Sakura Wars Review — The Dream is Back

Sakura Wars Review — The Dream is Back

While it has been a long wait, Sakura Wars is a satisfying blend of everything that the franchise has done well for a new generation on PS4.

Claiming that Sakura Wars (aka Sakura Taisen) is a huge franchise is an understatement. The steampunk, East meets West stylized series featuring courageous women who act as a theater revue by day and fight demons at night left a huge mark on Japanese pop culture and on anyone who encountered it. When Sega and Red Entertainment released the first Sakura Taisen game on Sega Saturn in 1996, it made history with its peculiar aforementioned mix of genres and atmospheres. Most notably, it mixed various dating simulator, tactical RPG, and adventure elements (what we commonly call visual novels in English) together. By far, it wasn’t the first game that strove to create mixes like these. Red Entertainment themselves weren’t at their first attempt, as Sakura Taisen followed in the footsteps of games such as the Galaxy Fräulein Yuna series.

Sakura Taisen, however, is the first franchise of its kind that managed to reach such mainstream stardom, at least in Japan. This is in part thanks to a very unorthodox idea back then that the franchise pulled off. The seiyuu, Japanese voice actresses and actors, of Sakura Taisen would all regularly hold “Kayou Shows”–musicals similar to the ones that players experienced in-game–that greatly contributed to establish the franchise’ cult status. Putting the seiyuu themselves in the spotlight through stage events, streams and radio shows is usual nowadays, but it was a very novel idea back then, as Sakura Taisen‘s original author Oji Hiroi recently pointed out. Today, many game and anime franchises all do their own stage play musicals in the same vein.

While the Sakura Taisen series reached a conclusion with Sakura Taisen 4 in 2002, followed by a standalone Sakura Taisen V in 2005 (the sole episode that officially left Japan), the series never truly stopped. Indeed, the mainline game part stayed dormant, but anime, manga adaptations and spinoffs, mobile games, apparitions in crossovers such as Project X Zone, and real life events such as art expositions kept it rolling around over the years. And last but not least, the Kayou Shows continued for all these years. Fan demand for a new game never relented, and Sakura Taisen is such a big piece of Sega’s (and gaming) history that culturally and business-wise, a game comeback was only a matter of time. When, and how, were the main questions. And the answer is this brand new PlayStation 4 game, titled Shin Sakura Taisen/New Sakura Wars in Japan, and simply rebranded as Sakura Wars overseas.

Sakura Wars, the PS4 game, is the first main game of the series in 15 years. Officially announced in March 2018 and revealed in March 2019, Sakura Wars is Sega’s attempt to fully relaunch the franchise worldwide, hence why a localization in multiple languages was announced from the get-go. The game is accompanied with its own novel, manga, and a multitude of new crossover collaborations and goods. Seeing the game is already available in Japan since December 2019, an anime sequel also started this April. A stage play was planned as well, but was sadly canceled due to COVID-19.

To be honest, as I relentlessly covered Sakura Wars news via the monthly streams that Sega organized for the game, part of myself was scared. I asked a lot of different questions to myself: “What if the game sucks? What if they only show the good parts on stream? What if I end up hating it?” I’ve rarely been this scared of being disappointed when it comes to my hobbies. It would have been incredibly painful to see the series fail its comeback and fall into oblivion. As I grabbed the game in Japanese, part of my doubts were dispelled after spending some time on it. I even attempted live translating part of the game to show my enthusiasm and spread awareness. Now with this English version, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time with the game, and I can finally affirm this now, with conviction: Sakura Wars brings back the franchise that everyone loved in a magnificent way, all while making it accessible to neophytes.

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Sakura Wars works both as a sequel and as a reboot. The game’s intro explains how the cast from the previous games all disappeared after a decisive battle against the demons, and introduces instead a brand new cast of main characters. Players are put in the role of Seijuro Kamiyama, a young, talented ex-marine ship captain, who’s now assigned as the captain of the Flower Division. The Flower Division is the core battle and theater unit of the Imperial Combat Revue, protecting Tokyo from demons. All big cities in the current world of Sakura Wars similarly have their own Combat Revues, and they are about to participate in a big tournament to hone their skills. However, the Imperial Combat Revue is facing both a financial and identity crisis, and it’ll be up to Kamiyama to give the Flower Division members the trust they need to overcome their issues and win the tournament, all while fighting off a new demon threat.

