The Sakura Wars series is probably one of the longest running franchises in gaming history, yet not one title has ever made it stateside until now. The quirky Japanese dating-sim/RPG hybrid has a strong cult following and has likely been imported on just about every console since the glory days of Sega. This is not a coincidence as the series is developed by an internal team within Sega and has been around for nearly fifteen years. NIS America has finally delivered the series to US gamers and for anyone who is a fan and owns at least one import copy you know what to expect, but for those that have never heard of it, you may be in for a surprise.
Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love is as much about relationship building as it is combat; in fact probably more of the former. Creating and maintaining these relationships has a direct effect on how dialogue choices are dished out, and even how teammates perform in combat. A lot of games can boast this kind of interaction but few ever implement it. Sakura Wars handles it perfectly, and unless you enjoy shooting the breeze with the compilation of females on your team, this game may not be for you.
The story drops you into the shoes of a Japanese soldier named Shinjiro Taiga during the 1920s. Your goal is to meet up with a special force that has been assigned to destroy the forces of evil. In quintessential fashion your team is posing undercover as an all-female Broadway music brigade. Yes the hilarity and ridiculousness is palatable, but it is also part of the charm. The game may not take all things seriously, but it executes them in a way that only this series can. As I mentioned the goal here is to gain the trust and companionship of all of your team, and yes that involves romantically if you are so inclined. Dedicating time to Sakura Wars is not a choice as much as it is a requirement.
This bodes well for anyone who enjoys playing through games multiple times. The branching paths within the game are extensive to put it lightly. To travel through once will take you dozens of hours, and you can almost immediately thing of varying decisions to make and how they will affect the outcome as you play through. Cut scenes are extremely long and wordy, which if you own the PS2 collector’s edition you will note that the game comes packed with two discs. One for English and one of the original Japanese track. This allows you to choose your poison as well as showing how much the localization team at NIS America has done to bring the ultimate experience home.
When you break down the two common aspects of Sakura Wars things quickly begin to make sense. The relationship side is definitely the focus as evident in the fact that characters do not level up like most traditional RPGs. There is no experience to earn in battle, which means if you want more powerful attacks and spells, you are going to have to get to know your crew. Building relationships upgrades all manner of things including attacks and health. This is such an unconventional way of handling progress and quite frankly a bold direction. It is nice to not have to grind common enemies over and over and instead focus on getting to know each of your party members.
This only works in Sakura Wars because the amount of depth to each character. Learning all the intricacies of each one could take dozens of hours and multiple play throughs, once again enforcing the fact that this game is chock full of replayable content. Conversations are handled a bit differently than in games like Mass Effect. Instead of having choices you have opportunities. For example replying to a normal series of conversations gives you time to mull over the answers and make a sound decision, while quick events must be handled with split-second timing. These all change the outcome of the events and create varying paths for you to explore throughout the game. It really is a monstrous amount of content and at times can feel overwhelming.
When outside the character development aspect the game does open up into a traditional SRPG to deliver some solid, if not predictable combat mechanics. Similar to just about every other SRPG you have played with your characters moving around the battlefield trying to gain ground and attack the enemy. Moving around and attacking depletes your action bar, and attacks are based on location and position combined with strength and range.
All of this is familiar for anyone accustomed to the genre, but it also excels at its simplicity. Battles quickly evolve into engrossing chess matches that have you strategically planning our next move. The simple system leaves you open for much more thought process. It is hard to explain until you really dive into the game, but the sheer simplicity really allows you to focus on combat and strategy more often than fighting with complexity.
As far as presentation goes Sakura Wars delivers again with some outstanding attention to detail. While the sprites and backgrounds definitely feel dated when compared to today’s graphics, the fact that this is a five year old game should calm most of your concerns. The still animations during cut scenes are wonderfully animated and the menu system is slick and easy to navigate. There is a lot of menu selection and dialogue sequences so you will appreciate the detail and simplicity that is here.
The voice work is done surprisingly well and if you pick up the PS2 version not only do you get the bonus items, you also get a second disc with the Japanese voice track. The music is subtle but fits the mood and the effects are standard fare, but the game shines in so many categories it is hard to fault the things that really don’t matter in the big scheme of things.
Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love is one of the hardest games to review for quite a few reasons. First is that it is certainly not for everyone. In fact if you have never heard of the series, or despise relationship-sim games in general, it will likely puzzle you how it got such a high score. However, for those that have been admiring the series from afar these past dozen years this outing is definitely chock full of everything you would want from the series, regardless of which system you choose. Obviously if you have the option go for PS2 as it is definitely the definitive version, not to mention the included Japanese audio track. This is one of the few times when a game does something so different it will make or break the game entirely, but if it is your thing, it will be hard to beat when it comes to overall quality.
Review copy provided by publisher.