Fifteen years and two full console generations after the previous game in the series, fan-favourite Japanese game mash-up Sakura Wars makes a visually stunning return.
If the Sakura Wars brand name doesn’t immediately sound familiar to you, rest assured you’re not alone. Originally developed for SEGA’s now-legendary Saturn and Dreamcast game consoles, 1996’s Sakura Wars, its sequels and spin-off television shows quickly gathered a devoted fan base that could never quite accept SEGA’s cancellation of the game series in 2008. The Sakura Wars game that players in western countries will most likely remember was So Long, My Love for the PlayStation 2 – released all the way back in 2005, but not receiving an English language version until 2010.
It’s been persistent fan demand that’s seen SEGA finally head back to Sakura Wars with this new outing – intended, as its title suggests, to be a “reboot” of the series for modern audiences and die-hard fans alike.
So, what exactly is Sakura Wars? That, as it turns out, is not as straightforward a question as you’d think. SEGA was fond of describing the games as “dramatic adventures” – which comes fairly close to summing this new one up. A hybrid of visual novel, dating simulator and action RPG, the new game leans very heavily on its storytelling and socialising, with the latter becoming a key element in the combat sections.
“So, what exactly is Sakura Wars? That, as it turns out, is not as straightforward a question as you’d think.”
You play as Seijuro Kamiyama, a member of the Imperial Japanese Navy who’s been recruited to be the new captain of the Flower Division of the Imperial Combat Revue. And yes, they mean “revue” literally. Your organisation is based in a theatre and specialises in two things – fighting invading demons, and… putting on a show. Your all-female cast are not having an especially successful time on stage, with low attendances and disappointed audiences, so they decide to participate at the next Combat Revue World Games in order to secure the funding needed to survive.
If all of the above sounds completely normal to you, then Sakura Wars is going to be a game you’ll have a lot of fun with. As you make your way through the story and meet (and socialise with) the various characters, you’ll spend a lot of time in extended dialogue scenes and pre-rendered cutscenes, with the main user interaction being conversational. You’re frequently given a selection of responses to a character, and have a very limited time to choose one. Depending on your response, you’ll gain positive or negative reputation with that character, which comes into play during combat sequences where the characters’ “morale” (and effectiveness) is directly tied to your relationships with them. This time-based interactive conversation system goes by the name of “Live & Interactive Picture System” – or LIPS.
Visually, Sakura Wars looks stunning – fans of anime in general (but especially fans of this series) will be absolutely thrilled at the beautifully drawn, detailed cel-shaded characters and the world they navigate through. The game was developed using an unlikely toolset – a game engine originally developed in-house for Sonic the Hedgehog games – but it serves this game well, with perhaps only the too-frequent loading screens between rooms and areas as a downside. As mentioned, the game includes many pre-rendered cutscenes – hence the nearly 50GB install size, using the full capacity of a PS4 Blu-ray disc – but it’s these that actually show off how good the game itself looks. The cutscenes have clearly been rendered at a lower resolution than the game itself runs at, most likely for storage space reasons.
If there’s a let-down with Sakura Wars, it’s the combat. While it’s easy to come to grips with and suitably flashy and noisy, it’s not long before you realise that this real-time action combat – a first for the series – is really just you mashing a couple of attack buttons and a dodge button, while waiting for your “super” ability (different for each character and beautifully represented by animation sequences) to charge up. In a world where the glorious Final Fantasy VII Remake showed just how exciting and addictive action combat can be, here it comes off as a half-cooked version of something vaguely similar. The combat camera also seems to be actively working against the player at times, leading to even more frantic button-mashing and very limited sense of true control.
All that said, the reason most people are likely to pick this up is the story and social gameplay and, in those departments, it delivers the goods with its silly, soapy story and genuinely likeable cast of characters. Voiced dialogue is only available in Japanese, by the way, with English subtitles, so be aware of that before you go in – if you’re not a fan of subtitles, this one’s probably not the game for you. Not all dialogue is voiced, either – something we’ve seen before in Japanese games, most notably the hugely popular MMORPG Final Fantasy XIV.
Is Sakura Wars a game for everyone? Absolutely not – but it’s a much-loved franchise that’s only gotten a new game now because so many fans demanded it. Those fans will feel well served with this visually captivating steampunk anime soap opera dating simulator (with mechs!). If you’re new to the genre, though, just keep in mind that you’ll be doing more talking than fighting – and in today’s combat-heavy game market, that’s a refreshing thing.
Sakura Wars is available now on PS4.