Hakuoki: Edo Blossoms review: Fall of the Shinsengumi

Despite being the first half of a two-part remake, last year’s Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds stood on its own surprisingly well. It expanded greatly upon the original Hakuoki, with six new romance options and narrative routes, and three entirely new characters among them. Even though the original routes were “cut short” in a sense, they still felt complete, and offered a feeling of closure; if I didn’t know better, I’d never have guessed that Kyoto Winds was the start of a two-part game.

As the conclusion to that story, Hakuoki: Edo Blossoms doesn’t stand alone nearly as well. Playing Kyoto Winds first isn’t just recommended, it’s vital. There’s a recap at the start of the game, but it’s not nearly detailed enough to avoid the inevitable confusion that would amount from a brand new Hakuoki player jumping in here, to say nothing of the fact that no recap can make up for the building of emotional bonds that comes with actually playing the game—and this is a romance game, after all. So if you haven’t played Kyoto Winds, or at least the original Hakuoki, it’s crucial that you start there.

The overarching story of Hakuoki, across both Kyoto Winds and Edo Blossoms, tells of the Shinsengumi, a group of warriors established as a sort of police force in 1860s Kyoto. At that time, Japan was in a state of upheaval due to the sudden end of its isolationist policy, and a rebellion was growing against the ruling shogunate. The insurgents were focused on Kyoto, making it a chaotic and deadly city, spurring the pro-shogunate Shinsengumi into action to try to keep the peace and quell the rebellion—something they did with violent efficiency.

This is all true to history, and for whatever reason, the Shinsengumi has been a pop cultural fascination in Japan for decades. They’ve been the subject of numerous films, books, TV shows, comics, games, and stage plays, and have grown to almost mythical status despite the relative recency of their exploits.

Related reading: Hakuoki does a remarkable job of exploring the real history of the Shinsengumi and Bakumatsu period, something I outlined in some depth in my review of Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds. 

But the Shinsengumi story is a tragic one. They were a force to be reckoned with in Kyoto for a few years, but anti-shogunate sentiment grew—with the support of the Emperor, no less—and the rebels united as the Imperial Japanese Army. During the Boshin War (1868-1869), pro-shogunate forces were pushed further and further north in the face of an Imperial Army equipped with Western weapons and military tactics. For anyone fighting on behalf of the shogunate, loss was inevitable, though that didn’t stop them—they made their final stand at the Battle of Hakodate in 1869, and it was there that the curtains were drawn on the once-powerful Shinsengumi

Hakuoki: Edo Blossoms tells the story of the group’s fall, through the different perspectives of the different main characters. For people like Toshizo Hijikata and Hajime Saito, it’s a story of a warrior’s spirit in the face of changing world, one that has no need for samurai. For the likes of Harada Sanosuke and Shinpachi Nagakura, it’s a story about the Shinsengumi’s internal conflicts that grew more pronounced when they were put on the back foot. For someone like Ryouma Sakamoto—an enemy of the Shinsengumi, and the mastermind behind the alliance that became the Imperial Army—it’s a story about seeing one’s dreams not play out as planned, and trying to find peace in this new, very different world.

While Kyoto Winds had a lengthy common route, full of choices that determined which of the game’s bachelors you ended up with, Hakuoki: Edo Blossoms simply gives you a choice up front. This makes sense, when you consider how the original Hakuoki was structured: about two-thirds common route, one third character-specific route. With the way the game’s been divided for the remake, Edo Blossoms is basically an extended version of those character-specific routes.

Instead of choices that affect who you end up with, the decisions in Edo Blossoms all affect how things go with your chosen beau. Each one has a good ending, a tragic ending, and a bad ending, and unlike Kyoto Winds, making the wrong series of choices can lead to an early “game over”-esque ending. Fortunately, the routes are relatively short—a few hours each at first pass—and skipping previously-read dialogue can see you get back to the point of a key decision within a matter of minutes.

The good endings, as you’d expect, are your happily-ever-afters. In real life, almost nobody from the Shinsengumi lived beyond the Boshin War, but Hakuoki is happy to fictionalise things to let you have your moment with your handsome warrior—and they are very sweet, very heartfelt moments indeed. The good endings also offer the most insight into their respective characters, so even if they’re not strictly historically accurate, they’re historically authentic in the way they explore the issues of that period.

I have one bone to pick with Hakuoki: Edo Blossoms, though, and that’s with the localisation. I’m not sure if it has a different translator to Kyoto Winds, but the English script is very tonally different, to the point of being distracting. Where Kyoto Winds was flowery and poetic, appropriately so for a period piece, dialogue and narration in Edo Blossoms is aggressively modern. A few characters curse like sailors, and while that sort of characterisation makes sense for someone like Nagakura, the actual words used feel very out of place. There’s nothing like playing a game set in 1860s Japan and having characters referring to cowards as “pussies”.

The script has its moments—Saito’s route is particularly enjoyable, because he’s given that more poetic dialogue as a character quirk—but overall, I found it a lot less enjoyable than Kyoto Winds. That was a game I enjoyed reading for reading’s sake as much as anything else, but in Edo Blossoms, the dialogue is just a means to telling the story.

It also has a recurring issue with the way dates are localised. In Japanese, Hakuoki uses the lunar calendar that was standard in Japan prior to the Meiji Restoration. There’s roughly a month difference between that calendar and the Gregorian calendar, which is standard in the West and has been in use in Japan since 1873. The issue that arises in Hakuoki is an inconsistency in whether lunar calendar dates are converted to Gregorian ones, or simply left as is—for example, the third month is localised as “March” in some instances, and “April” in others. For the most part, that’s just an odd quirk that only historians will notice or care about, but there are a couple of instances where it distorts the chronology of what’s happening in the game, which can be very confusing. This was an issue in Kyoto Winds as well, and it’s sad to see that it hasn’t been resolved.

The actual story that Hakuoki: Edo Blossoms tells, though, is a brilliant one. It’s beautiful and bittersweet, full of historical drama and heartfelt character moments, which is exactly how a Shinsengumi romance should be. Just don’t pick this up if you haven’t played Kyoto Winds first, or you’ll be left very confused indeed.

Recommended

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Hakuoki: Edo Blossoms is developed by Otomate/Idea Factory and published by Idea Factory International. It’s available now on PlayStation Vita (reviewed), and PC.

A copy of the game was supplied by the publisher for this review.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.