In the wake of Final Fantasy VII Remake, a lot of games that were released during the same time were lost in the shuffle. There was no way any other game could compete with the hype. But now that the excitement for the game has died down, it’s time we give those other games a chance to shine in the spotlight.
For me, one of those games is, undoubtedly, the new PlayStation 4 game that Sega released and is both the latest entry and a soft reboot to a long-lived series of theirs, Sakura Wars.
Not many Western audiences are familiar with the Sakura Wars games mainly because, in Sega’s infinite wisdom, they only released one game in the series and that is the PlayStation 2 game, Sakura Wars V: So Long, My Love. Now, I do have a liking to the franchise even though I only played Sakura Wars V a long, long time ago. However, I really enjoyed that game and, since I am familiar with the IP, I decided to give the new Sakura Wars game a shot.
And I liked Sakura Wars. I didn’t love it; I liked it a whole lot. But it’s definitely without its huge flaws.
The new Sakura Wars game takes place around a decade after the events of the previous games. A massive demon attack required all of the Combat Revues to repel the invading force. Although they were successful and peace returned, practically all of them were did not return from the battle. Ten years after that, the Imperial Combat Revue of Japan has fallen on hard times as new recruits struggle to keep up with frequent demon attacks to the capital. You play as Seijura Kamiyama, a disgraced Navy captain assigned to bring back the glory days of the Imperial Combat Revue.
Now, I can understand why Sega was hesitant to release any of the earlier Sakura Wars games in the West before. It may come off as an action-RPG with steampunk mecha and it is. But the games are mostly focused on the visual novel format of gameplay. This means you’re just walking around and talking to the people around you in the hopes of strengthening your relationship bonds with them. This does affect the action-RPG side of things as, the stronger your bond, the better your partner’s stats at the start of the missions. But make no mistake, this Sakura Wars game is mostly about the visual novel side. And at the end, you will get a different ending based on which girl you end up with.
Now, that may be a turn off for a lot of gamers but, for someone who likes anime, I’m pretty fine with it. All of the characters, while rather anime trope-y, are likable. If you watch any kind of anime, you’re bound to find a “best girl” among the new Imperial Combat Revue. The obvious “canon” is definitely the shy katana-wielding Sakura Amamiya (the name is a dead giveaway). Then again, there are going to be some who’ll like the tomboyish shrine maiden Hatsuho Shinonome,mature and mysterious (and busty) pistol carrying Anastasia Palma, the prim and proper book sorceress Claris Snowflake and the loli-ninja Azami Mochizuki. I’m not going to judge you on that last entry. You know who you are!
You also do interact with some other members such as Sumire Kanzaki, one of the veterans and new manager of the Imperial Combat Revue, Kaoru, Sumire’s serious personal secretary and the others who reside in the Imperial Theater. You also do get to talk to the other members of the other Combat Revues such as Arthur and Lancelot from London, Xiaolong and Yui from Shanghai and Elise and Margarette from Berlin. Unfortunately, you can’t really build a romantic relationship outside the main girls in your squad. I honestly would’ve liked to try to date Elise because she’s definitely the tsundere of the girls. Still, everyone does have a distinct personality and they’re all really likable.
Oddly enough, the only character I really didn’t like all that much was the main character, Seijura Kamiyama. It’s not that he isn’t likable but it’s more of his character design. There’s just something about his almost slit-like eyes combined with his long face that didn’t gel with me. It’s mostly a minor gripe but when he’s the character you’re controlling throughout the visual novel portion of the game, it can get tiring really quickly.
The way the story is told in Sakura Wars does make it feel like you’re participating in an anime. You walk around trying to talk to the girls and other characters until you get to the point when you can advance the story. You do get intermission breaks and you can even see how much you’re relationships are improving by these cute little cutout screens of the characters on the stage, which does add a lot of personality to things.
The story itself is rather weird and somewhat cluttered as there is the World Combat Revue games, which leads to the other Combat Revues travelling to Tokyo, the threat of the Imperial Combat Revue being shut down and a mysterious new foe who looks strangely like the original Sakura, among others. All of it does gel into a cohesive story by the end but, even with all these plot elements, Sakura Wars is a very short game. There are extra things you can do, which I’ll get into, that does pad the game time. But the entire game can be finished in a good couple of days if you skip all of the extras that don’t rely on you building up your relationships with the main girls.
Regarding building relationships, it does feel very difficult to not get to the maximum relationship level with every girl by the end. Most of the “correct” choices are fairly obvious and all the negative ones are easy to spot. Basically, you really have to intentionally want to mess up on the choices to get into a bad relationship with the girls or you just want to see what’ll happen if you get Seijuro wander into the bath while any of the girls are in there (hint, hint). Even then, these negative choices don’t matter all that much if you’re at the early part of the game since you can make up for these “blunders” if you keep making the right choices afterwards. Then again, even later in the game, you can simply save scum your way through it by saving before making a bad choice, watching the consequences, then loading the save to make the correct choice.
