Review – Birushana: Rising Flower of Genpei
I don’t think people ever give Idea Factory and Compile Hearts the fair shake that they deserve. On the one hand, people see things like Hyperdimension Neptunia, Mary Skelter and things in the Monster Monpiece series as proof of awful fanservice with borderline assault levels of female engagement. I’m not saying that isn’t happening in those games, I’m just saying that, because we’re so focused on what’s wrong with those, we can’t see how right the other side of the coin is.
I continue to play the Otome visual novels that Idea Factory gets behind because they are fantastically written, from Code: Realize to Collar X Malice and even Amnesia (though I confess I didn’t care from Amnesia as much). When developers and writers don’t need to keep shoehorning in how someone’s towel falls off or why it’s okay everyone’s locked in the super sexy haunted mansion, you get real results. And, with Birushana: Rising Flower of Genpei, you get a beautifully crafted historic fiction piece with a lot of heart and personality.
Birushana drops you deep into the Heian era (about 1160 AD) and puts you in the shoes of Shanao, the supposed heir to the Genji family, which was all but exterminated by the Heike clan some years ago. Calling upon actual historical events and figures, you are living in the aftermath of the Heiji Rebellion, trying to live peacefully when mercenaries, looking to earn gold from the Heike, try and disturb your solitude.
It takes very little before you find yourself forced out of your protective exile to confront the descendants of those who killed your father and stole your mother from you, of those who still secretly support the Genji and wish for a return to form. It’s a political story written against the backdrop of the bloody history of Japan, and, naturally, it has a twist. For Shanao has always been thought to be a man…but what if she was a woman? Well, naturally, everyone would be tripping over themselves to try and earn your affection, but we’ll cross that bridge in a moment.
As you might expect, Birushana is a multi-path visual novel that focuses on the romantic elements of potentially ending up with any number of suitors, and has a series of endings for each (including the unlockable IF endings). You might end up with one of two of the Heike clan successors (who are inextricably attracted to you), a lifelong sympathizer with your fallen clan, the dude who’s looked out for you your whole life (and naturally has fallen in love with you over time), or Benkei, the himbo with a heart of gold who thinks he can just steal every sword from every single Heike soldier ever and war will be over. In case this isn’t abundantly clear, I love Benkei so much as an interest and just as a character, and I want a Birushana anime just to see him in greater detail. Also, like many of these characters, Benkei was a real person, which is just even more delightful.
Out the gate, you know Birushana is going to do a few things exceedingly well, and that’s sound and voice acting. I don’t know what it is with going the extra mile on these otome games, but I cannot get over how good the voice acting is in every speaking character. From Noritsune’s condescending, mocking tones to Shugen’s desperately earnest confessions, you get a full gamut of emotions and ranges that I don’t think I see in most live-action Japanese tv shows (looking at you, Half Blue Sky).
Additionally, the soundscape that helps to capture the feeling of this pre-Sengoku timeframe is delicate and deliberate, giving plenty of ideas and evoking sensations without being too on-the-nose. You’re not going to hear a ton of reed flutes and taiko drums, but there’ll be enough when the time comes for it. Plus the opening track is an absolute banger if you’re into anime/video game songs, so give it a listen if you can find it on YouTube.
The other most important element for Birushana is Shanao herself, which could have gone any number of directions. We often see titles where the female lead, even if she’s the main character, is offered so little in terms of personality or choices to give any agency outside of “A Man Will Fall in Love With Me.” As much as I loved Cupid Parasite, Lynette had very little to say in her own destiny other than to abjectly accept or reject the advances of her compatriots. Shanao, by contrast, starts the game by BEATING ASS across multiple fronts before being dragged, bodily, out of the fight to live another day.
She is actively wrestling with the ideas of either embracing her legacy and all the messiness that comes with it or trying to figure out how to at least save Japan from itself as the infighting rages on. She is full of anger, vengeance and hatred for what happened to her people and she struggles with it as she attempts to embrace her human side long, LONG before she thinks about her femininity.
When men first start fawning over her, it’s through the scope of someone who is dealing with so much more than trying to land a mate, and, as a result, the tones seem mocking and enfantalizing, which only stokes Shanao’s fires more. If you go through the right routes and connect correctly, she’ll start to see how the words and intentions of these men are earnest, which is shocking. It’s definitely a guessing game, though: each choice Shanao makes is met with an image of five lotus flowers, someone blooming more than others, and you have to use this to figure out which person you’ve just connected with through your comment. There’s thankfully plenty of options available (besides the normal two hundred save slots) that helps direct you down the right path.
Birushana doesn’t just allow you to read back the script of everything that’s happened, but also has an active “timeline” feature in the menu that shows you where the choices branched off without revealing what could or could not have happened. Besides allowing you to properly decide where you can backtrack to in order to find new endings, it also saves you time on retreading ground you’ve already explored. You can fast forward at breakneck speeds to where you next find a fork in the conversation, and it’s great to decide on a new path in order to discover what other horrible things could happen. Seriously, nothing like a history based visual novel to remind you just how BADLY love can go.
Lastly, the little things of Birushana help elevate this visual novel from “good” to “great,” and they all work in tandem with each other. The animation on when characters speak is pretty goddamn good, allowing you a real sense of projection from the speaker and not just a Muppet banging out lines in front of a green screen. The chunks of text on screen are pretty bite sized, allowing for full appreciation of the dramatic reading without feeling the urgency to skip ahead because you processed the words twelve seconds before Tsugunobu finally finished uttering them.
And the inclusion of pop-up history – where information the character says can be tied to actual moments, people and locations – takes you out of the moment but keeps you wrapped up in the story. I know very little of Japanese history, so it was fascinating to find out all these locales and people are very much connected to real world events. Pro tip, if you’re falling in love with one of the characters, don’t look up pictures of them from the real world: the ancient paintings are nothing like the pretty boys up on stage.
It’s so important nowadays to have a game for everyone, and I mean everyone, to enjoy and to get something out of. If you just want a game for escapism and relaxation, you’re covered in spades in every direction. If you want a visual novel where you pretend you’re some ladykiller or ultimate anarchist or whatever, those are there too. But for something where you can be a truly strong and impressive female character, who has the option to be vulnerable to a romantic interest if that’s what the player wants, is incredibly refreshing and exciting.
I think that Birushana sits comfortably as one of the best otome titles I’ve ever picked up, and it’s a strong contender for the best visual novel I’ve grabbed this year. Anyone curious about the genre or anyone who wants a bit of love intermingled with 85% accurate historical moments should grab this game. Also, if you’re really interested, get the soundtrack and all the other goodies with the limited edition before it’s gone: Birushana honestly feels like a title that will be remembered for years to come.
Gorgeous designs for avatars and full screen paintings, and enough variety in areas to keep you noticing details.
While the number of choices and branches are strong, one must remember you will go upwards of 45 real time minutes before being given an interactive choice.
Am I willing to drop 90 dollars to get this game again for the CDs? It’s actually a very enticing idea.
Exciting, engaging, emotional and memorable, I think Shanao unseats Cardia from being my favorite otome heroine.
Final Verdict: 8.0
Birushana: Rising Flower of Genpei is available now on Nintendo Switch.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
A copy of Birushana: Rising Flower of Genpei was provided by the publisher.