Sakura Wars Interview - Revitalizing a Legendary Series and Localizing For The West
DualShockers spoke with the Sakura Wars team at Sega, discussing the creation of this modern PS4 entry, the western localization process, and much more.
Sakura Wars. Sakura Taisen. These words bring forth many feelings for quite a number of people both in and outside Japan. The mix of Japanese Adventure games, Dating Sim, Steampunk, Theater, Mecha, Fantasy and much more has changed anyone who has met its path. Whether you’ve actually experienced the franchise yourself, or only gazed at it from afar, it’s one of the most iconic series Japanese pop-culture has to offer. It’s never too late to try out the series either, and the newest entry on PS4, Sakura Wars, demonstrates this perfectly.
Three months after the game’s launch in the west, DualShockers had the opportunity to speak with the Sakura Wars development team at Sega: Localization Producer Andrew Davis, Director of Sakura Wars Tetsuya Ootsubo, and Jacob Nahin, Senior Communications Manager.
Iyane Agossah: Sakura Wars on PS4 brings in a new cast of characters and takes place over ten years after the latest game. These are all big changes story-wise. Could you tell us more on the choices behind this decision?
Tetsuya Ootsubo, Director of Sakura Wars: A hallmark of the Sakura Wars series is that each new entry shows the passage of time since the previous ones, so one of our ironclad requirements was that any sequel would take place in the same timeline after the events of Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love.
Then, once we had settled on the idea of a soft reboot with (nearly) all-new main characters and cast, it made sense to let a bit of time elapse since So Long, My Love, so that players could seamlessly absorb the world without the need for any particular preconceptions or knowledge of the old games. At the same time, by keeping Sumire Kanzaki as a major character, we hoped to delight longtime fans and establish a firm connection to the older titles.
Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love released for the PS2 in 2005 and later for the Wii in 2010.
Marking the very first time a Sakura Wars game was officially localized in English (an ambitious project), it’d be another decade before a new mainline entry would arrive in the West. pic.twitter.com/QwRAk6Cbpr
— SEGA (@SEGA) July 10, 2020
Iyane Agossah: What kind of struggles did you encounter when striving to make this entry fit for both newcomers and longtime fans? We would love to hear one specific anecdote in that regard, such as which new character was the hardest to create in order to please both sides.
Tetsuya Ootsubo: For this game, we enlisted a variety of artists to contribute to the character designs. The challenge was to maintain each creator’s individual quirks while still achieving a unified look for the game world. To that end, we asked animator Masashi Kudo to create the 3D character models based on the 2D concept designs.
Iyane Agossah: Sakura Wars on PS4, like past games, do not include extensive RPG elements such as money and shops, equipment and skill trees. Did you ever think about adding these kinds of RPG elements in the series?
Tetsuya Ootsubo: The key concept behind the Sakura Wars series is fostering communication between the characters and becoming stronger through the bonds that you forge as a result of that communication. Thus, our intent is for players to focus primarily on how they’re interacting with the other members of the troupe and enjoy the sense of being the captain of a team.
Iyane Agossah: Sakura Wars on PS4 ended up not receiving an English dub for its localization. Could you tell us more on the reasons behind this decision?
Andrew Davis, Localization Producer: Andrew Davis, Localization Producer: For every title we bring out in the West, we have to assess beforehand what scope will be possible from a business standpoint. Obviously, if it’s a well-established series, we can be more confident that sales will justify a larger localization budget, but in the case of Sakura Wars, we were starting with the barest foothold in the West. Since we had to make sure every dollar counted, we considered our options carefully and determined that the best use of our resources would be to expand our text language options and forgo English voiceover for this game. Because of this, we were able to offer text alongside the English in Spanish, French, and German.
As a series grows its fanbase, the possibilities broaden as well. It took a while for the Yakuza series to really find its audience in the West, but with the success we’ve seen in the past few years, we were able to start producing English VO for recent games from that team, like Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise and Judgment. I would certainly love to see a similar arc for Sakura Wars!
Iyane Agossah: The localization of Sakura Wars focuses on adapting Japanese terms such as honorifics instead of keeping them in the script. Could you tell us more on this decision?
Andrew Davis: That’s a good question! Neither approach is necessarily right or wrong. As a localization team, we always discuss this and other questions of style at the beginning of a project to establish what will fit best with each game. For some franchises like Persona or Yakuza, set among complex power structures in a modern-day Japan, it’s been useful to apply honorifics like -san, -senpai, -chan, or -sensei, as once players get over the hurdle of figuring out how they’re used, they can pick up contextual clues regarding who has authority over whom.