You might be wondering why I’ve yet to touch upon the gameplay aspect of Sakura Wars in this review, but you’ve actually been experiencing it already if you’ve read this far. Just like its predecessors, Sakura Wars is an ADV, a pure and thorough Adventure game akin to what we call visual novels, and should be approached as such. You’ll be spending the vast majority of your time in the game reading the dialogue and events unfolding as you control Kamiyama and interact with the characters.

The game reintroduces the series’ LISP system, which are short-timed dialogue choices selected with the directional stick. This aims to make the players realistically think about their words and strengthen immersion. Most of the time, players will have a clear choice between either acting in a positive and gentle way (Top Choice), in a harsh and stern way (Left Choice), or being some kind of creep or clown (Right Choice). Beyond these obvious dialogue choices, you’ll have to do your best to figure out the characters’ feelings, as always picking cliche anime lines about friendship and love won’t work. Kamiyama himself isn’t a self-insert; he has his own personality, and will choose his own words in certain crucial moments, where you’ll instead be urged to pick the intensity of said words.

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The true difference in Sakura Wars compared to its predecessors isn’t the change from a tactical RPG system to action RPG elements for its battles; I’ll get to that later. It’s the fact that the game has switched to full 3D. This is a revolution for the series, and Sega made the best out of it. The past games let you roam around the Imperial Theater, which is the Imperial Combat Revue’s base of operations, via a 2D map where characters were represented in Super-Deformed, SD style. When you triggered dialogue with other characters, the games switched to a visual novel-like style, with the characters illustrated with 2D artworks and occasional anime cutscenes. It had (and still has) its charm.

On the opposite side, Sakura Wars lets you explore its environments in full 3D. This choice wasn’t simply fueled by a desire to make the series more appealing to a new generation of players. All of the concepts and mechanics unique to the Sakura Taisen series have been tirelessly thought over by the development team. They have all been improved and adapted to 3D. Exploring the Imperial Theater and the city has never felt so rewarding and immersive. While each area barring the Imperial Theater is quite small, they are packed with small details, fun NPCs, and points of interests. Kamiyama’s own thoughts and observations when inspecting elements will evolve together with the story. Sakura Wars is full of intricate world-building, most notably thanks to the contribution of military specialist and world setting advisor genius Takaaki Suzuki. Simply heading to your next main objective pointed out on the Teletron, Kamiyama’s steam-technology powered smartphone, will probably only make you experience half of the game. You’ll end up missing a myriad of optional events, which aren’t necessarily pointed out on the map, Bromides to collect (photographic portraits of the characters), minigames, and lore.

The most striking aspect introduced thanks to 3D is how Sakura Wars handles its dialogue and events. Nearly all the dialogue is presented through in-engine cutscenes, and each one is stunning. Except during their pre-rendered cutscenes, I dare you to find any other typically Japanese game with as much camerawork, screenplay, and especially lively characters during dialogue. Be it Yakuza, Persona, the Tales series, Ni no Kuni, or any offerings from smaller independent studios like Falcom or Nippon Ichi Software, the characters will most certainly simply be standing there when chatting. Most of the time in several of those games, you will be cycling through minimal, prepared in-advance movements and expressions.

Meanwhile, Sakura Wars feels as if specific movement patterns and facial expressions were tailor-made for every single dialogue in the game. They’re always on-point with the discussion and emotions conveyed by the characters. This is so disconcerting compared to what Japanese games usually offer that I’m convinced some players will dislike how the characters in Sakura Wars are constantly in movement. In-universe it makes perfect sense, as the members of the Combat Revues are all used to performing arts and expressing themselves with their bodies.

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As for the ever-changing expressions of the characters, you might have heard how multiple artists have worked on Sakura Wars. The original character design of the main cast was handled by Bleach‘s Kubo Tite. Other original character designers handled side characters in the game, and we have K-On‘s Yukiko Horiguchi, Sword Art Online‘s Bunbun, Strike Witches‘ Fumikane Shimada, Pokemon‘s Ken Sugimori, Haruhi Suzumiya‘s Noizi Ito, and Persona‘s Shigenori Soejima. However, it’s important to note that similarly with an anime’s production, another single character designer redrew all the designs so that they’re easy to animate and more uniform. That task was handled by Masashi Kudo, who did a terrific job. In fact, Masashi Kudo in the past did the exact same job with Kubo Tite’s designs on the Bleach anime. As such, there’s absolutely no sense of disunity when it comes to the characters’ designs, despite the various artists.

