Hentai games are big business over in Japan. They’re such big business that companies will actually shoehorn sex scenes into otherwise innocent PC games just to meet market demand. Utawarerumono — a competent combination of visual novel and turn-based strategy — is one of those games, and a popular one at that. As the tale goes, a lawful good human male wakes up in a small village populated by dog-eared farmers. They’re not furries; they’ve just got furry ears. The poor fellow doesn’t even remember his own name, and there’s some kind of weird iron mask glued to his face. I was hoping the villagers would name him Eustache, but they named him Hakuoro instead. He then proceeds to lead the villagers towards world-sweeping conquest while having lots of sex.
Sony frowns on dog-girl sex, so Utawarerumono‘s PS2 port lacks the superfluous hentai scenes. Based on in-game context alone, players would never realize anything was cut. Those subtractions aren’t what make the PS2 edition better than the Windows original — the PS2 version is better because the publisher brought Flight Plan onboard to transform the bare-bones battle scenes into turn-based strategy gold.
In the world of Windows-to-console conversions, that’s unusual. Companies usually strip out the sex scenes, add a new vocal song or two, and quickly publish the result. The extra effort put into Utawarerumono paid off, as it sold tens of thousands of copies within days of release. Flight Plan is the top company still making turn-based strategy games today, and their stuff is generally deep but accessible, so I’m glad to see their name associated with financial success.
Before players get to the fighting, there’s a lot of visual novelization to sit through (hold R1 to speed through it). The storyline itself isn’t dull, but the anime adaptation is so faithful that I felt no need to listen to all of this again. Yes — this version features full voice, unlike the Windows original. It’s all in Japanese, of course, so here’s what you need to know . . .
Despite having a scary mask stuck to his face, lead character Hakuoro is a very kind man. He demonstrates this kindness by rescuing a girl who is stuck in a tree. Evil people would not do that. Hakuoro’s gentle heart is important, because it underscores the pain he later feels when friends die in battle. The fat emperor Sasante and his craven adjutant Nuwangi are cruel. At one point, Nuwangi kicks a dog-person. That’s not quite as evil as kicking a dog, but it’s still pretty evil. So yeah, this game uses caricatures to make its point.
Don’t let the first few hours dissuade you; the visual novel scenes never disappear, but they become shorter and more interesting as the game progresses. In case you get tired of scrolling through text and just can’t take it anymore, Flight Plan added optional fights. So instead of walking into the angel girl’s bedroom to chat and advance the storyline, players can go kill some rabid monkeys or lizard-riding, lance-wielding knights.
When a battle ensues — either an optional encounter, or one of the 32 storyline skirmishes — players select their attack party from the available characters. Like any good strategy game, the number of fighters increases as the game progresses. Unlike other strategy games, a few people die or otherwise leave due to storyline events, which can be a pain for obsessive grinders. The PS2 version lets gamers sortie more characters at once and also adds more enemies. There’s also a huge array of items to be found, earned, and equipped — the Windows version had none — and this significantly impacts the game. Each fighter can only equip one piece of armor and carry one support item, so planning is important. On the map where you have to outrun a raging river, give your slowest character the fleet-foot sandals; on an enemy-crowded map, give them a fireball-flinging ring.
Players who select compatible characters and arrange them appropriately can also unleash joint attacks. Again, this was not present in the original version. The items and joint attacks supplement what was in the Windows edition: an element-based “weakness” system and a button-tapping combat mechanic. Everyone on the map (except Hakuoro) is represented by an element: earth beats fire beats water beats wind. There are a few oddball elements to mix things up, but it’s a pretty straightforward system. When a unit attacks something — whether a soldier, barricade, or cannon — a white circle often appears. Tap the circle button at the correct time to deliver an additional hit; some units can deliver up to five before unleashing their Ultimate Attack, represented by a red circle. My favorite is the black knight Jotaro Kurou’s special attack, because he shouts “ORA ORA ORA ORA ORA ORYAAAA!!!” while repeatedly stabbing his unfortunate victim. It’s easy to zone out during strategy games, but the “circle” system helped keep me actively engaged.
Speaking of Kurou, he’s more important in this version of Utawarerumono. In addition to adding optional encounters, Flight Plan also added four new missions. These extra scenarios show what happened to the men while Hakuoro briefly traipsed away with all the females to depose a despotic warlord.
Basically, Kurou boozed it up with hot anime ladies. He also demonstrated the courage to stand up to his former leader while establishing a begrudging camaraderie with his rival, the speedy ninja Oboro. The villains in this set of missions come off as a bit too comical — one of them is a wizard with an annoyingly high-pitched voice — but Kurou’s relationship with Oboro and newcomer Kamchatarl feel reasonably genuine. The dark knight who barely mattered in the Windows game somehow became the most multi-dimensional character of all.
The original Utawarerumono was so limited that it felt more like a puzzle than a strategy game — for each battle, there was essentially one correct path, and anything else would lead to horrendous death. That’s no longer true. By incorporating new skills, dozens of status-impacting items, expanded maps, and even a revamped experience system, Flight Plan has turned a game best known for its storyline into a game that deserves to be known for its turn-based battles. This one has become hard to find, but I highly recommend Flight Plan fans put forth the effort.