We did consider this for Sakura Wars as well, since of course it’s set in Tokyo. That said, given all the demons, steampunk, airships, and libromancy, we also knew this still have many elements of a period fantasy story. Additionally, the character relationships were pretty straightforward, so it didn’t seem like honorifics would add a lot of information that wasn’t already clear from the context. Ultimately, it seemed to fit the narrative best to localize into naturalistic English and sidestep some of the more explicitly Japanese details. So, for instance, I’m sure some players noticed that in the Japanese VO Sakura often calls Seijuro “Sei nii-san”, signifying that he’s an older male close friend from back when they were little kids. We opted to render this as simply “Seijuro”, the way a native English speaker would approach it.
Iyane Agossah: In Japan, this new entry is titled Shin Sakura Taisen. Could you explain why you decided to go for a simpler title in the West? Hypothetically speaking, if the first game gets localized later on, could it earn a subtitle, such as Sakura Wars: Origins ?
Andrew Davis: Heh, this was actually a very lengthy discussion! In Japan, of course, the original series (and its spinoffs) flew under the Sakura Taisen banner, and since this new game was meant to be a soft reboot to bring in both old and new fans, SEGA of Japan settled on Shin (New) Sakura Taisen to signify a fresh start.
We considered many options, such as “Shin Sakura Wars” (but “Shin” doesn’t signify much if you don’t know Japanese), “New Sakura Wars” (but it’s a bit unwieldy in English), “Sakura Wars: [various subtitles having to do with romance]” (but that doesn’t communicate that this is a new starting point accessible to all players, and as we played more of the final game we grew to understand that the romance aspects were only one part of the experience)…
Ultimately, since the Western footprint for the old series was so thin, we decided to present it with the simple, catchy title Sakura Wars, even as we acknowledge that this could foster confusion when talking about the older series. As for your other question, it’s still too early to say whether we’ll have a chance to revisit any of the older games and give them their first Western releases, but yes! I would imagine we would have to consider adding a subtitle for any official rerelease of the first game, if only to distinguish it from the PS4 game.
Iyane Agossah: Sakura Wars The Animation aired in Japan and is simulcasted in the West. Can we expect more adaptations related to Sakura Wars on PS4 to be localized? Such as the manga and novel adaptations.
Andrew Davis: I’d certainly love to see more Sakura Wars media make it to the West! However, SEGA of America generally only handles video game publishing, so an interested party would need to reach out to the appropriate licensor in Japan.
Iyane Agossah: As Sega previously mentioned the wish to bring more games to PC, could we expect Sakura Wars to get ported to PC via Steam or Epic Games Store? What about other consoles such as Xbox and Switch?
Tetsuya Ootsubo: We certainly want as many people as possible to be able to enjoy the Sakura Wars series. We’re actively researching where the most demand exists for the games and weighing what steps we can take to make other options a reality.
Iyane Agossah: In the past, the very first Sakura Wars game had a spinoff game released on Game Boy. The series also had a puzzle game spinoff series based on Columns. Would you be interested in developing similar spinoff games for this new entry?
Tetsuya Ootsubo: We’re focused right now on getting as many people as possible to play the new Sakura Wars game. However, we would love the chance to work on a spinoff title for people who want to explore the world more and engage with the characters they like.
Iyane Agossah: Seeing Sakura Wars on PS4 has several bonus costumes and soundtrack DLCs, could we expect more DLC in the future? And would it be in the form of additional costumes, or could we get new story content?
Jacob Nahin, Senior Communications Manager: We have a costume / planned release of loungewear planned for release sometime around the fourth of July.
Iyane Agossah: Sakura Wars as a series has a small presence in the West thanks to the old anime adaptations and the localization of Sakura Wars V on Wii. And now, Sakura Wars on PS4 is a new page of the history of the franchise in the West. Could you share with us your impressions regarding the recent reception of Sakura Wars on PS4, and the series as a whole, in the West?
Andrew Davis: We’re really thrilled by the public and critical reception! It’s great that we can finally make a significant push into the West and let more fans discover the unique, comforting atmosphere of Sakura Wars as a series. People have responded really well to the art style, the personalities of the cast, the musical score, and the quirky blue-skies setting.
