Platforms: PlayStation 4
Rating: T (Teen)
The Sakura Wars franchise has been around for a long time, but if you haven’t heard of it before, I don’t blame you; I was in the same boat until recently. The series first began in the mid-1990s as a hybrid of a strategy game and a visual novel/dating sim, and saw five mainline entries through 2005, with only the fifth title ever being made available to Western audiences. The franchise then fell dormant…until now. SEGA has released a new Sakura Wars game, giving the series a soft reboot by introducing a new cast of characters and replacing the tactical combat with fast-paced hack’n’slash action. Can this fresh take on an old, obscure franchise capture the hearts of a new generation of gamers?
Sexual content: Your primary hub area includes a bath, and the sole purpose of said bath is to provide you an opportunity to peep at the main heroines while they are bathing. The women inside are depicted as naked, but all their lady bits are obscured; your character may also appear naked here with his waist either obscured or out of the camera’s view. These scenes are comedic in nature and completely optional. Furthermore, triggering them may put you in a situation where you can lose the trust of your teammates.
Some of the dialogue choices in the game contain sexual innuendo; once again, the outcomes of saying these lines are comedic and typically result in a loss of trust. There are also a few scenes where you can peep at a girl in a compromising position while she isn’t looking. In one scene, two women performing a play onstage make out; one of these women may be playing a role as a male character, but it is not clear. During one conversation, a woman blushes and coyly redirects the conversation if the idea of her being in a romantic relationship with another woman is brought up. Two of the main female characters wear outfits that reveal a lot of their breasts.
Violence: Combat in the game consists of riding around in a mecha and attacking monsters and machines with weapons, including swords, a hammer, a gun, and magic spells. The game does not contain any gore, and the vast majority of the experience is free of any blood or any significant physical trauma to the characters themselves, but there is a scene with blood spatter, and character death is depicted onscreen.
Language: B**ch, b****rd, and a*s occasionally appear in dialogue, but most of the game is free of foul language.
Magic/spiritual content: One character has the power to summon magical powers and attacks through the books she reads. The plot and combat involve attacks from demons.
Positive content: Concepts like friendship, loyalty, overcoming the trials of your past, and the triumph of good over evil—even at the cost of great sacrifice—all play important roles in character development and the main story. The game rewards you for making uplifting dialogue choices in conversations with other characters.
Sakura Wars is set in a steampunk version of 1940s Tokyo, complete advanced technology like mechs and giant airships. You play as Seijuro Kamiyama, a former Japanese naval officer who has been reassigned to the Imperial Combat Revue, a team of warriors and tacticians who defend Tokyo against invading demons. As the new captain of the Revue’s Flower Division, an otherwise all-female division of mech pilots, you lead your team into battle against the hellish hordes. The Revue operates out of the Grand Imperial Theater, where the Flower Division performs stage plays to entertain the public and earn money when not combating evil monsters and machines. The once-renowned Revue is well past its prime, however, working with outdated equipment and struggling to captivate audiences. Now they look to you to help them stay afloat and re-establish themselves as a respected force.
Upon arriving at the theater, the game gradually introduces you to the lovey ladies who will be fighting alongside you: Sakura Amamiya, your cheerful childhood friend and the game’s title character; Hatsuho Shinonome, a spunky shrine maiden with a wicked right hook; Clarissa “Claris” Snowflake, a soft-spoken bibliophile; Azami Mochizuki, a childish ninja who craves sweets; and Anastasia Palma, a world-renowned actress. The game also pays tribute to some of the franchise’s past heroines. As a child ten years prior to the start of the game, Sakura Amamiya was saved from a demon by Sakura Shinguji, the series’ former title character, and it was this event that inspired the new Sakura to follow in her savior’s footsteps and join the Imperial Combat Revue. Furthermore, another former member of the Flower Division, Sumire Kanzaki, now serves as the head of the entire Revue.
All the game’s characters, particularly the members of the Flower Division but also others both inside and outside the Imperial Revue, are the heart of Sakura Wars. Most of your time is spent in conversation with them as you roam the halls of the theater and venture out into other parts of Tokyo; you actually spend the first couple hours of playtime meeting the characters and learning the non-combat game mechanics before you see any action. Interacting with an NPC in the game world typically activates an interactive cutscene in which you can make dialogue choices.
The dialogue system, dubbed LIPS—which apparently stands for “Live & Interactive Picture System,” a term I had to look up online because it isn’t explained in-game—usually involves selecting a timed multiple-choice dialogue response, but also sometimes has you making other conversation decisions, such as raising or lowering the volume at which you speak a specific line. In many cases, certain dialogue choices will provide either an increase or a decrease to the trust that characters have in you, so if you want to stay in anyone’s good graces—namely your romanceable party members—it behooves you to choose wisely. If you make a trust-altering choice, a helpful chime will indicate whether trust has gone up or down. While a few of these options tripped me up and lowered my trust when I intended the opposite, the vast majority of choices are designed clearly enough that it is obvious to tell which is the best one…or at the very least, which one is the worst. It’s also easy to redo cutscenes to achieve the outcome you desire; save files load quickly, and almost all of the dialogue can be skipped, jumping you right to the decision point in the conversation. I…may have compulsively saved and reloaded cutscenes in order to see how different dialogue choices play out during my time with the game.
