Back during the days of AXN being a cable channel that does anime, I first encountered Sakura Wars, an anime that I had no idea was actually also a game at that time. I was a bit envious of my friend who had a Sega Saturn at that time because the game looked good and well, I was really curious what the game was really like. Jump around two decades later, that curiosity is about to be sated.
Sakura Wars mixes the genres of jRPG with the dating sim genre, a powerful combination that was produced during the 90s where you typically play the captain of a party of characters meant to save the world and you get the option of romancing one of them while you’re at it.
The new game on PlayStation 4 is still called Sakura Wars, some others would call it Shin-Sakura Wars just to be able to differentiate them from the original. While they may take care to be able to refer to them differently, the new title appears to repeat many things from the original series while mixing up some new ideas, as if carrying and revamping an age-old tradition. Like many years ago, you take the role of a newly recruited captain named Seijuro Kamiyama. Tasked to lead a team of promising girls to protect a Tokyo from a fictional Taisho era and save the theatre they work for.
Production (4.5 / 5)
This new Sakura Wars game looks pretty great to be honest. They’ve put in a lot of care with the areas you’ll be frequenting. One of the cooler parts about how they’ve put everything together is how the places look complete and detailed from almost any angle. This makes their more visual-novel kind of cut scenes a lot easier on the eyes. The models themselves have a great charm to them, they look very pleasing and look great and dynamic, this shows when they’re able to move and express themselves. However, the charm wanes a bit when the camera moves in too close, and their rather natural look starts to approach the uncanny valley. This rarely happens, though.
The story unfortunately changes when you get to battle. The robots you pilot called Kobu do look well-detailed and fairly updated, along with a matching interior for in-cockpit scenes. However that’s nowhere close to the stages that they fight in or the enemies they fight. The models look well enough to the point that it’s something you’ll know you’re supposed to hit. But the way they animate, how their detailing is nowhere near the level you have for the protagonists. And the effects during battle is something I’d call ‘functional’ but could definitely use a lot more work, I mean some of these look like dated PS3 sprites.
What you can hear from the game however, sings a very different tune. Voice work from pretty much every character plays up a memorable character, I just wish there was more of it as there are a number of scenes that aren’t voiced. This would make sense for smaller grind events but even some story scenes go on with them moving their lips but without a voice-over. The music stays true to its roots and thanks to that you get a feeling of endearing nostalgia while still receiving a fairly fresh experience as they’re pretty much rearranges of the original soundtrack.
Still, once all put together the experience is very easy on the eyes, with the indoor and outdoor areas looking complete and allows for conversations and cut scenes to be viewed in multiple angles. Pairing that up with transitions that you would normally see in an actual TV anime, the battles feel much less impressive but it still has its moments that look good.
Mechanics (3.5 / 5)
For a title that’s about leading a 6-man team to fighting against demonic threats to a gigantic city, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of mechanics to it. Sakura Wars is half traditional visual novel and half dynasty warriors. Well, more like 70-30 in favor of visual novel, let’s go over why.
You live a double-life as one of the people working at the Imperial Theatre and secretly as the captain of the Sakura Squad. Why being the protector of an entire city has to remain a secret is a mystery since everyone was going to find out anyway in the story, more on that later.
By speaking to squad members and other people you form relationships with, how much they like or dislike you gets influenced by how you respond to them. You can choose any set of preset responses given to you, or not respond at all by letting the time limit run out. Sometimes the choice of words to pick is obvious, sometimes the statement I picked turned out to mean differently from what I thought it would, sometimes there doesn’t seem to be a response I feel comfortable with among the choices, and sometimes the best possible response is just to not say anything. So the dialogue part while it seems boring, seems pretty well thought out and fairly engaging, especially if you want to play up a whackier character.
Combat generally revolves around 3 buttons and an analogue stick. Weak attack, strong attack, and dodge. Yes, there’s more buttons than that but they’re more on traversal, jumping and dashing don’t seem to serve any other real purpose. Sure, you’ll need it to attack aerial enemies, but they certainly could have gone for more. Also, you can switch team members so long as you’re not stuck in animation, though instead of swapping your camera to wherever your ally is, the character you’re using simply teleports to where you are and switches places.
