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Sakura Wars

Platform(s): PlayStation 4
Genre: RPG/Strategy
Publisher: SEGA
Release Date: April 28, 2020

About David Silbert

I'm a recent college graduate from Boston, MA. When I'm not writing for WorthPlaying, I'm probably researching Celtics trade rumors or struggling to keep up with the growing library on my Nintendo Switch.


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PS4 Review - 'Sakura Wars'

by David Silbert on April 28, 2020 @ 1:00 a.m. PDT

A cultural phenomenon in Japan, the long-running Sakura Wars series defined the JRPG / romance genre with its memorable characters, masterful writing, and sublime music.

Buy Sakura Wars

The Sakura Wars franchise has always been a bit of an enigma to Western audiences. Debuting in 1996, Sega's Japanese dating-sim series spawned four sequels through 2005. Each featured its own cast of female mecha pilots fighting for the world's safety ... and the protagonist's affection.

Only the last of the bunch, 2005's Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love, ever made it overseas. And even then, it took an extra five years — plus the localization efforts of publisher NIS America — to make it happen. Although the game was well received by critics, So Long, My Love wasn't nearly as successful commercially. While Sakura Wars may have a loyal fan base in Japan, it's easy to see why Sega's been hesitant to market the series elsewhere.

That changes with Sakura Wars (2020) for the PlayStation 4. A soft reboot for the franchise, Sakura Wars ditches most of the established characters that fans have come to expect. It also eschews the turn-based combat of So Long, My Love in favor of musou-styled action. The goal is clear: Provide an accessible entry point for those new to the series.

To that effect, Sakura Wars delivers. Its characters are fun, its story is engaging, and its presentation is breathtaking. Unfortunately, not all parts of the experience are made equal. The game gets bogged down by sluggish pacing and frequent melodrama. It also lacks the gameplay variety needed to support its 25-hour campaign. Sakura Wars isn't for everyone; it's probably not for most. Those who are willing to look past its flaws will find a solid adventure game with plenty of style and charm.

Sakura Wars is set in an alternate Taisho-era Tokyo. It's 1940, and city life is booming following the end of the Great Demon War, which took place 10 years prior. Buses, cars, and trains are commonplace, but so are airships, cell phones, and mechas, the latter of which are known as Koubu. These Koubu are piloted by members of the Imperial Combat Revue, an organization with the goal of maintaining this new era of prosperity.

The game opens with protagonist Seijuro Kamiyama accepting an invitation to Tokyo's Imperial Theater, home of the Imperial Combat Revue. There, he meets Revue commander Sumire Kanzaki, who has recruited him to be the new captain of the organization's Flower Division.

Although Tokyo is recently at peace, cracks are beginning to show. The city has had increasing encounters with the demons of the past. At the same time, the Imperial Combat Revue has been facing its own hardships. The Imperial Theater, normally home to captivating plays and packed audiences, has lost its luster. With it, the Combat Revue has lost its source of income.

With no money and little in the way of upkeep, the Imperial Combat Revue finds itself under political pressure to disband. The order comes from WLOF, a global organization set to host a competition known as the Combat Revue World Games — like the Olympics, except with robots.

Thus, Sumire tasks Seijuro with helping the Flower Division regain its former glory. Her plan is two-fold: The Flower Division must compete in the World Games to show its military might. At the same time, it must bring fans back to the Imperial Theater and put on a show for the ages.

Aside from Sumire, the Flower Division consists of five women: Sakura Amamiya, Azami Mochizuki, Anastasia Palma, Hatsuho Shinonome, and Claris Snowflake. Each member pilots her own Koubu into battle, with Seijuro serving as the squad's leader. As Sakura Wars makes clear, strength isn't just discovered on the battlefield. It's also found by navigating life's challenges, discovering one's worth ... and finding true love.

It may seem complex with all the acronyms and fancy titles, but Sakura War's narrative is relatively straightforward. The story takes a page from magical girl anime like Sailor Moon, leaning into themes of unity and friendship, but it also takes time to examine the individuality of these Flower Division members and how they identify self-worth.

