With actual battles that took place in feudal Japan (but no giant enemy crabs).
I was first introduced to Birushana: Rising Flower of Genpei via the trailer that ran during this year’s New Game Plus Expo, but it didn’t clue in until just after I started the game that this was an attempt to turn a major era of Japanese history into a romance game. We held off on the review until launch day to see what it would be like with a patch (after what happened with the last game from this developer/publisher combo, it was necessary) and now that it’s been mostly fixed it’s a decent novel that I have no interest in trying to 100%.
Birushana is set in Japan against the backdrop of the Genpei War (1180-1185) and uses a gender-flipped version of one of the war’s main figures as the protagonist – though she doesn’t start out with the most well-known name (a ceremony where they take their adult name is on every route) and their given name can be altered. For plot reasons, the surname cannot be changed. They begin the game in a Buddhist temple just outside Kyoto as a female who is forced into living as a male; this is done so they can remain in the temple and be trained to help their Genji clan defeat the Heike clan who is dominating Kyoto. (Although the depiction is not historically accurate, they are frequently depicted in fiction as a bishonen or attractive young male; clearly turning them into a female is taking that to the extreme.) The plot follows the real-life events of the civil war almost entirely, though fantastical elements abound as I don’t think the true soldier had the ability to fly into a berserker rage or drain people’s life force. Still, as a history lesson it’s nice to have a change from the Warring States era in a video game form.
Aside from the naive protagonist who has been living as a male for most of their life, most of the other characters are interesting adaptations of historical figures. The love interests are based around familiar character archetypes as applied: in “recommended order” they’re a rival, the smart guy, the big guy (who doubles as a monk the real warrior defeated), the ace (the warlord who led the Genji army, and they take great pains to make it not incest), and the token evil one. In most of the routes, the only female characters mentioned by name are the protagonist’s mother who abandoned them and the mother of the would-be Heike emperor; in almost every case, they’re written to be hate sinks which is probably accurate, but still irritating in a modern context (especially since there was a female samurai who aided the Genji in real life but is only referred to off-hand in the story). The other hate sinks are a pair of brothers in the Heike clan who attempt to kidnap and effectively rape the protagonist on almost every route: setting one of them as a potential love interest at the end of the game just made me skip their route entirely. So they can write great antagonists, but maybe a little too well.
Each route has twelve chapters: a three-chapter common route, then nine chapters per love interest. A majority of the choices come up in the common route; chapter 2 has up to eight choices, but the most on any post-common route chapter is three and in checking, the last route in recommended order doesn’t have any choices after chapter 9. So there’s a lot of A-buttoning through text. The modern option of indicating the success of a choice is present, though it’s not immediately clear in the common route which suitor would be pleased by the choices: they’re indicated by a color, but these colors only really get shown on the game’s flowchart.
For the second straight release, an Idea Factory-published otome got saved by the day 1 patch. The first two routes and about half of the third were played pre-patch, and there was an obnoxious amount of typos and missing or duplicated words; getting the game now would make them “mildly annoying” rather than perpetual. Graphically, there’s decent environmental variety given how much of Japan they have to explore, but from about chapter 7 of a route on the repetition will become increasingly necessary as the plot works its way through the war itself. The music is standard stereotypical Japanese fare, while the sound effects (particularly clashing swords) might need to go down a notch or two if playing on TV.
As an excuse to hit up the sources on Wikipedia to read about the actual war that formed Japan’s political system for more than half a millennium, Birushana: Rising Flower of Genpei does a really good job. As a romance… four out of five isn’t bad, I guess? But the presence of that fifth one made me bail out far faster than normal for one of these games.