June 28, 2022
Who am I and what do I want? These are questions that are easy to answer in the modern era. But in ancient Japan, when honour, status, and reputation carry a burden that can be more important than your life, what do you choose? It’s a difficult situation, especially if your gender doesn’t suit the times.
Birushana: Rising Flower of Genpei is a visual novel, highlighting the struggle of a young woman who is hiding her gender while balancing the responsibilities of being an heir who can become a ruler. It’s a story that sucks you in, helping you understand the complexities of the characters while properly building the world around you. While the action scenes are betrayed by the medium of the visual novel and the setting can be difficult to understand, it is still a visual novel worth reading.
The main character Yoshitsune Minamoto, aka Shanao, is one of the last surviving members of the Genji clan. The Genji clan led an uprising against the current ruling clan, the Heike, but failed. The Genji have been driven to the brink of extinction, and the survivors are doing their best to hide and stay alive. While Yoshittsune Minamoto is known to be one of the last living male heirs, the truth is Shanao is a woman, which plays an important role in the plot.
Shanao, joined by her longtime friend Shungen, are living their lives in peace. Unfortunately, they are found by Noritsune Taiga (a member of the Heike clan), which threatens their peaceful life. This encounter leads to an upheaval of Shanao’s life, where she is forced to decide what she wants to do not only to survive, but to build the type of future she wants.
Along the way, the two meet Tomomori Taira, an important Heike clan member, Benkei Musashibo, a monk who fights against the Heike clan, and Yoritomo Minamoto, the only other Genji heir that Shanao knows of. It is a thrilling tale of politics, drama, and romance that can come together well if you have the patience to sit through a period drama.
The game is set in feudal Japan, and a lot of the terminology can escape you, along with the culture. You don’t have to be an expert on Japanese culture to understand a lot of things, but players coming from a Western culture will likely not understand the importance of some of the concepts in the story. Thankfully, the game does try to remedy some of those problems by providing a dictionary to help you understand words/events that you may not be familiar with. It also tries to put less emphasis on feudal Japan and instead turns it towards the relationship between the characters.
Each character has a lot of complexity, and with five different routes available in the game, you are able to explore the depths of the main cast one at a time, as well as get a better view of Shanao’s thoughts and emotions. The beginning of the game will largely have the same start, but different speech options will lead to different routes. Each speech option isn’t just another way of saying the same thing, but rather a different side of Shanao.
You get to shape Shanao’s personality as you choose options, and that determines your performance in the routes. Not only does this shape what kind of ending you get, but it also helps you see how Shanao can approach different situations. While her attitudes toward hereditary positions and politics don’t really change, it is great to see Shanao’s words reveal more about herself.
Birushana is a choose-your-own-adventure style romance novel, with different routes (Shungen, Noritsune, Benkei, Yoritomo, Tomomori) showing different perspectives of the story. It’s not just learning more about the route character and their relationship with Shanao, but also learning more about a character’s beliefs, their motivations, and their approaches to the world. Instead of having you “pick” a character and then go with it, the novel instead has you pick a route based on what you think Shanao would do, what personality you would give Shanao, and what you think is the right action.
“…players are able to decide what future Shanao would be looking for… as well as the steps she takes to get there.”
The choices available in the game help immerse players into its story. While many of us are not women in a chauvinistic, male-dominated ancient era, players are still able to decide what future Shanao would be looking for, what relationships she thinks would be beneficial, as well as the steps she takes to get there. It can be enjoyable taking Shanao on a journey when she would speak as you would. Unfortunately, after you have finished a route and want to reach the others, choosing your own route becomes annoying.
The visual novel can be imprecise about telling you which options lead to the result that you want. While it’s always great to play blind and see where your choices take you, you don’t actually know if your choices are helping your relationship with a character, or whether you’ve just put yourself in a route that you don’t want to be in. When you make choices, you see different flower colours and screen tints, but you don’t know what they mean, nor is it explained throughout the game.
You can somewhat tell what the colours mean if you get onto a character’s route, as there is a flowchart that has colour coding, but by then you are locked into the route. It also doesn’t give you more details as you proceed throughout the routes and you have to figure it out on your own, which can be frustrating, especially because there are bad endings and you can sometimes wonder why you ended up there, despite doing what you thought was right.
It’s a shame the choices and their resulting paths aren’t more easily readable because the routes all tell a great story. While you don’t have to fall in love with everything that happens, you can’t argue that you want to find out what happens next. You want to know how characters handle the relationships in their lives, the pressures that are put upon them, and how they resolve the challenges they face.
However, deliberating accessing their routes will involve a lot of trial-and-error, more than you feel would be necessary since you don’t really know which decision is going to set you on the right path. Skipping through some scenes that you have viewed already can also be a hassle, since the speed option isn’t as smooth as it could be. If the visual novel had more indicators that told you what a decision affected and what the different colours/images mean, it would be significantly easier to dive into the game and experience a different story.
There are also a lot of action scenes in the story (whichever route you take), and they are as intense as you can imagine. However, some of the visual novel’s weaknesses begin to show because it can sometimes be difficult to see or imagine a character struggling in combat. You don’t see injuries and you don’t see some of the cool fight moves.
While not having a big emphasis on action is not unusual for visual novels, it does dull the impact of the more intense fight scenes. That’s not to say that the visual novel would need 2D/3D animations, but with the amount of fighting involved, it would have been nice to have more still combat scenes than there are available.
Despite some flaws that lead to confusion, none of it takes away from the quality of the story or the depth of the characters, which is the real draw. Even if you aren’t a big fan of period dramas or aren’t a big fan of visual novels, Birushana: Rising Flower of Genpei is able to tell a powerful story about a woman fighting to achieve her peaceful life, as well as build relationships with the people around her.
- Complex characters are interesting to read about
- World-building is done well, and you can quickly grasp the foundation of the story
- You get to shape the personality of the main character
- Five different routes means more replayability, as well as new ways of experiencing the story
- You aren't clearly told what your choices influence
- Action scenes lose some intensity due to the visual novel medium
- Speeding up scenes you have already viewed feels clunky and slow
Birushana: Rising Flower of Genpei has great world-building and complex characters that helps to deliver a powerful story. Being able to shape the personality of the main character and feel invested in their adventure immerses you into the story, and you are tempted to see how everything ties together. The visual novel helps to break up the story and makes it easier to follow along. Replaying for different routes can be difficult since it’s not always clear what your choices affect, and the intensity of the action scenes isn’t helped by the visual novel medium. Despite its flaws, the story remains excellent, and you will be interested in seeing how the characters determine their future.