Many, many moons ago (back in September 2010, to be exact) Aksys games conducted a survey about otome games to gauge interest in the genre. Then, in July 2011, the company announced that they would be localizing Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom, making it the first major otome game to be released in North America. Set in Kyoto in historical Japan and featuring the famous group known as the Shinsengumi, the game will featuring an intriguing blend of fact, fantasy, and, of course, romance. While a handful of fans jumped for joy at the announcement, countless others scratched their heads in disbelief.
The obvious question you’re probably asking is: “What on earth are otome games, anyway?” Otome, which literally means “young woman” in Japanese, is the term used to refer to a genre of dating simulation games aimed at a female audience. Many of you have heard of male-oriented dating sims, or bishōjo games, such as Tokimeki Memorial or LovePlus where the player controls a male protagonist to pursue one of the many potential girlfriends. In fact, the mention of dating sims probably conjures up images of shy-looking young Japanese men wedding lady friends in their DS and stories of how Japan’s declining birth rate is somehow connected to the nation’s males being more interested in 2D lovers than real women.
Though dating simulation games have found a special place in the game industry in Japan, they have never really made the jump to international markets, with the exception of a few that feature cross-genre elements such as Thousand Arms, Persona 3, and the Harvest Moon games. In recent years, however, there has been an increasing niche market for PC eroge, or erotic games, in the US, but otome games have remained largely ignored.
It’s worth noting that in Japan, otome games are just as, if not more, popular than their male bishojo counterparts. Countless new titles come out every month, and with a number of publications dedicated solely to the genre, it’s easy to see from a glance just how wide-reaching the genre’s spread is. Spanning from text-heavy visual novels to dating sims with RPG elements, otome games are everywhere. PC-only titles make up the more risqué end of the spectrum, while the more tame games land on the PSP, DS, and to a lesser extent, the PS3. Western gamers may be shocked and awed to learn that the PS2 is still going strong in terms of dating sim releases over in Japan, as the games tend to not require much power to run and companies can try them out there first cheaply, later porting the game to a handheld if it proves successful.
Regardless of how popular dating sims are in Japan, the genre has never got off the ground in the west. It may be because of the anime-style graphics or the heavy amount of text, but publishers have pretty much universally determined that localizing a dating sim, be it bishōjo or otome, would be equivalent to shooting themselves in the foot. Not Aksys, however. Perhaps they noticed the extremely dedicated otome game fan presence online, or perhaps they were spurred on by the surprisingly good reception their visual novel/adventure gamble 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors received… Whatever the reasoning may have been, they are now set to release Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom in February 2012.
But is the game going to succeed, or is it going to be a royal flop? Fans can only hope for the best, but I, for one, remain skeptical. Yes, 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors did surprisingly well for a game that was largely based around reading text and looking at stoic 2D images, but it also had a suspenseful, thriller movie-like narrative and wide potential audience. By releasing a game that is by and large targeting women as its main audience, Aksys as effectively halved its potential market. No matter how much they try to push the fact that the game consists of enough adult themes (And blood! Gasp!) to earn it an M rating, the simple truth is that the vast majority of male gamers (and probably many female gamers) are just not going to be interested in romancing male characters. Though I could go on about the immersive voiceovers or how great the stories can be, the bottom line is that otome games are dating sims first and foremost, where the main objective is to select the right combination of options in order to score a “good” ending where you end up with the guy of your choosing.
Now, I’m not saying that men shouldn't play the games –– to the contrary, if I had my way, I’d make everyone go out and preorder the game right now and support Aksys in their endeavor. But though I am a fan of the genre, I understand and acknowledge its limited appeal. In the end, though 999 did surprisingly well for what it was, we still haven’t heard a peep from Aksys about a localization of the sequel, which is already available on the Vita in Japan.
I don’t want to be a Negative Nancy, but I find it very hard to believe that Hakuoki is going to be the start of a lucrative market for otome games in English. The game was an obvious good first pick on Aksys’ part, what with the anime and manga tie-ins, multiple releases on a number of platforms, and a comparitavely mature story that is more likely to capture a wider audience, but in the end, how many people are going to go out of their way to give Hakuoki a go that aren’t already interested in the genre? To continue the comparison with 999, I believe what really helped that game was the number of people who decided to give it a go and ended up being pleasantly surprised by their experience. How many people is Aksys going to be able to convince to try Hakuoki, especially with the PSP all but dead to most gamers and the PS Vita looming on the horizon? Though I want so badly to be optimistic, I find it difficult to imagine Hakuoki taking off in the west unless a large number of gamers suddenly have a major change of heart.
As things stand, I will put in my preorder for the limited edition and hope for the best. With JAST USA also looking to localize a big name otome game in the near future, perhaps my predictions will turn out to be wrong.