Although Sakura Wars has been a fertile franchise in Japan, the property has struggled to gain traction in the West. This eponymous soft-reboot aims to change that, with an entry aiming to reinvigorate Flower Division.
Platform: PlayStation 4
Release date: April 18th, 2020
Price: $59.99 via retail or digital download
Availability: PlayStation Store
Sakura Wars has repeatedly struggled to gain a Western foothold. The franchise’s inaugural effort was released in 1996, as a collaboration between Red Company’s Oji Hiroi with SEGA vice president Shoichiro Irimajiri. The project faced delays, with additional voice work and ambitions pushing the game across two CD-ROMs and causing development time to be doubled. But the eventual release was a critical and commercial success. Across the next decade, Sakura Wars received four sequels, an anime adaption, soundtracks, a manga, and mirroring a key part of the its subject matter, a succession of stage shows.
Hiroi knew his amalgam of steampunk altera-history, mecha combat, brave female leads, and insights into stage production had the potential to charm international audiences and pursued a stateside PSP port of the first two titles. But Sony thought otherwise, seemingly setting localization precedent. Nine years after the original game’s release, NIS America finally took a gamble with the fifth franchise follow-up, Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love. But audiences for the PlayStation 2 game and Wii port reacted indifferently, with the Western release of two OVAs, a movie, and an anime unable to rouse much interest in the property.
Return to the Imperial Theatre
Given this jumbled legacy, you’d think franchise familiarity would be a requisite before venturing into the PlayStation 4 release of Sakura Wars. But remarkably, no acquittance is needed. Sure, if you’re a dedicated fan of the property, you’ll enjoy a single returning character (Sumire Kanzaki), several variations of series archetypes, and even a meticulous three-dimensional recreation of the Imperial Theatre. That’s the venue where the game’s Imperial Combat Revue’s Flower Division puts on nightly performances when they’re not suiting up to fight demon blitzes. And if you’ve seen the anime, exploring the meticulously-rendered venue is immensely satisfying.
But that’s not to say that the game has little to offer those with a bit more knowledge. The game’s interpretation of Takarazuka Revue, a real-life musical troupe that inverts the gender role of all-male kabuki, is rich with researched detail. The context of the game, while set in an imagined, late Taishō era, captures the blend of Japanese tradition and Western culture that once dominated the city. Like several other prominent works, it’s a tribute to yesteryear’s metropolitan elegance, where pedestrians wear business suits or elegant kimono. Like SEGA’s Yakuza 0, it’s a time period begging for exploration. Sightseeing in Sakura Wars, whether it’s an old confectionary or public path brimming with activity, just might release endorphins.
Fighting Demons by Day, Theatrical Performance at Night
Mercifully, the game provides motivation for venturing through its detailed ecosphere. The district’s Imperial Theatre has lost much of its glory, with Sakura Wars’ early hours showing the troupe’s earnest intentions undone by humiliating pratfalls. As such, players adopt the role of Seijuro Kamiyama. Pulled from the Navy to turn the Imperial Combat Revue around, his task is to secure funding for the Flower Division.
That means entering the Combat Revue World Games, where stage troupes from Berlin, London, and Shanghai square off in best of three mecha-battling matches. In function, its also means that the demons aren’t your only worry, adding another later of tension to the customary opposition. At the beginning of the fifteen-hour game, Team Shanghai are heated rivals, telling the Flower Division underdogs to drop out of the contest. Besieged by adversity, it’s easy to emphasize for Team Tokyo.
Luckily, Flower Division’s members are also exceedingly easy to like, helping to support the dating-sim aspect of Sakura Wars. Designed by Bleach creator Tite Kubo, they’re also delightful in appearance, exhibiting few of the obstacles associated with bringing 2D characters into the third dimension. Sure, they’re rooted in archetype, but writers Jiro Ishii and Takaaki Suzuki are too gifted to not make each one diverge from expectation. Over time, hot-heated Hatsuho, prima donna Anastasia, studious Claris, kid-ninja Azami, or strongminded cover star Sakura Amamiya reveal different facets of themselves, and it’s hard not to appreciate their individual motivations. That said, there’s a lingering felling after the credits roll that Sakura Wars exists to kick-off a new series.
