Many will come to Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds for the beautiful boys, but what struck me most about the game is its attention to detail and historical accuracy.
Note: There are some minor spoilers in this review.
It’s bizarre to me that video games haven’t really tapped into the potential of documentary games. Perhaps the memory of ‘90s classroom “edutainment” still lingers, but games would be such a great medium to teach about our world and its history. Sure, plenty of games use historical settings, but few do so without taking more than a little bit of creative license. The History Channel’s published a few well-intentioned but poorly-made attempts at documentary games, but the historical fiction in games tends to veer far more towards “fiction” than “historical”.
This is true of Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds as well—after all, it’s an otome dating sim, and a game where major plot points are built around demons and vampire-like Furies. However, when you ignore the obviously fictionalised elements, this game is so accurate to historical record that it’s something of a documentary about the Shinsengumi, an elite group of soldiers who policed Kyoto during the 1860s. In fact, at least as far as English-language resources go, this could almost be the authoritative Shinsengumi work, all wrapped up in the excitement and drama of an interactive historical romance.
Making the best otome game even better
But first, let’s talk briefly about what will be the main appeal of Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds: the romance. This is a remake of the first half of Hakuoki: Shinsengumi Kitan, which was first released for PlayStation 2 in 2008 and has been ported to a number of other platforms in the years since. This was one of the first otome games to get a widespread Western release in any official capacity, helping to popularise the genre: and rightly so, because it remains one of the best to this day.
The writing is top notch, bringing the charming bachelors to life and making them empathetic and endearing. Everyone will have their best boys (Toshizō Hijikata is the best, no arguments) but every character is likeable and their stories engrossing. Gorgeous artwork tops this off, with beautiful bishōnen character portraits and event scenes that are absolutely stunning. It’s an exciting, romantic, charming, bittersweet interactive drama.
Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds expands on that a great deal. There are three new bachelors, including heart-throbs Ryōma Sakamoto and Hachirō Iba. On top of that, all routes have have been expanded with extra scenes and chapters, and everything is so well-integrated that I had to compare Kyoto Winds and Shinsengumi Kitan side by side just to confirm which parts were actually new.
The trade-off for all of this new content is that Kyoto Winds covers just the first half or so of Shinsengumi Kitan. The original game spanned almost the full history of the Shinsengumi, leading all the way to the Battle of Hakodate in 1869, but Kyoto Winds concludes with the Battle of Toba-Fushimi in 1868. The second half of the story is remade in Hakuoki Shinkan: Hana no Shō, which came out last year in Japan (and doesn’t yet have a Western release confirmed).
This isn’t a criticism, just something to be aware of; Kyoto Winds certainly doesn’t feel like there’s anything “missing” as such, and it stands well enough on its own. In fact, I actually prefer the endings in Kyoto Winds, and feel like this is the better game overall. Hakuoki is one of the best otome games available, and this is the finest version of it—let’s just hope Hana no Shō gets a Western release.
A brief history of the Shinsengumi
Before going into the way Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds traverses history, it’s useful to have some point of reference. To that end, here’s a brief history of the Shinsengumi and the sociopolitical climate in which they operated.
In 1854, after hundreds of years of near-complete isolation from the West, Japan was forced to open its doors to American trade, under threat of attack by the USA’s superior navy. This sparked turmoil in the country: unprecedented trade brought economic instability, many saw the ruling Tokugawa shogunate as too weak to protect national interests, and social unrest eventually led to attacks on foreigners. In 1863, Emperor Kōmei issued an order to “expel the barbarians”; this was the first time in centuries an emperor had taken an active role in politics.
Around this time, a movement was building around ideology of “sonnō jōi” (“Revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians”). The aim was to overthrow the shogunate and restore political power to the Emperor, and the rebellion was largely focused on Kyoto, where the Emperor resided. The shogun, Tokugawa Iemochi, travelled from Edo to Kyoto in October 1863 to discuss the imperial edict, with a squad of rōnin known as the Rōshigumi to protect him. When the Rōshigumi returned to Edo, 13 members stayed behind to police Kyoto and quell insurgency. Thus, the Shinsengumi was born.
Over the next 7 years, the Shinsengumi fought in defence of the shogunate against the increasingly violent tactics of the pro-Imperialist Chōshū, Satsuma, and Tosa domains. They were respected by some – especially after the Ikedaya incident of 1864, where they foiled a plan to raze Kyoto to the ground and kidnap the Emperor amid the chaos – and feared by many. Depending on perspective, they were violent thugs policed Kyoto with an iron fist, or patriots fighting to protect the city, the shogunate, and even the Emperor himself from a violent uprising.
