'Hakuoki: Memories of the Shinsengumi', a Nintendo 3DS title from Aksys Games.
Growing up in the 1980's and into the 1990's, one of the most popular things for a boy to have wasn't necessarily an Atari or NES. For many, it was author Edward Packard's "Choose Your Own Adventure" books in which players could dictate how the story would progress by selecting from a list of options then skipping ahead or behind in the book to that choice's corresponding segment of the novel. Not only would this allow for a slightly different story each time the book was read, it would also play out in the reader's mind as he read it.
Hakuoki: Memories of the Shinsengumi, a Nintendo 3DS title from developer Idea Factory and publisher Aksys Games, works very much like this in the form of a vis-novel. At its core, that decades-old concept is very much the same and it delivers a very strong narrative. Unfortunately, those seeking something action-packed will be sorely disappointed.
Players of Hakuoki: Memories of the Shinsengumi take on the role of Chizaru Yulimura, a young woman who sets out on a journey in Feudal Japan as she searches for her missing father. Shortly after arriving in Kyoto, however, things go awry and she winds up being saved and taken in by a group of near-ronin known as the Shinsengumi. From here, things are more or less up to you. What do you tell them as they interrogate you and your motives? Do you obey the warriors or defy them and attempt an escape? The choices made here and throughout the story dictate not only how the plot will progress, but also how the characters interact with Yulimura. The ultimate destination for the story, however, stays pretty much the same regardless how it's played.
While the Hakouki is more of a narrated story that hearkens thoughs of the pre-television radio shows of the early 20th century than it is a game in any modern sense, the ESRB chose to give it an "M for Mature" rating. While playing, it's rather easy to see why. Not only is there a fair amount of adult language, the situations presented to the player can be quite graphic as the game's writers do a very good job at conveying the violence associated with being a Ronin in that era of Japanese history as well as the supernatural that proves prevalent in this fictional story.. Also, the story can turn quite dark in almost an instant as there are quite a few plot twists to be found. In other words, M. Night Shyamalan would be pleased.
Outside of Hakouki's few core mechanics, there are a handful of side elements to it. As Yulimura interacts with the Shinsengumi, she can form (or destroy) emotion bonds with its key members with possible romances blooming. There is also an encyclopedia that populates as the story progresses, which is a handy tool for those who set the game down for an extended period of time and need a few reminders upon resuming. Furthermore, both button-mapped and touch controls are available to give players options on how to control the "action". There is also a photo booth that makes use of the 3DS camera and superimposes characters from the story onto taken photographs, though this specific option is mostly fluff that the game could probably do without. One final side option, known as "Hakuoki Memories", is actually fairly nifty as it re-tells the story from the prospective of the men of the Shinsengumi.
For all its merits in terms of story and presentation (character art is quite well done indeed), there is one very glaring weakness with Hakuoki: Memories of the Shinsegumi: lack of choices. While that might seem contrary to the entire core concept of a choose-your-own-adventure vis-novel, it's true in this case. That's not to say that there aren't enough options from which to choose, rather it's that the opportunities to make choices are far to infrequent. While the story is an easy one for the reader to get into, the lack of choice opportunities prevents players from feeling fully invested within it.
As for the 3D-ness of this 3DS game, it's quite forgettable. While in certain scenes it does add some visual depth, for the most part it isn't needed. The game can be played just as well in 2D and on the 2DS as it can in 3D on the 3DS and 3DS XL.
While those original "Choose Your Own Adventure" books were typically aimed at boys aged 8-14 or so, Hakuoki: Memories of the Shinsegumi is designed with female gamers in mind. To that end, the men are romance novel pretty and the GUI is soft on the eyes. Still, it presents a story that should appeal to boys and men alike just as well as it should female gamers. A pleasant break from the action-oriented games that make up the majority of the games on the market today, those who download a copy of Hakuoki: Memories of the Shinsegumi from Nintendo's eShop should enjoy being able to get lost in a strong story while still having the tactile sensation of playing on the 3DS.
Version tested: Nintendo 3DS
(Aksys Games supplied a copy of this game for review.)
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