Whether we want to acknowledge it, or not the world of gaming was built upon a gender biased foundation. Game developers either exploit the human anatomy in order to make characters such as that of females more appealing to a male audience, or take a purely girly approach not taking in account the fact that female gamers would love to see a strong willed female protagonist. There's even the fact that there are gamers who are gay who would be willing to support games more if only their own gender preference was deemed as important as everyone else's. I think in a haphazard sort of way Aksys Game's/Ideal Factory's "Hakuoki" series actually goes out of their way to provide such an outlet for both the female audience, and gay gamers alike. With a shojo artistic style, and a story geared towards giving the feminine characters an empowering voice the game sheds a unique light on the samurai era. One that's unlike any other. Not only does it contain plenty of historically true elements in it's fictitious storyline, but the game also includes a romantic nature with some reverse harem activity for the gamers who are into that sort of thing. While it is geared more towards a female, or gay audience you might find as I did that it's enjoyable regardless of it's feminine appeal.
In "Hakuoki: Stories of the Shinsengumi" we get to follow the first-person account of a brave young female named 'Chiziru Yukimaru' who has embarked upon a quest to find her father's whereabouts. Her father who is a doctor skilled in western medicine has gone missing during a recent outing to Kyoto, and Chiziru is deeply concerned about his safety as well as the lack of follow-up communication. Living in an era where it's dangerous for girls, and women to wander about alone young Chiziru hides her gender, and dresses as a boy in order to infiltrate the troubled town/village of Kyoto. Along the way she finds herself running for her life from a group of rogue ronin who would like to kill her just for her family sword. During the altercation Chiziru is confronted by another, more otherworldly threat, and is indirectly saved by a band of shogunate supporters known as the "Shinsengumi". After laying waste to the bloodthristy ronin killers who showed up just a moment before the Shinsengumi blue coats did the Shinsengumi themselves take Chiziru into custody in order to decide her fate. Not knowing of her gender the Shinsengumi leaders almost decide to end her life, but upon revealing her true nature Chiziru is spared, and ultimately befriended by the skilled group of male samurai. Her initial quest to find her father is once again engaged as Chiziru follows her new samurai companions through battles, and war just to find out why her father had disappeared in the first place.
Plot twists, and turns are a plenty as Chiziru, and her new samurai friends aid each other against insurmountable odds in a political conflict that spans years worth of Japanese history. As Chiziru Yukimaru it is your goal to make the right decisions regarding your well being, your father's well being and that of your fellow Shinsengumi comrades. Throughout the visual novel reading of Chiziru's first-person account you will be blessed with amazing visual representations of each character, thematic music, and a pop-up encyclopedia that will better help you understand the terms related to the period of Japanese history in which the tale takes place. Your decisions which come in the form of clickable actions/reactions will either end your trek through the story abruptly, or allow you to continue your journey forward.
The story itself requires a lot of reading, and a lot of attention to detail as there will be instances where a proper reaction, or action is required. Chiziru's tale, as it were is divided up by monthly segments which are combined to create a full chapter's worth of content. Of course there are multiple chapters involved, and even plenty of DLC add-ons (Free & Paid) to further the adventure at hand. The thematic music sets the proper mood for each situation, and the slightly animated shojo characters add an emphasis on the character's realism. As such the game's artistic, and visual novel approach comes off as being more than just a mere story, but instead draws the gamer deeply inward giving them things to reference, and even some stuff to leave up to the imagination. In a way it's like reading a book, and watching a movie at the same time. The visual, and musical offerings greatly boost the effects of the words being read, and in doing so make for the ultimate visual novel experience.
For those of you worried about settings, and such the game has a ton of such tweaks in place. While the spoken dialogue is an unchangeable Japanese, the subtitles themselves are displayed in English making it accessible to the American audience as well as the Japanese. In the way of volume settings you'll find that you can tweak the volume level of each character individually, or set the standard volume settings (Voices, BGM, Effects ...) to your liking. As I mentioned earlier on this game does have some "Romantic" elements to it, but if you so desire you can turn them off, and avoid them completely. Like any true anime style game you'll also find in place a gallery filled with unlockable art, and videos as well as an encyclopedia menu in which all your encountered encyclopedia entries will be kept for reference purposes. The game ties in true events along with some fictional accounts, so having an encyclopedia to refer to definitely aids in distinguishing the two story elements.
Now for the verdict ...
Surprising as it may seem I actually loved my playthrough of 'Hakuoki: Stories of the Shinsengumi'. The game as a whole drew me in, and even though I knew I needed to stop to take a break I felt compelled to continue onward just to see how Chiziru's, and the Shinsengumi's story played out. The combination of shojo art, anime inspired music, and expert storytelling really did a lot for this game. Regardless of people warning me about it's "boring" nature I found myself thoroughly enjoying it. Everything about it was impressively done. The characters were the sort that would have you favoring them, or despising them with a passion. Each character was fleshed out in such a way that their parts within the story were crucial. Most of the characters aside from the generic soldiers, and victims had important roles that setup the clashes involved just right. Each battle, though mostly featured in the onscreen dialogue felt epic, and decisive. Even the main protagonist, Chiziru Yukimaru had many important roles to play in the plot advancement. In fact her role compared greatly to the Shinsengumi subjects who were mentioned in the game's title.
With everything weighed, and measured I definitely think this game is worth a recommendation. In saying so though I know it will only appeal to a smaller portion of the gaming community. Keep in mind though that I'm not a girl, and I'm as straight as an arrow. Even going in with these perspectives on things I still enjoyed the game. I do think however that Aksys Games, and Ideal Factory were reaching out to the more feminine audience this time. Not that that's a bad thing at all. The setting feature which will allow you to turn of "Romantic" content does help the story to be enjoyed by a straight male audience as well. In the end it's going to be up to you though. Do you like a good samurai story? Do you like the shojo anime/manga art style? Do you like a pure visual novel type of game? If you do then this might be something that's worth your attention. Keep in mind there's also plenty of available DLC add-ons to extend gameplay, and the quality of it. Some of the DLC samples are free, and some are paid. If you love what you find in "Hakuoki: Stories of the Shinsengumi" though I'd say go for it!