Those L.I.P.S. You’ve Missed
Interaction with cast members is handled with the return of the Live Interactive Picture System, one of those amusingly-named acronyms that tend to become franchise mainstays. Here, Kamiyama is provided with provided with different dialog choices, with a push of the analog stick and a button press determining a response. Additionally, you can remain taciturn, opting to let a brief timer expire. Occasionally, there’s a variation where the lead can adjust the volume of his response from a brash yell to a timid whisper, typically resulting in comical responses when the extremes are chosen. Your replies feed into the rapport with each character that’s present. So, some might like welcome an enthusiastic retort, while others will view it as empty rhetoric.
In execution, there’s the occasional aggregation. Sporadically, your intent might be camaraderie but the game misconstrues (or acknowledges, before returning to canned reactions) your selection. Fortunately, these missteps are forgivable since Sakura Wars functions as a leadership assessment tool just as much as a dating sim. Habitually, I role-play as a mixture of my own outlook as well as the protagonist. As such, even though I wanted to pursue another character, I was constantly reminded of the perspective I shared with another cast member. Your results may vary, but I truly relished this kind of relational dissonance.
Enough Talk, Let’s Battle
When it comes time for Flower Division to jump into their portly Koubu suits, Sakura Wars opts for Dynasty Warriors-style action, which offers a pleasing complement to the conversations and dates. All of the fundamental tenets are there, with players swiping legions of subordinates with light and heavy attacks, leading up to challenges against more distinctive bosses. Spamming the dodge button will let players with limited experience make it though each fight. But those with slightly sharpened reflexes can time the maneuver to trigger a slow-motion event that lets you get a free flurry of strikes in. Obviously, the mechanics aren’t as polished as Koei Tecmo’s prolific property, but a day-one patch reduces some of the woes with fighting airborne adversaries and contributes a lock-on.
Combat might lack some of the gratification found in previous installments, especially the Active & Realtime Machine System (ARMS) found in Is Paris Burning, but at least it doesn’t have the devastating difficulty of So Long, My Love. Battles err on the side of lenience, which ensures progress doesn’t come to a grinding halt, but doesn’t provide much tension, either. But one pleasing tradition retained in Sakura Wars in the serialized structure. Chapters are punctuated by eye-catches and previews of the upcoming storyline, mirroring the charms of the original animated series. While I wouldn’t want to see the medium-blurring method applied to every game with an animated series, it’s exceedingly charismatic here. Another perk is the incorporation of a vocalized version of Kohei Tanaka’s iconic theme that plays during battles. I swear adding a vocal track in, makes me bash those buttons twice as hard.
One final aspect that might be slightly more contentious is the incorporation of fan-service. Persistently playful and often accompanied by the game’s own comical musical theme, these often focus on embarrassing situations. Sakura Wars’ writing demonstrates a variety of comedic qualities and these are likely to generate some of the game’s biggest laughs. Like most dating sims, there’s a reward for maximizing rapport with character, with tête-à-têtes (one-on-one conversations) serving as dividends. Rendered in a tight close-up, first-person perspective, they might be off-putting if you’re not familiar with the genre. But largely, they’re more about demonstrating intimacy over titillation. Kudos to SEGA for not tempering with them for the stateside release.
It’s puzzling that the Sakura Wars franchise hasn’t made a bigger impact in the West. Set in a rich alternative history, where a cast of courageous young women put on stage productions and battle demons, it seemingly has all the ingredients for international success. Whether you’re unfamiliar with the property or a diehard collector with the Dreamcast game situated on a shrine, Sakura Wars is poised to please. The title weaves its multitude of components into one of the most gratifying journeys to arrive in months. This shouldn’t be missed by anyone with an infatuation for anime or Japan’s interactive output.
Sakura Wars was played on PlayStation 4 with
review code provided by the publisher.