In fact, we’ve been analyzing and digesting the critical reviews (as we do regularly for all our titles), and one sentiment that’s come up over and over, even in the otherwise negative reviews, is how utterly charming the whole game is. I collected quote after quote talking about how the game feels “cozy”, it has “tons of heart”, and “it’s hard not to fall in love with everyone you meet”. I think we all need a dose of comfort amidst the pain and chaos of 2020, and I’m planning to report to the dev team that Western players appreciate Sakura Wars being the home of good vibes.
Iyane Agossah: Seeing Sakura Wars on PS4 was localized only a few months after its Japanese release, can we expect possible future entries to be localized as swiftly?
Andrew Davis: While it can be a challenge sometimes to start on localization while the game is still in development and parts of the script are in flux, we also know it’s friendlier to fans (and often better for the game’s success!) when we’re able to bring out a game in the West as close as possible to the Japanese release date. Scheduling for any future titles will depend on the individual circumstances, especially given the disruptions hitting many sectors of the game industry worldwide, but we’d certainly like to get our localized editions out as quickly as we can!
Iyane Agossah: The majority of the games in the series are still Japan-exclusive. Could they be localized in some way, in order to make the series better known in the West?
Andrew Davis: The old games are beloved classics in Japan, and if possible, we’d love the chance to revisit them and allow Western fans a chance to discover what made them special. We don’t have any specific plans at the moment, but fingers crossed!
Iyane Agossah: Sakura Wars as a series has few but dedicated fans in the West, and is particularly popular in Asian countries such as South Korean and China. Both countries had their own mobile Sakura Wars games as well. However, certain themes depicted in the Sakura Wars series, such as the Taisho Era and the military themes, can be controversial in the West, South Korea and China. Do you have some comments to share in that regard?
Tetsuya Ootsubo: What makes the world of Sakura Wars so special is the blend of steampunk aesthetic with certain aspects of the real-life Taisho Era of Japan, a time when the traditional culture of Japan was starting to mix with cultural influences imported from the West. We would never condone anything that would harm someone in the enjoyment of this milieu, and during development, we took extra caution to consult with people of all the regions we planned to release the game in, in an effort to avoid ethical missteps.
Iyane Agossah: Sales-wise, did Sakura Wars on PS4 meet your expectations in Japan? In Asia? In the West?
Tetsuya Ootsubo: We first would like to extend our warmest thanks to everyone who has bought the game. We’re continuing to coordinate with teams in each of our sales regions to work on expanding the user base.
Iyane Agossah: Many fans who played Sakura Wars on PS4 mentioned they’d like the game to be fully voiced. Have you considered releasing an enhanced version of the game or DLC adding full voice acting?
Tetsuya Ootsubo: We’ve heard similar requests on our end as well. Currently we don’t have any specific plans for this kind of addition, but we are giving these ideas some consideration.
Iyane Agossah: While Sakura Wars on PS4 marks a new beginning with a new cast of characters, many fans would like to see the old cast again. Did you consider the option to bring back the old cast in some way? Like a non-canon spinoff, where the old and new cast would crossover?
Tetsuya Ootsubo: Indeed, the old characters still exist in the world of PS4 Sakura Wars, and not just Sumire Kanzaki. We understand that longtime fans have a great deal of attachment to the old cast, and we would very much like to bring them back for all the fans in some form or another.
Iyane Agossah: How would you feel about featuring Sakura Wars in console crossover titles, such as a console entry in the Super Robot Wars series?
Tetsuya Ootsubo: We do love to see Sakura Wars characters make appearances in crossover titles. Here in Japan, they have turned up in a number of collaborations already, and if we have the opportunity in the future, we would be thrilled to include them in additional tie-in/crossover games.
Iyane Agossah: Do you have a message you’d like to share with the Western fans of the Sakura Wars franchise?
Tetsuya Ootsubo: Up until now, the Sakura Wars series hasn’t had much of an active presence in the West. And yet, despite that, there are still dedicated fans all across the globe, which is why we’re thrilled that we could deliver a localized version of the newest game to these fans. This game is a proper sequel set in the same chronology as the previous games, but even if it’s your first exposure to the series, we think you’ll have a really fun time, especially if you have any interest in Japanese anime culture, or even if you merely had your curiosity piqued by the unique, exciting period setting of Taisho-era Japan.
Sakura Wars is currently available on PS4. You can read our thoughts on the game through our review and our latest coverage. I would like to thank once again Tetsuya Ootsubo, Jacob Nahin, and Andrew Davis for answering our questions, along with Jordan and all the Sega PR team.