Locking feels clunky as it targets the nearest target, switching to a target you want is also a bit cumbersome when you’re fighting a small army pretty much all the time. How the camera snaps after killing a target is also annoying. It has its uses but I wish it worked better.
Spot dodging, or dodging right at the moment you’re about to get hit, triggers a bullet time, where you’re basically invincible and given a bunch of seconds to do whatever you want. During this time you can also trigger a unique move from Seijuro, which is instantly killing an enemy that’s weak enough. Pointless? Not entirely.
There’s a morale gauge during battle, where doing various actions gets it charged and getting hit makes the charge drop. These actions are of course dodging, attacking enemies without getting hit, wrecking crystals, and making flashy finishes. You want to fill this gauge up as each level increases the attack power of your team. Making it easier to dispatch enemies, making it easier to net a high grade for the mission, which improves your relationship with the concerned girl.
Yes, you do odd jobs at an imperial theatre, live a secret life of a defense force captain, and take on hordes of demons to get closer to girls. You gotta admire this guy’s focus.
Content (4 / 5)
If you believed that a feature image showing robots and 5 girls handling them would be entirely about that, you would be right. These five girls come at you with their own unique sense of charm, carrying different personalities and quirks with them.
This is further enhanced by how the game goes out of its way to look and feel like an anime, having preview segments at the end of each arc, making stories that focus on each character to be able to get to know them and give you an opportunity to develop your relationship with each one.
The story spans somewhere between 20-30 hours, depending on how hard you want to grind in or explore in this game. Sakura Wars offers a lot of unique events that would be a shame to miss. If you check your map and it indicates there’s something to do, you better get scoot over because you stand to lose much more than skipping out on that conversation, or quest, or event. I for one, found pretty much all of the characters highly likeable, even the side-characters, so having a chance to interact and learn about them is something I’d take every time.
The story itself is rather predictable as it obviously runs some sort of excuse plot to run things along, the characters do the heavy lifting as they seem to capably react to each situation and even point out plot holes from time to time. Though having a huge cast of characters to interact and fight with helps, as there’s a little something that feels new when you just walk around areas and fight monsters repetitively.
The more fun parts are really the extra scenes you can explore with each character if you’re willing to put in the time, as they are rather unpredictable and can quickly get hilarious or endearing.
Features (3.5 / 5)
Aside from playing out the game, you can make a hobby out of collecting bromides (good luck), which are photos of characters within the Sakura Wars universe.
There’s also an extra game mode where you can play the Japanese card game, Koi Koi, against pretty much all of the characters of the game. Though it will take some time to unlock being able to play against all of the characters (though I’m not sure what the difference is).
In conclusion, I believe I did enjoy this new Sakura Wars, the characters were fun enough to interact with and the mix danced between the line of familiar and new. There weren’t really any big surprises in terms of the plot, as it was more or less an excuse for the game to do its thing, play and feel like an anime.
What I’m a little disappointed about is that it could have been more, while the presentation of the game is pretty well executed, the degree of exploration and the mechanics of play feel badly dated. Why couldn’t I customize or upgrade the robots? Why can’t I be a captain off-duty and do some actual training sessions with my team? The appeal and potential of the other teams feels squandered, as you don’t do much else with them and how you fight them more or less feels similar, even though they all have different attack patterns. If the focus was more on the daily life of things, why couldn’t I do more than just talk to people?
Persona nailed the daily life phases so much better, Fire Emblem managed to stitch team development better along with relationships, there are many examples of potentially better combat both in mecha games, dynasty warrior types and more. But I still liked what the game had to offer. It’s not that the game was bad, it just felt like the offerings are things you’d expect from a much older game, I just wanted… more.
Sakura Wars tries very hard to be an entertaining, playable anime. And I believe it succeeds in that as I would say I enjoyed the game despite my complaints. But like anime, I don’t believe I’ll be going through it a second time, as it doesn’t feel like there’s much else to explore.
Sakura Wars (or Shin Sakura Wars if you’re strict about it) felt more like an interactive stage play than a game, but it was still a decent experience, giving a 3.8 / 5.
Also when a kit for Hatsuho’s Kobu comes out I’m very, very likely to buy it. Or the ones from Team Germany.
Available on the PS4