Following the bizarre announcement, I asked Aksys for more information on this relatively unfamiliar genre and this game in particular. So what exactly is an "otome" game? " In a loose sense," Aksys Games' lead editor Ben Bateman told Joystiq, "'otome' games are games targeted at girls, and are usually something in the vein of a visual novel. They usually focus on meeting, attracting, and developing a relationship with, one of a selection of several hot mans [sic]."
Hakuoki is set in Edo-era Japan, and follows a character named Chizuru Yukimura meeting, and then traveling with, the Shinsengumi clan of samurai. Of course, Hakuoki's version of the Shinsengumi happens to be composed entirely of samurai -- "hot ones," as lead translator Noba Nakayama specified. "It is essentially a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure/Boyfriend book," Bateman said. "You make choices at several points, which determine, among other things, who you end up with (romantically) and whether or not you get a bad ending. Beyond that, however, there isn't really much interactivity. It is all reading (and listening to Japanese dudes talk)."
Contrast this with Aksys's sleeper hit 999, which had plenty of reading, but also frequent decisions and even more frequent environmental and inventory puzzles. There is still some interactivity to be found in Hakuoki -- Nakayama offers one example of the player having to decide "to give your character blood, endure his pain, or just watch him suffer in pain," but the focus is on the story. "There will likely be some overlap," Bateman said, "and hopefully people who discovered reading wasn't such a bad thing in 999 will now give Hakuoki a chance, but the games are rather different."
There's something else potentially surprising about the decision to localize this game: it's a PSP game in 2011. With the PSP in general on the decline and the PlayStation Vita on the way, is it really a good idea to release a niche game on Sony's legacy handheld? Bateman says that to discount the PSP "seems rather foolish," noting that the PSP install base won't vanish upon the Vita's release, and that many won't be able to afford Vitas at launch. "It can be a little difficult getting retailers to stock PSP games these days, but there are still consumers out there who want them."
Nakayama cited Aksys's own history. "Many people doubted the DS market but 999 was still a success. If you believe, miracles can happen."