It is in these sections when the characters get their greatest chance to shine. Every character in the game is well voiced, and although they all purposely display mannerisms commonly found in anime characters, they each boast a distinct and endearing personality. Even Kamiyama, who isn’t as fleshed out as most of the other characters due to being a malleable conduit of the player, still exhibits some discernible characteristics, often coming across as congenial, inspiring, and a bit of a dork.
Aside from Kamiyama, your fellow Flower Division members receive the most screen time, and for good reason since they are the ones you can romance. Each one gets special attention at some point during the main storyline, and optional conversations become available as well, providing additional opportunities to woo them. If you make enough wise dialogue decisions over the course of the adventure—an easy task, given how obvious the dialogue choices usually are, along with the ability to redo cutscenes—all of them will have enough trust in you as you approach the final stage of the game that you can choose any of the five to be your girl.
While the characters delight from start to finish, the same unfortunately cannot be said about the actual plot. To be fair, the story’s upbeat tone, combined with the game’s stylish flair and a few comically absurd setpieces, provides a surface-level entertainment that kept me engaged, if not particularly enthralled. However, the more dramatic twists and turns that appear late in the narrative fall flat; without delving into spoilers, Sakura Wars bites off more than in can chew in its attempt to raise the stakes, and by the time you reach this point you’re already familiar enough with the tone of the game to know generally how it is going to end.
For your role as captain, Sumire gifts you with a Teletron, Sakura Wars’ equivalent of a smartphone. This device serves multiple purposes, such as displaying a layout of the theater and a map of major locations in town, as well as receive messages from other characters—though I have no idea how the other characters send these messages, seeing as how none of those characters have Teletrons and they aren’t always near some other sort of high-tech device when they send them. The Teletron also lets you view bromides, which are collectible photographs of the Flower Division past and present. Bromides are often found lying around the theater at specific points in the game, while others must be acquired from the theater gift shop or given as rewards for completing optional combat missions. Speaking of combat…
When demons attack, you and the rest of the Flower Division suit up into your mechs and head out into the city. The combat sections are presented as stages in which you and your teammates work together to fight off enemies, which for the most part consist of demonic machines. Each character wields their own weapon and sport a unique set of combos which you perform with the circle and triangle buttons. While some characters are slightly better at handling certain situations than others—Claris’s long-range libromancy excels at crowd control, while fellow ranged character Anastasia is better at targeting single foes—the combos are simple enough and the enemies easy enough that you can survive with button mashing no matter which character you are controlling. Combat encounters resemble those of games like Dynasty Warriors, throwing lots of weak enemies at you along with a handful of tougher ones to mix things up. In contrast to the intricately detailed main characters and their mechs, enemy designs are bland and get reused over and over again throughout the game. The game also reuses combat environments, and even some boss fights, leading most of the action stages to feel the same as one another.
At any time during combat you can toggle between yourself and one or two other squad members, each of which have their own health bar and special attack meter. The character(s) you have with you are usually predetermined by the story, but after a while you unlock the ability to replay missions with different partner characters. As you defeat enemies and destroy crates, health and meter pickups burst out and fall to the ground, automatically floating to you as you get close to them. Filling up the special meter allows you to unleash that character’s special attack, which—depending on the character—will either attack all enemies onscreen or will trigger a flurry of powerful blows against any adversaries in your path. The game awards you a rank at the end of each mission, and achieving an A or S rank earns you a trust bonus with that mission’s partner character.
Overall, the combat is serviceable but not especially memorable. It’s clear that the developers prioritized the characters and relationships over action, and that meant cutting some corners in the battle sequences. I would have appreciated deeper, more intricate combat mechanics, as well as a chance to fight outside of the mechs; several times in the story the characters clash on-foot, and the inability to participate in these sequences feels like a missed opportunity.
The game’s presentation—outside of the bland combat sections, anyway—is no slouch. Sakura Wars sports a rich, colorful aesthetic, and an uplifting soundtrack featuring triumphant vocals and a mix of orchestral, rock, and traditional Japanese instrumentation. Everything practically screams anime, from the designs of the characters themselves to the 2D pictures and cutscenes interspersed throughout the story. An anime-style opening animation even plays every time you boot the game. This vibrant and exuberant audio/visual atmosphere meshes well with the upbeat story and characters.
Oddly, a handful of the game’s cutscenes, particularly those that aren’t as critical to the main story or important character development, lack voice-over. My guess is that the developers didn’t have enough time and money to insert voice acting for every cutscene, so they had to pick a few to keep silent. It’s not a huge problem, but it is jarring when these moments appear.
Finally, Sakura Wars also contains a minigame where you can play the Japanese card game Koi-Koi with AI-controlled characters from the main game. Koi-Koi comes with a handy set of instructions, which is important not only for teaching the rules of the game itself, but also for describing the hanafuda cards with which the game is played. Defeating characters earns you a currency which you can spend on background music as well as new Koi-Koi opponents, although some opponents are only unlocked after you progress to certain points in the main story. Koi-Koi is a completely optional activity, but I appreciate the chance it gives you to try out a foreign card game.
Despite a number of flaws and shortcomings, Sakura Wars offers a fun, character-driven experience with classic anime flair. It’s clear that the developers put a lot of love into project, as evidenced by the diverse, well-written cast, loads of humor, and stylish presentation. While I wish it could have done more, I absolutely enjoyed my time with this game and would love to see new entries in the future.
The Bottom Line
Despite its shallow gameplay, Sakura Wars offers plenty of entertainment thanks to its delightful characters, stylish art design, and upbeat tone.