Very much like there are a lot of words jammed into the title, there are a lot of ideas crammed into this game. Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love was released on the PlayStation 2 and Wii a few years ago now, and really the title is older than that as it was released in Japan five years prior. This is the kind of game that probably will not appeal to a large market, but more to a niche group. This game plays out very much like a dating sim, role-playing game and turn-based strategy title all in one. There are some ambitious ideas at work here, and not all of them work out as well as hoped.
For starters, the entire game is wrapped up in an anime. If you have a low tolerance for quirky Japanese animation, complete with the humor, visuals and themes that often are associated with anime cartoons – this game is probably not for you. If you can tolerate those things (or better yet enjoy them), then there may be a bit of something here for you.
The premise revolves around a young soldier named Shinjiro Taiga, recently arrived from Japan and trying to make a name for himself in a 1920’s steam punk version of New Year. Most of the technology seems to rely on steam power, and Shinjiro finds himself in a huge, sprawling city and immediately feels out of place and over his head as he tries to adapt.
You spend the majority of your time talking. I am not exaggerating in the least there. The game is broken up into 8 primary chapters, with a couple of extra ones tossed in at the end. I got about 20 hours of play out of it the first time through. I would guess less than a quarter of that was spent on the strategy/combat portion of the game. The rest is made up of conversations, choices, mini-games and exploration.
Graphics – 7:
This one was actually pretty tough for me. On the one hand, I could appreciate the visual style throughout. The menus look nice, the character portraits look good and expressive – which is key because they are seldom animated. Much like Record of Agarest War and similar titles, the majority of the game’s dialog is presented with images. Those are well-drawn, though the lack of animation is noticeable – especially at first.
Probably the single biggest offender however, are the background images. The game is broken up into five major hubs. Each hub has several specific locations within you can interact with. This brings up a background image that is very static. Sometimes elements of the picture appear or disappear, like a character’s image in the background may be there until they speak to you, but then once they leave, their representation in the background vanishes as well. Sometimes the background is so wide that it pans across while you enter the scene, but those two examples are really the extent of the animation you get from the backgrounds. Worse yet, they are highly, highly pixelated. I know this game came out several years ago now, but it seems like they could have upped the detail and it would have made a huge improvement in the overall aesthetics of the areas you visit.
Now that the bad is out of the way, there is plenty of good as well. I already touched on the menus and character portraits, but there are a dozen or so cut scenes that look like they came right out of a television show. They look great and for the most part were interesting and added to the storyline quite a bit. The actual battlegrounds and the hubs you walk around in look pretty decent as well. There are some nice touches sprinkled in too, like the reflective floors of the theater that serves as your base.
Sound & Music – 7:
The sound effects are not terribly varied, but thankfully they are generally good enough and sprinkled about often enough that they never get repetitively annoying. Most of the game is voice acted out, which considering just how much dialog there is, is pretty impressive. For the most part, the voice overs are pretty good, though as is usually the case there are a few that could have been better. From what I’ve read, the PlayStation 2 version has the original Japanese voices, as well as the English ones, but the Wii version only has the US voices – which was my preference anyway.
Probably the quirkiest voice over observation I can make is in regard to your primary character. Shinjiro never voices over his dialog text in the game, where as almost every other character does. At first I thought this might be to keep from assigning a voice to it and letting the player imagine their own voice of choice. However, that assumption was quickly thrown out of the window because in the animated cut scenes Shinjiro is fully voiced, just like everyone else.
The music is generally decent, but limited. I would say none of it was particularly memorable, but that would be a lie since I can recall two of the tunes with perfect clarity. It is not because I was overly fond of them, so much as they were played so frequently that here as I type this three hours later, I can vividly recall them.
Gameplay – 7:
I played with the classic controller, which makes up 95% of the game’s interactions, though there are a handful of points where you will use the Wii remote as well to point out items on the screen (like for a conversation with a character in their apartment or for a mini game where you are managing a juice bar). A couple of other mini games occur somewhat regularly as well. One is a bar or meter that starts in the middle and you can pull it up or down – generally representing how enthusiastically you try to say or do something. Depending on the situation, sometimes that bar has more resistance as you try to raise or lower it. The other kind makes use of the two analog sticks as you try to press them in the direction shown on screen while prompted. All of these mini games are pitted against a timer.
