to reach those conclusions. Despite some supernatural elements, everything here is grounded in real history that’s been meticulously researched. People who’ve played the original Hakuoki will find a greatly expanded version of the first half of it here, and for anyone who hasn’t, this is the perfect time to give one of the premiere romantic dating sims a look.

Matthew Codd

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