Sadly, overall, I’d say only 60% to 70% of Sakura Wars‘ dialogue is voiced, and it’s the biggest disappointment that I have with the game. It’s especially jarring to see such incredible vivid dialogue scenes being left unvoiced. Sega’s auditioning for the game, which included singing–seeing as each character has their own theme song–brought us an all-star and talented cast of seiyuu. It’s a huge shame they didn’t get to fully demonstrate their skills. Pre-rendered anime cutscenes are back too, and are in 3D as well. These were handled by famous 3D anime studio Sanzigen. Ironically, the sole lackluster visual aspect of Sakura Wars lies in some of its 2D illustrations used to depict certain scenes in the game, with some of them being of varying quality. Going out of your way to interact with the characters and experience as much of the dialogue as possible, the core gameplay will have a direct influence on the minor gameplay elements, the battles.

Each story chapter in Sakura Wars follows a typical mecha anime pattern, with the characters heading to sortie near the chapter’s conclusion, setting up a fight scene for the climax. Characters in the Sakura Taisen franchise fight demons using Combat Armors, which are mecha powered by steam and magical spirit energy, mixing steampunk and fantasy elements. This is where a stern warning is due: you definitely shouldn’t expect to be playing a traditional JRPG. Sakura Wars and its predecessors do not feature numbers to grind, equipment to maintain and skills to learn. The only variable which makes your characters stronger, or weaker, are their Trust Levels, the only way to influence Trust Levels are through your dialogue choices. There’s no real changes to the battle system throughout the whole game, except for Team Attacks that you’ll unlock as you increase Trust.

The battle stages aren’t that big and are globally pretty easy. If you do get a game over, you’ll always be able to restart with extra help. While there are many different types of enemies, none of them will stay etched in your memory. The only exception are the bosses, all introduced with huge on-screen Kanji, following Sakura Taisen tradition, and something you might be acquainted with through Skies of Arcadia and Valkyria Chronicles.

As an important note, the battle system of the original Japanese release of the game had no lock-on system and instead used an automatic homing function, which made it hard to hit flying enemies, most notably. This isn’t a problem anymore as a patch has long been released, adding a lock-on system, a better radar, limited button remapping, being able to save anytime, and last but not least, a dialogue log with voice playback. These improvements will be included in the Western version, so make sure to download the day one patch. However, the patch was only made available to reviewers a little bit before embargo, so some reviews might mistakenly point out these faults, even though they are now patched.

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In any case, you’ll only be fighting for around 20 minutes for about every 3 hours of gameplay, and despite being so simple, the battles are still fun and do their job well. The battles, like the rest of the game, are also filled by cool dialogue and incredible cutscenes, including dialogue choices. The music by the legendary Kohei Tanaka (One Piece, Gravity Rush, among others) is always on-point as well, and it’s the combination of these factors that makes these climaxes so awesome. But ultimately, the battle system of Sakura Wars in itself is marginal. Rather than changing from a tactical RPG to action RPG, the battle system might as well have switched to Sega’s match-three puzzle game Columns, and it wouldn’t have changed a thing.

Rather than the battles, what makes Sakura Wars so good is definitely its cast. It’s a purely character-driven experience. Japanese games tend to traditionally include a stereotypical cast, which gradually shows its uniqueness as you play. Sakura Taisen is and always was the culmination of this concept. The protagonists fight to protect the world and follow huge cliches based on their country of origin. The villains simply wish to see humans suffer for no reason. Everything is cheesy, but it works terribly well. The original script, written by 428 Shibuya Scramble‘s director Jiro Ishii, doesn’t stray from these traditions of the Sakura Taisen series, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Each chapter mostly focuses on a single main character, but all the others will play a role too. This is especially true for the second half of the game, when all the characters have already gone through a good chunk of development. Each character’s individuality slowly unveils itself through the multitude of dialogue events, and you just can’t help but fall in love with the characters.

Ultimately, while we might call it a dating sim, Sakura Wars is quite different from most. Of course, in the same vein as its stereotypical characters and plot, Sakura Wars is also filled with cliche anime situations. Kamiyama often finds himself in “lucky pervert” incidents depending of your choices. I’d add Sakura Taisen is one of the few franchises that manages to make sexual fan service moments and “romantic comedy” misunderstandings like these actually comedic and funny. Still, you shouldn’t expect anything steamy to happen, as even the unlockable optional flirting scenes are very tame. Indeed, your true goal in Sakura Wars isn’t to whoo girls, it’s to make the team members feel at home and have a place where to belong. I believe this is why the nomenclature of the series always used “Trust Levels” instead of “Affection” or “Love” levels.