The story is divided into eight chapters, each about three hours long. Sega has marketed each chapter as its own anime arc, and as an anime fan myself, this rings pretty true. Each chapter smartly focuses on a single member of the Flower Division. One moment, you're helping the titular Sakura overcome feelings of self-doubt. In another moment, you're helping Claris come to terms with a dark past. This ensures the events of Sakura Wars feel fresh throughout.

It helps that the ladies of Flower Division are complex. In times of battle, the game portrays them as powerful warriors, but in the sanctity of the Imperial Theater, you witness the emotional toll that fighting and acting has on them. It's this emotional depth that gives the narrative such heft, especially in its later chapters.

That's not to say the story is without issues. The first few chapters are decidedly sluggish. Sakura Wars unloads some heavy exposition in its first five to seven hours, and the game only really gets past this once you get to Chapter Three, which is when the Combat Revue World Games start.

Even when you get there, the game still suffers from some poor pacing. While many cut scenes are well timed, others lean a bit too heavily into the melodrama of it all. I often had to fast-forward the dialogue with a tap of the X button, as scenes had enough dead space to resuscitate EA's dormant IP.

These pacing issues weren't enough to deter me because despite the melodrama, Sakura Wars looks and sounds so damn good that I was willing to look past it all. It may sound like hyperbole, but it's true: The presentation is phenomenal.

First, we have the visuals. For most of its campaign, Sakura Wars relies on a colorful 3D art style for its environments and characters. The models themselves were designed by none other than Tite Kubo, the mangaka behind Bleach. In fact, many of the character models, from Seijuro and Sakura to the mysterious President G, feel straight out of the panels of a Bleach volume.

Sakura Wars also features character designs from other notable artists, including Shigenori Soejima (Persona), Noizi Ito (Haruhi Suzumiya), and Ken Sugimori, (Pokémon). Add in numerous CGI sequences produced by studio Sanzigen, and Sakura Wars really does feel like an anime playing out in game format.

The real selling point isn't even the visuals; it's the music. Series composer Kohei Tanaka (One Piece) has done a wonderful job of creating thematic music that brings each member of the Flower Division to life. What's more, the music is always memorable and never annoying. That's a good thing, as you'll end up hearing the instrumental variation of Sakura Wars' catchy intro tune many, many times before all is said and done.

When not experiencing Sakura Wars' story moments, you'll be traversing the Imperial Theater and surrounding areas in the Ginza district. While out and about, you'll engage with the members of the Flower Division and various secondary characters you'll meet throughout the campaign.

These interactions present themselves in the form of icons floating above characters' heads. If it's green, it's necessary to progress in the main story. If it's blue, it's optional side content. Regardless, the interactions play out the same way. The game presents you with a particular scene. Perhaps you're popping in on a Flower Division member to see how they're handling the events of the current chapter. In other scenarios, you may be helping someone rehearse lines for a play or stargazing from the theater garden.

These scenarios play out in the form of a cut scene. In natural adventure-game fashion, the player must periodically select from a list of two to three dialogue options. This system, fittingly known as LIPS (Live & Interactive Picture System), serves as the fundamental "affinity" mechanic in Sakura Wars. For most decisions, there's typically a correct response. Pick the right one, and you're greeted with a pleasant chime, which means your affinity with that character has increased. Pick a neutral one, and your affinity stays the same. Pick a poor response, and the affinity goes down.

These conversations are relatively simple. Often, the answers available to you are so obviously "wrong" that it's hard to mess up. However, Sakura Wars throws in some wrenches to keep you on your toes. As you'd expect from a dating sim, each character has his/her own personality. While being polite is a good baseline, a simple one-size-fits-all approach won't get you very far. Instead, you'll have to uncover the nuances of each character to truly connect with them. For example, Sakura frequently doubts herself and appreciates Seijuro's words of encouragement. The tomboyish Hatsuho loves responses full of pep, while the gifted actress Anastasia loves hearing about herself. What's more, the decisions are timed, a la The Walking Dead, helping to add some degree of challenge to the gameplay.

