Recently, a number of titles previously deemed too eccentric for American tastes have been migrating out of the Land of the Rising Sun. This past month alone, gamers have been presented with Yakuza 3, Cho Aniki Zero, and Spectral Force Genesis; three titles which would have been unlikely candidates for localization just a few years ago. Despite Sakura Wars endearing popularity in Japan (spanning five main games and eight spin-offs titles) over the past fourteen years, no publisher was willing to bring the franchise stateside.
Mercifully, NIS America has translated the fifth entry in the series for Western audiences, rechristening the game as Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love. Those with a fleeting familiarity of the publisher’s previous output might assume that the title is straightforward JRPG. However, players that take the plunge with Sakura Wars will find the game offers a creative blend of interactive fiction, romantic comedy with a healthy dose of strategic mech battling. While this might seem like a muddled mix of genres, each of the title’s elements are skillfully presented in a distinctly delineated method.
Like the best Japanese exports, So Long, My Love’s plotline is crammed with unadulterated absurdity. Set in the 1920’s, players assume the role of Shinjiro Taiga, a timid nineteen year-old dispatched to New York. A dilemma develops as soon as the budding samurai sails into the Big Apple; it’s seems the demon- destroying STAR Division was expecting Taiga’s seasoned uncle. To compound this quandary, the organization masquerades as a Broadway musical troupe, forging one of the most delightfully outlandish plotlines in recent memory. Players are forced to relinquish any adherence of narrative fidelity and allow Sakura Wars to take them on its madcap expedition.
Each of the game’s episodic stages commences with an adventure phase, as Taiga is tasked with solving a specific problem. Unlike most adventure titles, an explicit route is never conveyed, forcing gamers to explore Manhattan locales which are inevitably populated by fellow team members. Every encounter with a colleague will initiate a dialogue, while some meetings lead to the Live and Interactive Picture System (LIPS), an element which allows players to interact in a number of ways. Often, players will select a response from a multiple-choice dialog tree, while in other situations they may dictate the intensity of their response. In specific situations, Taiga is required to perform QTE’s, such as moving each stick in Street Fighter-esque quarter circles. Each interaction is timed; so that urgent situations demand expedited responses, while casual conversations give the player five seconds to reply.
Resourcefully, these dialog sequences do more than move the plot along, each interactive encounter also advances Taiga’s relationship with his female colleagues. Players will want to stay in each team member’s good graces, as the strength of each relationship will determine your effectiveness on the battlefield; the more each protagonist likes Taiga, the stronger their strikes will be. Teammates infatuated with the young hero have the ability to initiate a special attack which can decimate multiple enemies, substantiating the cliché that “love can conquer all.”
Considered that the title’s developers- Ryutaro Nonaka and Shuntaro Tanaka would go onto to create 2008’s Valkyria Chronicles, it’s little surprise that So Long, My Love’s combat shares many similarities. Each sequence in the turn-based skirmishes gives players a filled Mobility Gauge; allowing players to initiate strikes, heals, and joint attacks until the meter is depleted. Although the title’s combat initially seems simplistic, Sakura Wars conceals an intriguing amount of tactical depth as players can select from multiple stratagems, and choose to spend mobility points for defensive protection.
Despite Sakura Wars five year delay in coming to U.S. shores, the title shows little signs of aging, and compares favorably to many late-era PS2 titles. Each anime-inspired character model is dotingly rendered, and persistently animated- blinking and altering facial expressions as each conversation flows along. The one graphical snag occurs during combat, as attack sequences use canned cinematics. Initially, it was confusing to see two adjacent mechs appear spread out across the battlefield as the attack animation played out.
While most otaku will revel in Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love’s well-executed outlandishness, more mainstream gamers might be bothered by the title’s unabashed loquaciousness. Before gamer’s can indulge in the game’s satiating scuffles, there is a substantial amount of rapport building, which may turn off players seeking gratification through mechanized melees. Yet, for Japanophiles, So Long, My Love is a must-play adventure and an aptly titled finale for the Playstation 2.
Wii Version: Although Nintendo owners forsake the English and Japanese dual disk treatment, art booklet, and oversized manual, players do get all of Sakura Wars’ Broadway singing and mech battling charm for a slightly more economical price. Those seeking an eccentric reprieve from the mini-game collections should considering adding this enchanting title to their library.