America - Front
America - Back
By Thomas Froehlicher 27th Apr 2020 | 4,529 views
With Shin Sakura Taisen (as it is known in Japan), Sakura Wars made a striking comeback in its home country. The series, which began in 1995, completely disappeared following the fifth entry's release on the PS2, just after that Sega left the hardware market. As one of the biggest PS4 hits of 2019 in Japan, despite a mid-December release, it's safe to say that Sakura Wars was highly anticipated. But while Sega has successfully seduced old fans with this brand-new entry, can it appeal to a whole new generation of gamers and revive the series in the long term?
The Sakura Wars series takes place between the Taisho and early Showa era, a period of Japanese history that's rarely touched on because of its brutal war record. Sega, however, dodges this particular issue because Sakura Wars features a partially imaginary Japan; one in which there's no war between nations and instead the country is being threatened by the invasion of Koma, cruel demons from another world. To repel the invaders, various countries have developed large robots that are powerful enough to destroy the Komas. In each country, only a few individuals, members of what's called Kagekidan, bear enough spiritual energy to pilot these machines.
Whereas the real Taisho era and years immediately following it are known for Japan's aggressive colonial rule, the writers of this rebooted Sakura Wars have almost imagined the reverse situation, with Japan in a weak state. When the protagonist, Kamiyama, arrives at Tokyo Station, he's surprised to see that the capital is defended by... Shanghai's Kagekidan! Twelve years after the great war against the Koma, Tokyo's Kagekidan is still a shadow of its former self. Japan's unit has recruited new heroes, but they're absolute novices, and Naval officer Kamiyama has been called back to Tokyo in order to train them into professional pilots. It's a pressing matter, because Japan will lose its mecha division if it can't win against competing nations in an official match.
Those who already know Sakura Taisen will feel at home with this new Sakura Wars. Kamiyama's arrival at the Kagekidan HQ plays out in the exact same way as Ookami's introduction in the very first Sakura Wars game over 20 years ago. Kamiyama also takes orders from Sumire, a famous heroine from the first game as well. Exuberant as she is, there was no better choice for Tokyo's administration.
The historical side of the franchise is also well preserved and fascinating as ever, including multiple details like the townscape, buildings and clothing all being reminiscent of pre-war Japan. You can perceive the transition from traditional Japan to a more Westernized society, which was a major trend in the early 20th century. Linguists will notice that the writing is read from right to left too, which was standard practice before 1945. Another impressive detail is the "dan" ideogram, which was changed to feature the pre-war one.
Sakura Wars draws on the series' famous music, including of course the legendary main theme "Geki! Teikoku Kagekidan", which is as dynamic as ever. The hefty Japanese limited edition contains a giant retrospective of six discs full of songs with wonderful vocals. The character themes are all very pleasant, and so too are the melodies that play during key parts of the story.
Sega likes puns, because "Kageki" can mean both "offensive" and "opera". Like your average superheroes, Kamiyama and his team lead a double life. When it's not busy saving Tokyo, the Kagekidan is a theater company performing opera to earn funds. As in the original game, Sakura Wars for PS4 is divided between action parts and adventure parts, the latter accounting for the majority of the game. The shift to modern 3D makes the cutsenes in Sakura Wars look like they're lifted from a high end animated movie. Characters look amazing, with astonishingly rich facial expressions, and the robot fights are fantastic too.
Between missions, Kamiyama wanders into the central theater, or goes out to visit some of Tokyo's districts, starting conversations with other characters. Time-limited dialogue options are displayed during these sections and you have to select the best answer to please your conversation partner. All of the characters in the game have a friend level towards Kamiyama, which goes up and down depending on your answers. It's especially important to keep the main heroines friendly, because doing so will unlock different endings. You can even flag several endings in one playthrough, which is convenient for completionists. Sakura Wars is also a lot more user-friendly than ever before, because it shows you directly where to find characters. In the very first Sakura Wars, which can be played on PSP, you only had a handful of tries and there was no indication of where characters could be found. In this recent installment, you won't miss anything, and that's undoubtedly a positive change.