Granted, this may not sound super nuanced, and in truth, it's not. Despite having dating sim elements, Sakura Wars never manages to dig deep into the psyche of its characters. Once you figure out the "trick" to each character, the scenarios start to feel rather two-dimensional. This is a shame, as the characters show some depth over the course of the greater narrative, but for much of the core gameplay, they revert to unfortunate stereotypes.

These inconsistencies are exacerbated by how Sakura Wars handles the actual "dating" aspect. Once you've gained a certain level of affinity with a character, you'll have an opportunity to engage in a more romantic conversation. During these events, members of the Flower Division open up about a deeper issue that's troubling them. After consoling them, you'll share a personal moment (nothing crazy, given the "T" rating) and proceed with your day.

Here's the problem: The moments don't really do anything. Affinity in Sakura Wars impacts two elements of the game: It improves morale during the combat segments to provide the affected team member with boosted stats, and it gives you an opportunity to have a catered ending. Alas, the endings feel tacked on, rather than earned. While I won't delve into spoilers, they don't further the relationships of the characters in any meaningful way. If anything, they detract from what Sakura Wars carefully tries to build over the course of the narrative. Given Sakura Wars' roots as a visual novel series, it's surprising to see this element get the short end of the stick. If anything, I wish this reboot scrapped the dialogue choices and dating altogether, in favor of a streamlined, linear narrative with a definitive ending. It would be a radical departure from what the series is known for, but it would've been a welcome change in my book.

If there's one element of Sakura Wars that I wish hadn't changed in the move to PS4, it's combat. Whereas So Long, My Love featured turn-based combat, Sakura Wars (2020) throws that out the window in favor of musou-style, hack-and-slash gameplay. The segments aren't bad; in truth, they're serviceable sequences that are typically held at the end of each chapter to add some variety to the experience.

The action plays out how you might expect from other genre entries. (Think Dynasty Warriors, One Piece: Pirate Warriors ... basically anything with "Warriors" in the title.) You traverse a linear, 3D map, mowing down enemies with some basic combo chains and special attacks. That's essentially it. The combat is extremely simple, but it surprisingly never manages to feel mundane. That's partially because the game provides you with six different Koubu to play as, each with slightly different combos. Some are melee fighters, others use ranged magic or guns, etc. It's also because Sakura Wars never gives you much of a chance to play around with this combat. During this 25-hour campaign, about five hours consisted of actual combat. Sakura Wars provides an in-game VR simulator, which you unlock midway through the narrative. This allows you to replay past missions as various members of the Flower Division, which is a bummer, since the levels are simple in design and lack replayability.

Outside of these segments, Sakura Wars offers little in the way of interactivity, and therein lies my other major gripe with the game. Yes, it delivers a solid story, thanks in large part to great visuals and gorgeous music. It also presents you with a relatively sizable Ginza to explore, but there's never anything worthwhile to discover.

There are some collectible "bromide" cards you'll find littered in the hallways of the Imperial Theater and on city streets. There's also a card game, Koi-Koi, you can play to pass the time through your in-game phone, but much like the romances in Sakura Wars or the combat, the mechanics feel undercooked.

Compared to many of its contemporaries — including Sega's own Persona and Yakuza franchises — Sakura Wars fails to capitalize on its beautiful setting. There's no shortage of places to go and characters to meet, but without the gameplay to hold together compelling combat, minigames, and collectibles, it can't achieve mass appeal.

Sakura Wars' new cast of characters are fun and lively, with enough depth to keep them from feeling two-dimensional. Its story is engaging and picks up steam midway through to deliver a powerful finale. It's all tied together with a captivating soundtrack and gorgeous cut scenes.

However, its stumbles are tough to ignore. Its combat, while serviceable, lacks the depth to make it a real focal point of the experience. Its story segments suffer from sluggish pacing, especially in the opening chapters. The game feels larger than its parts, but through it all, I wished for more interactivity to support it.

Despite its gorgeous world and accessible veneer, Sakura Wars isn't going to win over the masses. It's simply too restrictive design-wise to achieve the broad appeal of games like Persona and Yakuza. For those willing to look past the blemishes, there's a certain beauty to be had here. It may not be the next Sega cult-hit, but Sakura Wars is a powerful love letter for series fans. It' not half-bad for anime fans, either.

Score: 7.9/10

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