The other portion of Sakura Wars gameplay is the action-RPG where you pilot steampunk mecha and battle other demons. This is a far cry from the traditional strategy-RPG gameplay the previous Sakura Wars used and this is rather hit-or-miss for several reasons. The combat is very basic and simple. There are times when your mechs just come off as overpowered as they can mow down hordes of enemies in a few seconds. Even the tougher enemies can be taken out without much strategy. The game does balance things out by giving some variety in the enemies and by giving your loads more enemies to battle at the later stages. The controls also do feel clunky. You can’t jump until your attack animation completely finishes and you can’t deploy your super or team up attack if you or your partner is doing an action. This doesn’t make the action unresponsive but the mere fact you have to adapt to these factors makes the combat feel unpolished. This makes each battle fun but never frustrating. There are even platforming segments thrown in to break the monotony.
The thing that brings down the combat are the bosses. You basically fight around the same three or four bosses throughout the game. And the first two are ridiculously easy to beat as long as you have both of the characters you control have their super attack ready. In fact, a well placed super attack from Seijuro on any boss will either outright kill them or reduce their life by half. And most of the time, you will have your super meter filled by the end as you can defeat the minions with no trouble as long as you know what you’re doing. Still the battles are a power trip so they are fun for the most part and, just when things start to feel monotonous, you’re already fighting the stage boss.
There are two extra side events in Sakura Wars. The first is collecting bromides (ie. pictures) of the cast. They’re scattered all throughout the game, mostly in the visual novel portion of the game. You can get a cryptic clue as to where they are in each chapter by reading a specific book in the Archive of the Imperial Theater. Or, you can just finish the game, play New Game+ and they’ll become icons on the map. You also get bromides depending on how well you do during the combat stages. This can be tedious as you’ll have to play through each stage at least five times, once with each girl, to get a new bromide. So, yeah, you’ll become incredibly familiar with some of the stages, especially the ones you can’t get a good rank in.
The other time sink is Koi Koi Wars. This is the traditional Hanafuda card game but you play against the cast. This I oddly loved and got addicted to! In Koi Koi Wars, you basically try to get a set of cards and, depending on the set, you get points to subtract from your opponent’s pool of points. Now, I have no idea how to play Koi Koi until I played this. I didn’t know the Hanafuda suits nor any of the sets. But, as I kept on playing, I did start to familiarize myself with them and know which ones had more points and which sets were the easiest to complete. The AI can be a cheating bastard at times, in my opinion, as there were a more than a couple of times when he or she would get the perfect cards on the onset of the match! Still, it is a rush to get the right cards at just the right time!
Sakura Wars overall presentation is good but does feel like Sega cut corners in places. I don’t mind there not being an English dub for the game. What I do mind is the fact that only specific scenes have voice acting! This can be very jarring especially, when the first part of a cutscene has voices then the next doesn’t. This even carries over to when Seijuro knocks on the girl’s dorm room doors. You hear the girl welcome him in but his reply is not dubbed in!
Even some of the cutscenes aren’t fully animated. There are some gorgeously animated hand-drawn anime scenes and even more decent in-game rendered scenes. However, there are also a whole bunch of still shots with the characters explaining what’s happening! There are even some that are just repeated, like Xiaolong cooking fried rice or one of the secondary characters dreaming about her Omurice, that needed much more care and love, which means they needed to be animated in one form or another!
I guess Sega put the money they saved from cutting out the animation and voice acting into the music because Sakura Wars has some of the best music tracks in recent video game memory. Every character has an image song, both an instrumental and vocal version, in the game and they’re all really good. My personal favorite is Sakura’s instrumental image song since it’s just a super peaceful sounding tune and it’s extremely humable. Of course, I can’t forget the truly banging new version of the Sakura Wars theme song. It’s played every time you boot the game and, for the life of me, I can’t skip it; I just have to watch the beautiful animated opening and listen to the song! Oh, it doesn’t have the epic as the “original” Sakura Wars song but, man, that opening instrumental and chorus (especially that boisterous “Hashire” background vocal Sakura belts out) still hits hard every time I start a new Sakura Wars gaming session!
I will close out this review by saying I had a good time playing Sakura Wars. I’m even going through a second playthrough right now using a walkthrough so I can get all the right choices. I’ll even pick the non-canon girl of my choice this time around. However, the reason why I like Sakura Wars is because I like anime and this is one of the closest experiences you can get to being in a harem anime. Basically, I’m the target audience so there’s no way I wouldn’t like it.
But will others? That’s the thing: I can’t really recommend Sakura Wars to non-anime fans as this is a niche title. It also certainly doesn’t help at some of the unpolished elements, like the combat and seemingly unfinished voice acting, come off. Even if the animation and the music is fantastic, it’s not enough to compensate for those glaring flaws.
I can completely recommend Sakura Wars to gamers who also like anime or who like a good visual novel game. However, to the others, I can’t recommend this, at least if you’re going to buy it at full price. If Sega brings the price down or it goes on sale on the PlayStation Store, I say it’s a good buy, but only then.
Now, Sega… why don’t you re-release the older Sakura Wars games, please?
Have you played the new Sakura Wars game? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments section below!