Extra Halloween Post
I recently had a birthday and this year, I decided to celebrate by indulging in the 3 vs. That is: Vacation, Vodka and Visual Novels! I had seen a few posts from the translators over at manga gamer about this new game called Hashihime of Old Book Town and the cover at really caught my eye.
I tried to avoid learning too much about it as soon as I decided to play but seeing as it was in all the advertising, I couldn’t miss the fact that this was a “bl” title. Then again, I have been making my way through the Sakura series of visual novels so I figured it would be a nice change. As soon as I got a decent chunk of free time to dedicate to it, I bought myself a copy. Because I think this adds a lot to the game, I will avoid spoilers or going too deeply into the story here.
Oh man, I should have done this earlier. This isn’t a sponsored or requested post in any way. I’m just talking about this game cause I want to and it fits my theme. Ok back to the post.
I know that unfortunately, that “bl” tag is going to keep some of you away. It’s a shame, the let’s call them “romantic” (but really we all know I mean smutty) elements are a very small part of the story and come at the very end. I do believe there is a PG version in the works with the BL parts gutted out so if that’s the only thing stopping you from picking up his story then you may want to look out for it. Cause let me tell you, this tale is a Trip!
I should say that “game” or even “visual novel” here is a bit misleading as a label. The first route (read through) is a straight-up kinetic novel without a single input from the reader at any point. If you start over again you will at some point be given the choice to essentially trust a character or not, this is basically a divergence point where you can either set off on a specific route or continue down the common path. If you choose the route then back to the kinetic novel you go no more choices. Otherwise, you will eventually get to another divergence point.
As you can imagine there are very few choices to be made. On the upside, they all matter! In a way, the narrative structure is much closer to Steins Gate than a lot of visual novels I’ve played. Instead of a common trunk from which all the routes radiate out, like a three. You have a main plotline which occasionally splinters at intervals like a … I dunno…. Lily of the valley?
And that’s not the only thing that Hashihime has in common with Steins;Gate. There is some topsy turvy time-bending going on. Except instead of science we have a whole bunch of Yokai involved. Wait a minute, time travel… Yokai… Traditional Japanese literature, murder mystery, pretty boys and trippy art? Did somebody set out to design a game specifically for me? Yes. The answer is yes.
Most of the storyline focuses on a high tension murder mystery and it can get fairly bloody. In fact, as you make your way through the various routes, the body count starts to get pretty impressive in a way. There are a lot of references to classic Japanese folklore and authors. Mostly Kyūsaku Yumeno. That’s this guy in Bungo Stray Dogs.
Unfortunately, last time I checked (which was some time ago, I should check again) Dogra Magra had not been translated into English. It has however been translated into French and let me tell you, it’s quite the little mind screw. The two tales have quite a few parallels and it’s obvious that the former was used as at least partial inspiration. Of course, you can’t have a Japanese murder mystery without some mention of Ranpo Edogawa and his name does come up a few times as well.
You play as Tamamori who…wait… I said I wasn’t going to go into the story. You almost got me! Tricky! Instead, how about I just go over what I consider the highs and lows of this story. Cause that’s what it actually is.
This tale brings the concept of the unreliable narrator to extremes. However, as it does so openly right from the start, the reader doesn’t feel cheated. Instead, since pretty much every single person is untrustworthy, mostly yourself! You are never completely sure what to believe which makes this twisted little tale even more complex and keeps you on your toes.
Speaking of “yourself,”, I’ve never encountered a main character like this before. He is…not a very good person. Unlike previous games where I have been thrust into the personas of assassins or gangsters that did horrible things but had a narrative to justify it somehow, Tamamori is just sort of a jerk. He’s cowardly, selfish and even lazier than me. Although he’s not vilified for it, he’s never given any justification either. Basically, he’s probably not someone you’d ever really want to be friends with and that’s amazing! This specific type of character construct is really unusual and you can see that he was written that way on purpose. Considering how the story evolves it makes perfect sense too.
In fact, all the characters are a tightly coiled arrangement of wtf that manage to get thorough development through the separate layers of the story. Each one’s development interweaving with the others as the different routes reveal layer upon layer of mystery and tragedy. There are no heroes in this game but as it progresses you may be surprised to find that there are no actual villains either. Just regular ole deeply flawed people.
The constant references to Yokai and legends, mixed with classic Japanese novels and tidbits of local history delighted a japanophile such as myself. (For the record I tend to just generally enjoy local literature, mythology and history regardless of where they come from so if it’s not your thing you may find some parts tedious.)
This said the “rules” of the Yokai elements are clearly defined so it’s easy to follow along and to know when something isn’t right. This is not an anything goes and everything is possible universe that negates the stakes. On the contrary. In a nice subversion, anything out of the ordinary actually makes things more difficult for the protagonist rather than give the narrative an easy out.
As previously mentioned, I really enjoyed the designs of this game and was happy to find a generous amount of CGs. My favourites are the ones that depict the more surreal moments. In fact, I regularly went back over the image gallery throughout my playthrough just to admire them.
Finally, the nonlinear structure of the narrative was ideal to set up a mystery and it kept me completely engrossed in trying to figure out what exactly was going on, even in the later routes. If you like suspense this story really gets the mood across.
On the less than positive side, the story ended up going a bit too far in my opinion, bringing in too many historical elements and at one point inflating the stakes to a point where they became difficult to sustain. At this point, certain events that should have been tragic or terrifying ended up reading as cheesy or even comical to me. As always, I will remind you that I am a particularly harsh judge of drama and I imagine it won’t bother most readers as much.
On a more practical basis, this is a looooog VN. The Visual Novel database has it at upwards to 50 hours for completion and with no game mechanics and only 5 very minimal choices for the entire thing…well let’s just say that if you didn’t want to simply read a kinetic novel, then this won’t be for you.
Then there’s the smut. Now don’t get me wrong, I liked it. The scenes are well written and not too long and it does add quite a bit of spice if that’s what you like. But all the BL elements are completely and entirely unnecessary to the story, to the point that they feel like an afterthought. You know, like someone said, wait we most of our characters are male so if we need to sell this we’re gonna need to add in some Yaoi! And sadly, that may not have been wrong. I just think it’s too bad that it will likely turn off some readers that would have otherwise loved 98% of this experience.
Finally, I have a minor pet peeve about one of the very few game mechanics that does exit. Like most visual novels, the game does allow you to skip previously read scenes. However, due to the way the story folds upon itself time and again, you get a lot of scenes which are largely identical with only an added line for instance and the game will treat it as an entirely new scene which means you will find yourself rereading the same passages over and over again or trying to manually skip through without missing anything new which is not that easy.
For me, this visual novel was a surprise. I was expecting a fluffy no game set in historical japan but instead, I get a tight and slightly crazy suspense story in the style of classical Japanese novels. I really had no plans to write about this game at all but when I realized I had accidentally stumbled on such a great story for ghoulish Halloween themed reading, I suddenly felt the need to share it with you guys. If anyone else has played this I would adore your thoughts on it!
Oh, I almost forgot. I believe you can get this on steam or through Manga Gamer (which is where I bought it). Also, I showed great discipline in only sharing a very small percentage of the CGs. There are some naughty ones too but you’ll have to buy the game for those!