Winter’s Wish: Spirits of Edo Review – The Invisible Threads of Love

    Title: Winter's Wish: Spirits of Edo
    Developer: Otomate, Idea Factory
    Release Date: May 18, 2023
    Reviewed On: Switch
    Publisher: Aksys Games
    Genre: Otome, Adventure

The feudal Japan themes in otome games never seem to get old. Not only are they a valuable source of learning about Japan’s history, but they also provide a unique twist on the narrative with a dash of fiction. Winter’s Wish: Spirits of Edo was hyped in its home country because Yuki Iwai, a famous comedian, conceptualized it. Now, we’ll find out whether that will translate to quality in the West.

The story of Winter’s Wish takes place in the 11th year of the Kyoho era, roughly equating to real-life 1726. You play as Suzuno, a young girl with the mysterious ability to see the emotions of others, which manifest as Threads. However, this skill causes her to be ostracized by the villagers, branding her as a mind-reading demon who only brings misfortune.

Three years after her father’s death, Suzuno is suddenly visited by a mysterious samurai by the name of Tomonari, who informs her that she has been summoned by Tokugawa Yoshimune, the era’s current shogun. Using her powers, she is asked to join a secret force known as the Oniwaban, which happens to be a special group of samurais tasked with defeating mysterious monsters known as blightforms. These creatures appear from the Black Threads when high amounts of negative emotion come together.

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If you count the ending, there are six routes, with eight chapters each. Those routes are divided into three groups of two: The first is Samurai Town, with the sincere and taciturn Tomonari Takamura and the compassionate and chivalrous Kunitaka Tojo patrolling this area full of samurai homes. The second is Castle Town, where the commoners of Edo live and focuses on the diligent Genjuro Kuga and the frank and apathetic Yoichi. Last, but not least, you have the Entertainment District, home to Edo’s kabuki theaters and also the red-light district, with the alluring Kinji and the carefree Ohtaro being assigned to that group.

Admittedly, I didn’t expect just how strong the story’s pacing ended up being. The Samurai Town district is so light-hearted and funny you’d almost not expect it from a typical 18th-century game were it not for their clothes. The Entertainment District also has a stark contrast, with a more mature direction. Each love interest also has such distinct traits that honestly make it hard to differentiate them. Depending on who you go for, the romance can either be slow or quick to happen.

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There is no particular order required to do all routes. However, it should be noted that Tomonari’s route from Samurai Town will require you to have viewed the good ending of at least one love interest in each of the group, despite the common route suggesting he would be the first love interest. Attempting to do his route early on is impossible, and you will always abruptly end midway with an unavoidable bad ending.

This also applies to Ohtaro, who requires you to have viewed Tomonari’s good ending, or you’ll end off in a similar way, until those conditions are met. So, in reality, you’re only given four options to begin with. This wouldn’t be an issue normally, but unfortunately, this approach has a minor issue: nothing in the game outright tells you that until you reach those points I’ve mentioned, with only a tip appearing after you’ve watched said bad ending.

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My favorite love interest was, oddly enough, Kunitaka Tojo from Samurai Town. I usually prefer the tsundere-type characters as opposed to the big-brother types, but this was an exception, as I chose him as my first playthrough, and I loved the pacing and learning about his backstory. His Affection ending had me absolutely swooning, too.

My least favorite route, however, goes to Kinji from the Entertainment District. To put it bluntly, he was definitely not my type, and there were many times while playing that I wish I could’ve done Ohtaro, as his carefree and energetic attitude resonated way better with me, but because he was locked behind doing the other routes first, I just couldn’t. Ironic, really, as I thought the conceptualization behind Winter’s Wish and writing would shine for Kinji, given that he is a kabuki actor, but unfortunately, that was not the case.

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The reward for completing a route consists of a set of five voices from the love interest whose route you’ve cleared and their profile, which is also chock-full of spoilers. They’re certainly cute, but I was expecting more from the Extras mode, like maybe a skit or an alternative story from the love interest’s perspective, which could’ve added much more character depth.

The protagonist, Suzuno, could’ve also used a lot more personality. For the majority of the time, she often just goes with the flow, and because she is capable of viewing other people’s emotions, and most of her past and character development lacks depth, especially at the beginning. The Affection endings also make use of some rather cliché plot armor, such as mentioning important aspects of Suzuno’s backstory just because it was deemed “convenient” for the narrative.

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There were a couple of gripes I had with Winter’s Wish: Spirits of Edo. The first thing I noticed is the complete lack a flowchart, so you’re stuck at saving at every choice or certain spots and utilizing options such as the skip to next choice or unread sections. An option called Retrace Footsteps is present, and while it does allow you to replay a chosen chapter, even if you select Chapter One of the Common Route, you’ll still have to go through the basic introduction of the love interests. This can be mitigated by saving at a very specific point, but the lack of such a feature is disappointing.

Another negative is that the Love Catch system could’ve been a bit clearer. When selecting a choice, flower petals indicating your choice increased the Affection with the love interest will appear. But there exists another factor that determines whether you get the Sorrow or the Affection endings. These honestly have one of the strangest animations I’ve ever seen, and it’s not even consistent on WHAT it means. Sometimes I would get a bad ending even after I had full Affection for the love interest.

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Furthermore, the blightfall monsters, portrayed as the main “antagonists,” so to speak, are very odd. You only get to see how they look maybe once or twice each route, with subsequent appearances of them only appearing as creepy audio cues and some black Thread visual effects. At first, I had thought their rather creepy appearances would mean the developers removed them for rating reasons, but given that there are depictions of blood, plus the fact that the Entertainment District story goes all-out on the more mature terms, it’s difficult to conclude what the reasoning for their potential exclusion would be.

One of the aspects publisher Aksys Games got right with Winter’s Wish is the localization. Of course, considering the game’s context, you will encounter many archaic phrases that were common in Japan at the time. However, instead of romanizing them and just relying on you consulting a dictionary for every sentence, proper English terms are given, such as Formfolk and even soothsayer. Although I couldn’t understand some terms at first, such as the “four bells later” time measurement, they weren’t detrimental to the experience. At most, I encountered minor punctuation issues.

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Winter’s Wish: Spirits of Edo has its ups and downs with the story, but it uses its fictional elements well. However, its systems are lacking quality-of-life features that would improve the user experience. Regardless, the translation does a terrific job of relaying the more complex terms into an understandable format for the English audience, making it an enjoyable starting point for those wishing to get into more historical fiction with the help of some handsome men.

A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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