If you're reading this review, the chances are good that you're more receptive to Sakura Wars' "anime-ness" than the average gamer. In fact, you might be aware of Sakura Wars' earlier western presence as licensed manga and anime. Hell, if you're the importing type you may well own some of the earlier Sakura Wars games.
And even if you're don't know Sakura Wars itself, you'd be familiar with the various mechanics that would make it so "new" to less Japanophilic players.
Which brings us to the big question: What does Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love offer to players already "OK" with "dating sim" mechanics and undeniably "anime" visuals.
Read on to find out.
Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love (PlayStation 2, Wii)
Publisher: NIS America
Released: March 30, 2010
MSRP: $39.99 (PlayStation 2), $29.99 (Wii)
Despite the fact that the English-language market is friendlier than ever to weird, super-anime games, most publishers still wouldn't dare to cross the pond with titles bearing the dreaded "visual novel" type of design. Sure, there are many games out today whose dialog scenes feature 2D character cutouts and relationship-building mechanics, but all so far have been couched in other, more "game-like" designs that ultimately dominate the experience.
That's not so with Sakura Wars. Making the girls happy does provide statistical bonuses in a given chapter's battle portion, but from the beginning it's made very clear that this game is a bishoujo title at heart. You could strip out the battle mechanics entirely and replace them with extended event scenes, and nothing fundamental would change. Anyone thinking that this is merely a tactical strategy title with "dating sim" elements (ala Record of Agarest War) is in for a disappointment. That set of unusual, almost anachronistic priorities is what's unprecedented about this five-years-young game.
Mind you though, Sakura Wars isn't a slouch when it comes to having actual systems. LIPS (Live Interactive Picture System) is probably the most in-depth application of otherwise bog-standard dialog trees to date, even compared to modern RPGs (western and otherwise). Choices are placed on a timer, and at times answers can change when let sitting for too long. An imperative order might mutate to a meek suggestion, should the player hesitate. Still other LIPS interactions resemble QTE events, and others might involve light picture hunts or even a bit of photography.
The other thing that's unprecedented about Sakura Wars is that, despite the dominance of static backgrounds and mildly animated cutouts, it's got high-tier production values. A stylish UI, colorful effects and some truly memorable mecha designs (it's been a while since robots have been designed with the goal of looking cute) ensure that it will look (and play) considerably better than any game that shares its subgenre.
Its relatively simple battle mechanics won't exactly topple the likes of Final Fantasy Tactics, and the lack of a true character progression system eventually hamstrings its continued appeal, but given that at best a third of actual play time is devoted to combat, the system is more than deep enough. Hilariously over-the-top special attacks make up for a relative lack of challenge.
What about content, then? Storytelling and characterization are, after all, the primary appeal of all visual novels and bishoujo games. That's actually where Sakura Wars might fall slightly short, especially to the Japanophile who's looking for "more" in his anime and manga.
The game's story, centered around Shinjiro Taiga and the girls of the New York Combat Revue, echoes a combination of Super Sentai/Power Rangers moral simplicity, mixed with a touch of harem anime. It's not anything that fans will point to as proof that anime "isn't just for kids." Shinjiro, like his uncle (and longtime franchise lead) Ohgami, certainly packs more personality than the average blank-slate eroge protagonist.
The cast itself is a mixed bag of trope and trait combinations. Subaru Kujou is the androgynous, detached scholar who refers to herself in the third person, Gemini Sunrise is the samurai-otaku cowgirl from Texas, Cheiron Archer is a Harlem lawyer who used to lead a biker gang, and other archetypes. More sensitive players may find the stereotypes on display somewhat politically incorrect (particularly in Cheiron's case), but the picture Sakura Wars paints of New York - and by extension of American culture - is so sanitized that it comes off as almost completely harmless, and even a little endearing. Anyone with the temerity to take offense over it ends up looking petty for their outrage.
The true concern over Sakura Wars' appeal, really, lies in the audiences tolerance for sweet anime fluff. Most everything is so lighthearted and saccharine that viewers looking for something subversive, postmodern or "mature" will instead leave with a case of diabetes.
With multiple potential endings and tons of special art and event scenes to unlock, Sakura Wars is built for the long haul, which, unfortunately, is where some its steam loses pressure. Much of the relationship-building takes place during lulls in the action where players are free to explore New York for limited periods of time. The timing introduces a time-management element to the title, but it's hard to tell where any given girl will be during a given time, since placings and schedules vary from chapter to chapter. That makes it difficult to concentrate on a single character, and at times one can end up making the "wrong" girl happiest by virtue of encountering her more often than whomever the player was really looking for.
That isn't a huge problem as the game provides many, many opportunities to gain or lose approval with all characters (even during battle), but it was less significant in earlier installments of the series, which usually displayed all the available characters on a single map.
NIS-America provides an excellent localization, though typos abound (not surprising considering the amount of text they must have had to sift through), and the English dub cast (including Laura Bailey as Gemini) brings their talents to bear, capturing all the charisma of what may well be the most camp impression of 1920's steampunk America ever conceived. The fact that the sprites' mouth movements are hilariously unsynced to the English voiceovers even lends the game a cheesy "old-time martial arts movie" charm.
In an unusual step, PS2 buyers will gain the benefit of a dual localization, with a second disc containing the Japanese voicework, but with the text changed to reflect the original Japanese naming conventions and terminology. For example, Cheiron Archer's original name was "Sagiitta Weinberg", making the PS2 version's slightly higher price preferable, though Wii owners tolerant of English dubs won't find themselves missing out on much (even the dub-haters can turn voices off).
In the end, though, Sakura Wars is perhaps the best example one can find of a true "anime game" that still has a (admittedly slight) chance of appealing to more mainstream players. Anyone with a tolerance for its text-heavy nature and airheaded cheerfulness would do well to pick it up.
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