Moreover, while we control Kamiyama, the true protagonist of this new Sakura Wars is Sakura Amamiya, the most devoted member of the Flower Division, who aims to restore the Imperial Combat Revue to its former glory. While the game includes a dive into each main character’ psychology and worries, everything revolves around Sakura Amamiya. She’s the sole character on the game’s case artwork, the first character you see in the opening anime sequence, and she’s the one getting a typical mecha anime midseason upgrade. It’s not a baseless choice as to why the ongoing manga version and sequel anime both put the spotlight on her.

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Sakura Wars might even be too much centered around Sakura Amamiya at times. Most side characters, and those who belong to the other Combat Revues fought during the tournament, barely interact for most of the game with the main cast besides Kamiyama and Sakura Amamiya. Moreover, while the tournament battles are centered around 3 vs 3 team battles, only two members of each Combat Revue we face off against are introduced. Their third combatant is always a nameless, faceless character we’re never introduced to.

Nonetheless, in Sakura Wars the girls are always the true stars of the stage. This approach is one of the many reasons why the franchise as a whole is so inspiring and attractive to anyone, despite being a dating simulator for hetero male anime otaku. Furthermore, Sakura Amamiya idolizes Sakura Shinguji, one of the main characters of the past games in the series, which brings us to the final important point; how meta this Sakura Wars is.

The first part of Sakura Wars‘ story features an obsolete Imperial Combat Revue shunned by all and on the verge of shutting down. It’s almost as if the game is reflecting the image of the franchise itself in the eyes of younger folks who didn’t live through it. Then, you’d be amazed at the numbers of NPCs who trashtalk the new characters while singing the praise of the old ones. Sega is fully aware of grumpy fans who claimed on social media that instead of a new cast, they’d rather have the ex-main characters back even if they were into their senior years. Players can regularly learn about the previous cast via the Imperial Theater’s archives, with Kamiyama sharing words of admiration. And then you have Itsuki, an embodiment of the good fan, with whom you can fangirl with while chatting about both the old and new characters.

As a newcomer or as an oldtimer, your overall opinion of the game and its characters will grow positively as you play, exactly mirroring how the Imperial Combat Revue slowly regain its fame through the main story, making for a unique experience. Overall I’ve rarely seen a game manage to deliver a commentary on itself, all while handling fan service perfectly, brimming with love and respect for its own legacy. I clearly remember the excitement I’d feel when I was a kid looping the Sakura Taisen games’ anime opening sequences while dreaming of playing the series. Experiencing Sakura Wars on PS4 feels exactly like that. The dream is back.

Before concluding, I’d also throw in a word regarding the English localization of Sakura Wars. As I mentioned earlier on, I’ve partly played the Japanese version, and I must say that the English translation is amazing. Despite the Japanese heavy setting, It doesn’t go with the simple choice of keeping Japanese terms and honorifics, and yet still retains what makes the series’ atmosphere so unique, and conveys everything that needs to be conveyed. Every ten lines I was in awe and reminded of how much I suck as a translator.

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In conclusion, while Sakura Wars never feels like it cuts corners, you can clearly tell, with the lack of full-voice acting or the nameless third combatants thing, that Sega didn’t fully believe in themselves. Sega is incredibly eager to make the series reach glory again, and brought to the development team all-star artists, writers and seiyuu, but at the same time was reluctant and wary. They believed in this comeback but lacked conviction to put more resources on the table, which is slightly disappointing. A more ambitious and polished sequel would definitely have the potential to become one of the most iconic Japanese games in years, similarly to Persona 5. With full voice acting this time, even denser content, more interactions between the main and side casts, and an attempt to make the battle parts into something more than narrative climaxes, you’d have the formula for a masterpiece. Sales would follow suit, boosting the franchise’s popularity worldwide, and we could even see the past games finally get official localization.

Unless you religiously scorn the act known as reading, there is absolutely no reason to avoid grabbing Sakura Wars on PS4. If you’ve read the integrity of this review, you need to hurry up and grab the game right the hell now. It’ll make you discover a fresh universe full of surprise. If you’re a complete stranger to this culture, it will surely be the game that makes you realize what’s so good about Japanese games, anime and manga. In an era where the most exported Japanese cultural products are battle stories inspired by Dragon Ball, playing Sakura Wars can be a gateway that will definitely broaden your horizons.