Ultimately, the shogunate forces—Shinsengumi included—were defeated, and the restoration of Imperial rule with Emperor Meiji ushered in a new age. This period came to be known as the Bakumatsu era.
Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds’ attention to historical detail
Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds is a work of fiction. First and foremost, it’s a visual novel in which you try to woo the handsome bachelors of the Shinsengumi (among a few other men), and major plot points to do with demons and Furies are clearly fictitious. At the same time, its attention to factual record is impeccable. This isn’t the sort of story that uses a period setting as a superficial backdrop; it’s a detailed account of the recorded history of the Shinsengumi, with a fictional narrative built around that.
The game opens in early 1864, as a young Chizuru Yukimura arrives in Kyoto to search for her missing father, Kodo Yukimura. A chance encounter sees her taken in by the Shinsengumi, who’re also looking for Kodo for reasons unknown. She spends the next few years in the group’s care, and finds herself getting involved in their efforts to police Kyoto – though the exact nature and degree of her contribution varies depending on the choices you make.
With this framework, Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds covers the bulk of the Shinsengumi’s time in Kyoto, and almost all of the major story beats are historical events. The early chapters cover the lead up to the Ikedaya Incident, complete with the arrest and interrogation of Shuntarō Furutaka that led to the Shinsengumi’s decisive victory, and the raid itself. This is a famous incident that’s been well covered by historians, and Hakuoki captures every little detail, from the sequence of events, to who went where and when, to specific injuries sustained by the likes of Heisuke Tōdō and Shinpachi Nagakura. The game even covers the deaths of Sōtarō Andō, Eisuke Okusawa, and Kakuzaemon Nida, who aren’t exactly well-known outside historian circles.
This same attention to detail is applied to all subsequent events covered by Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds: the Hamaguri Rebellion, the Sanjo Seisatsu incident, the departure of Kashitaro Itō to form the Goryo Eji, the assassination of Ryōma Sakamoto, the Incident at Aburano Kōji, and the Battle of Toba-Fushimi, to name but a few. Every battle in Hakuoki involves the people who took part in those battles in real life; almost every plot beat, no matter how small, has some basis in history.
When fact becomes fiction
Even the most fictitious parts of the game are usually built around history. Take, for example, the Water of Life, a strange serum that turns people into Furies: beings with rapid healing, almost unkillable, but with a tendency to go crazy at the smell of blood. They’re clearly made up, but they also allude to the the widely-held perception of the Shinsengumi as violent murderers. The group obviously didn’t have actual demons among its ranks, but it certainly had people who earned that reputation, from the ruthless leadership of Toshizō Hijikata to Kamo Serizawa’s drunken brawls.
The Water of Life also creates a neat solution to the problem of key figures in the story getting killed. To go strictly by the history books, quite a few of Hakuoki’s bachelors would be dead long before the end of the game, but the Water of Life conveniently allows their stories to continue despite a true-to-life depiction of their deaths. In the game, Ryōma Sakamoto gets assassinated in late 1867 at Ōmiya inn, just as he was was in real life. Most routes leave it at that, but for Ryōma’s own route, he’s forced to take the Water of Life, allowing his story to go on to the all-important romantic ending.
The most fascinating example of this relates to Keisuke Sanan. In real life, he committed seppuku in February 1865, for reasons that remain unclear to this day. In the game, he decides to take the Water of Life himself—it’s not seppuku, but he still does take his own life, in a sense. In some routes, you even witness Sōji Okita offering to kill Sanan himself (“It’d be my pleasure to help you die.”) in a nod to the fact that Okita was Sanan’s second in real life.
All that said, Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds does occasionally stray from history for the sake of telling a good story. The Battle of Toba-Fushimi serves as the story’s climax, but in real life, Sōji Okita spent the whole battle hospitalised inside Osaka Castle due to his tuberculosis. That wouldn’t make a particularly exciting finale, so for Okita’s route, he becomes a Fury and is able to participate as a result. In every other instance, drinking the Water of Life is a narrative stand-in for death, so you could assume the same thing was happening here, but real-life Okita didn’t actually die until a few months later.
An exploration of character
Even without the fictional elements, the Shinsengumi were such an interesting group that they’re perfect for a story-heavy game like a visual novel, and this character-driven narrative approach is a great way of recounting history. Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds makes it easy to get swept up and emotionally in the events of the period, and to offer a bit of a character study of the Shinsengumi and those around them. Where they violent killers who abused their station, or heroes putting their lives on the line to fight for country, tradition, history, and honour? That’s something that even the history books don’t agree on, subjective and conflicted as the accounts are. In all likelihood, there are probably elements of truth on both sides.