How you preform in these games as well as your conversational choices will affect your relationship with people. These relationships come in very handy later in the game. There are no experience points or traditional level ups. Your relationship to the others around you however, will impact your stats and the stats of your teammates on the battlefield. These are the RPG and dating simulation aspects of the game.
Then, there is the third piece of the equation, and that is the turn-based strategy section. With the exception of the final chapter, you spend the majority of each chapter running around, talking to people and advancing the plot. It then culminates in a combat section that in and of itself also comes in two flavors. You battle in mechs that can transform into combat aircraft. Sometimes these elements are kept separate, sometimes they are merged. You have a heatlh, spirit and action points bar. Health is exactly that – if a unit falls to zero, they are knocked out for the round (however, combat continues as long as it is not your leader getting knocked out).
The spirit bar is what you use for actions other than movement and normal attacks. These can range from special attacks, to joint attacks and healing. The action bar represents how much a specific character can do in a round. It resets each round, and it dictates everything from distance you can walk/fly, how many normal attacks you get, any of your special moves and can even be used to help block to raise defensive stats for a round, or sacrificing four units to help replenish your spirit bar. Different characters have differing abilities, attack ranges – and based on their relation to your leader and one another, different stats, joint attack effectiveness and action points.
The objectives can vary quite a bit map by map. Since there is no experience or gold to be earned, there is little incentive to try and ‘clear the field’ of enemies. It is in fact usually in your best interests to complete the primary objective. That said, the game usually tosses in a few wrinkles. For example, in one stage there are bomb-carrying robots. They are not your objectives, but they need to be managed because if they blow your base up on their suicide runs, you lose.
The air born combat is very similar, but with a bit more of a vertical feel. In truth, I liked the ground combat a lot more. The aiming mechanism was a bit off at times wiht the air born. You could be hovering right over a potential target, and it would not be targeted. This forces you to wiggle around all over the place until a target sighting locks onto a target.
The mini games were another source of frustration for me. I simply did not understand how they worked – or what I was even trying to accomplish with them. It got better later on, but the learning curve was rather sharp on these. Not that failing in these tasks was any sort of deal breaker – the story continues regardless, but these mini games can affect your relations with people and that has a direct impact on combat functionality.
Intangibles – 9:
The thing is, I really liked the strategy portions. Were they perfect? Hardly, but they had some neat aspects to them (like shifting areas or in some stages, changing from flight to mech mode) that I really enjoyed. The game itself is of adequate length. It’s longer than a lot of action titles out there, but shorter than traditional RPGs. What really helps is that there are a lot of different endings. There are definitely branches in the dialog in early chapters, but your decisions are much more clearly felt later in the game when certain plot elements are rolled out. You can make friends of varying degrees and even pursue a romantic relationship with one of the females if you like.
There are an impressive number of branching dialog and different cinematics depending on the choices you make. Furthermore, when you beat the game you are given some nice bonuses such as a bonus chapter just to interact with others on a slower pace. You can also do a new game plus with the option to skip some dialogs and import some battle options you have unlocked already. The ability to go back and play again, trying for different endings was a big bonus for me.
Overall – 7.5:
In trying to do so many different things at once, Sakura Wars succeeds at doing them well, but none of them spectacularly. I picked this title up fairly cheaply, $17 used. I had been curious about it for some time, and found myself experiencing quite a few changing feelings while playing this game. Early on, as I ran around for over an hour and change doing nothing but talking and a mini game or two, I found myself wondering: what kind of a game is this? Is it even really a game?
Later as the choices you make gain weight, and you get to unlock your first strategy battle, there is a definite feeling that this is in fact a game you are playing, and not just some sort of animated television show. I was really struggling to play this early on as I waded through conversation after conversation. A handful of the characters introduced right at the beginning range from quirky to annoying – but over time most of them really grew on me.
This kind of title can certainly be an acquired taste, and while it has some flaws, I acquired that taste during my play through. I went from that first hour where I wondered what I was doing, struggling with mini games and purpose – to wrapping up the game and wondering just how differently it could have all gone if I had made different choices along the way and had a better understanding of how the mini games worked from the beginning.