In terms of tone, Sakura Wars is mainly a romantic comedy. The game retains the basic principles of the romance genre, that is to say quirky situations, sentimental misunderstandings, sex-related jokes, and of course short-tempered heroines. Azami, the 13-year old girl who thinks of herself as a ninja, is probably the weirdest of all, but that's fairly representative of the kind of fantasy on offer in Sakura Wars. The adventure aspect is extremely fun if you enjoy the genre, with conversations being full of cute reactions from the girls.
For further entertainment, Sega has (re)introduced a full hanafuda card game, another symbolic part of the very first game. It's a time-consuming mini-game that you can play with every single character in the story (even villains or minor characters). In this typically Asian card game, the player picks cards at random and has to gather pre-established combinations. If you achieve longer combinations with rare cards in them then you get more points.
Sega did put some efforts into the graphics and sound, but when looking at the game as a whole quite a few things lack polish. For example, Sakura Wars has excellent voice acting, Sega having hired top stars in the field, including Nana Mizuki, Saori Hayami, and Tomokazu Sugita, among others, but many scenes and conversations aren't voiced at all. True, this practice is fairly common among Japanese publishers, but seeing the characters make large gestures without any sound feels very odd. It's a bit like watching a colorized Charlie Chaplin movie. Moreover, the game relies too often on the crutch of using still pictures to illustrate side stories or character events, like when Kamiyama goes to peek at his teammates when they're taking a bath. It's a shame not to use the otherwise great graphics to their fullest.
Sakura Wars marks a huge series departure in terms of gameplay, dropping the tactical-RPG genre to embrace pure action gameplay. Note that I didn't say action-RPG there, because there are no common role playing elements, like experience, character development, or mecha upgrades. After playing through the whole game I'm left doubting this change was for the better. Frankly, the gameplay doesn't feel very good; movements and sidesteps feel stiff, the robots don't possess that many moves, and long-range units are simply boring to play (they have even fewer moves than close-combat units). True, the girls have flashy super attacks, which are fun to use, but there aren't really any other positives to the action gameplay.
There's a lot of repetitiveness to the action gameplay, which is exacerbated by some levels featuring the exact same boss or tedious platforming sequences, neither of which help to keep you motivated to play through them. There are also balancing issues. It's too easy, partly because there are too many healing gems scattered throughout the levels. It feels like they're somehow being used to compensate for the terrible AI of your allies, who are incapable of attacking if opponents aren't close enough. Other issues, like the lack of enemy lock-on, were fortunately fixed on March 19th in Japan (which was very late, Sakura Wars having been released in the country in mid-December). Overall, Sakura Wars didn't manage the shift to action gaming very well.
I feel like Sega didn't give its best shot at the writing either. The pace of the story is too quick and the narrative often lacks proper foundations. Of the five girls, for example, only Sakura's past is made clear enough, while the other heroines' backgrounds are skimmed over. As a result, certain plot twists feel unnatural, with for example Claris's or Anastasia's motives being left unanswered. It's as if big chunks of the narrative are missing.
That's a real shame, because the idea of the world tournament is genuinely exciting. Rivals show an admirable fighting spirit and it's a real pleasure interacting with them during and outside of the fiercely contested championship. Yasha too is a convincing villain. She looks a lot like the Sakura of 24 years ago, and beats the odds during a remarkable climax. I didn't keep track of my precise play time but I think it took between 20 and 30 hours to complete, which I consider a bit short, especially for a game with such a wide range of gameplay styles and narrative strands.
Sakura Wars is a welcome, pleasant comeback, but a somewhat failed modernization. The cute characters and humorous dialogue live up to the series' heritage, the direction of the cutscenes is great, and the brand-new graphics are sumptuous, but the shift from tactical RPG to action gameplay hurts. It leaves Sakura Wars feeling like a high-end visual novel littered with tiresome action sections here and there.
Review based on a Japanese version of the game.
After graduating from a French business school, Thomas felt an irresistible force drawing him to study Japanese, which eventually led him to Japanese Profeciency Test level 1 in 2012. During the day, Thomas is a normal account manager. But at night he becomes Ryuzaki57, an extreme otaku gamer hungry for Japanese games (preferably with pretty girls in the main role). His knowledge now allows him to import games at Japanese release for unthinkable prices, and then tell everyone about them. You may also find him on French video games media. Feel free to contact on twitter at @Ryuz4ki57