Through its various routes, Hakuoki dives deep into why each person did what they did, and the ideology behind their actions, from the Shinsengumi itself and the people within it to those who opposed them. These depictions are romanticised (this is an otome game after all), and the historical accuracy of a person’s thoughts and intentions is impossible to verify, but the characterisation nonetheless offers an insightful deep dive into to the sorts of thinking that drove the Bakumatsu conflict.
Toshizō Hijikata is the poster boy for Hakuoki, and, as one of the two vice-commanders, is among one of the best-known of the Shinsengumi. Known colloquially as the “Demon of the Shinsengumi”, he was the person responsible for the group’s strict code of conduct, which included strict adherence to bushido and a ban on such things as personal fights, with an deviance punishable by death. He used particularly brutal torture methods in his interrogations of insurgents, and by most accounts, he was a fierce man who commanded with an iron fist.
All of this is true in his depiction in Hakuoki, but the game goes a step furthering in trying to understand the why of his actions—and, by extension, those of the Shinsengumi as a whole. Hijikata, along with the group’s leader, Isamī Kondo, and a few other members, was born to a family of farmers. He dreamed of being samurai, and putting his life on the line in defence of lord and country, but a strict class system meant that was all but impossible. The Shinsengumi gave him a way to fulfill that dream, and he was made hatamoto—a samurai of the highest order—to the shogunate in 1867.
Hakuoki’s Hijikata genuinely believed that what he was doing was for the good of the country, and that the ends justified the means. He’s fierce, focused, and genuinely believes that was he’s doing is necessary for Japan’s future. Having finally achieved his dream of being samurai, he wants nothing more than to live up to his duty—hence his commitment to bushido and his unwavering resolve in the face of danger.
On the other hand, you’ve got Ryōma Sakamoto. He was a visionary who saw a brighter future for Japan, one where the nation could learn and benefit from Western advances so that it compete with the West on even footing. To Sakamoto, Japan’s isolationism was setting it up to be subjugated by stronger Western forces, just as happened to China in the Opium Wars and so many other colonised lands. He wanted to abolish the feudal shogunate system and introduce America-inspired democracy to Japan. All of this put him directly in opposition with the shogunate, and, by extension, the Shinsengumi.
In exploring Sakamoto’s ideals, Hakuoki questions everything that the Shinsengumi’s motivations. They were committed to tradition and the status quo; Sakamoto advocated for modernisation, and despite pulling the strings behind the much of the Bakumatsu conflict, he wanted to avoid war and hoped for a peaceful resolution.
Other characters offer still other perspectives: Susumu Yamazaki and Inoue Genzaburō’s unfailing loyalty to Hijikata and Kondo shows the Shinsengumi as a place where people with nowhere to go could find a place to belong and be part of something; Hachirō Iba’s reluctance to kill highlights the violence of the Shinsengumi’s actions, and also the necessity of them; Sōji Okita’s struggles with feeling useless once tuberculosis rendered him unable to fight put a focus on the sense of duty for a soldier and the role of samurai in a changing Japan.
Again, they’re all romanticised to a degree, but the way the bachelors in this game are a fascinating character study of the people involved with the Shinsengumi and the ideals that drove the Bakumatsu conflict. Between its authenticity to history and such a nuanced, thought-provoking exploration of why those events took place, Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds is one of the best accounts of the Shinsengumi available in English, even if it is a work of fiction.
It should be pretty clear by now how much I love Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds, but I do have one bone to pick with it: the English script could do with some work. Don’t get me wrong, for the most part, the localisation is excellent, with a poetic writing style that’s perfect for a period romance like this. There are some beautiful turns of phrase, and the text itself is as beguiling as the story it tells.
That makes the problems that much more apparent and distracting when they show up. There are a lot of typos across the script, and though they’re admittedly little things (minor spelling mistakes, incorrect apostrophes, and the like) they’re enough to pull you out of the moment. There are some awkward sentence constructions, and a tendency to repetitively use nouns where pronouns would suffice—”the samurai… the samurai… the samurai…”. That’s fairly typical of Japanese, but in English it comes across as stilted. Another editing pass, or at least some extra proof-reading, would have gone a long way to flattening out the one weak point in an otherwise fantastic visual novel.
And that’s the thing; this is a fantastic game. Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds is one of the best otome games around, which is reason enough for me to recommend it wholeheartedly. But for the history nerd in me, the thing that makes this game so great isn’t the romantic stories or the handsome men; it’s the fact that, fictional elements aside, this is the most detailed, authentic account of the Shinsengumi that you can find in English.
Hakuoki: Kyoto Winds is developed by Idea Factory and published by Idea Factory International. It’s available now for PS Vita.
A press copy was supplied by the publisher for this review.