Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Though there is a good chance most gamers do not have much knowledge of the Sakura Wars series, it has actually ben around for quite some time. I think I first encountered the series back on the SEGA Saturn, but have not heard much out of the series in some time. The last time I personally had any interaction with the series was on the Nintendo Wii with the enjoyable if rough around the edges Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love. This latest release in the franchise is not really a sequel so much as a soft reboot as SEGA tries to breathe new life into this series, and for the most part it works more often than not.
There is a bit of a kitchen sink approach here as there are elements of RPG / dating simulation, brawling action, turn-based strategy and visual novel genres present here. If that seems like a lot and a potentially jumbled mess, you would not be entirely wrong. This sense of chaos makes the narrative a bit as well, but at the same time? There is a fresh approach to the game that makes Sakura Wars rather unlike almost anything else out there.
The story follows our protagonist, Seijuro Kamiyama, is a Navy ensign who has been assigned to captain the new Imperial Combat Revue’s Flower Division. For those familiar with the prior games, the reason the term ‘soft reboot’ applies is the way it is set about a decade after the last game, but in an alternate version of 1940’s Tokyo. As for the Flower Division group itself, it is made up of women who have a joint responsibility. You could say that their day jobs is entertaining people through theater, and this is where matters of confidence and personal interactions tend to come into play.
However, the team has another responsibility, and this is where most of the action comes into play as interdimensional demons also attack Tokyo and when this happens, our protagonist and his team jump into their mechs to save the day. This is much more action-oriented, almost Warriors-like at times with the beat ‘em up vibe it presents. There are some small minigames sprinkled in here and there as well, but the majority of the gameplay takes place in one of these two areas. Of the two, the visual novel / dating aspect is certainly where most of the time is spent. If anything, this is what creates the primary pacing issue within Sakura Wars and will likely divide fans. I enjoy the various genres crammed into the game, so I generally enjoyed it – but it is not hard to see how this will not be for everyone. Many people play visual novels for a slower-paced experience, and may find the combat (and the sometimes finicky camera that comes with it) jarring by comparison. Also those looking forward to the mech combat may find themselves wishing more time was spent in battle and less time having to run around talking to people.
Now, it is possible to move through the game focusing just on primary quests, skipping a lot of the side conversations and streamlining the experience – but you would be missing a lot of what Sakura Wars has to offer. You would also be making the game more difficult for yourself when it comes time for the combat, because your relationships with the females on your team provide boosts to your combat ability. The action is pretty entertaining, but not overly deep and so it relies on these behind the scenes stats to help you perform better.
From a narrative standpoint, the concerns of the daytime theater seem almost comically minor when weighed against the mech missions. Worrying about a member of the team’s confidence performing on stage and whether or not your performances will be good enough to keep the money coming in so the theater can continue to operate seems somewhat paltry next to the somewhat general ‘save the world from demons’ vibe that comes with the mech side of the house. However, given the somewhat generic-ish ‘save the world’ theme, the characters actually became my primary sense of investment, which is why I’d argue that the theater portions became more important to me personally, if not the actual overarching plot. The past Sakura Wars games had more tactical elements baked in that frankly I wish this game would have provided as well. There are some missed opportunities with progression elements and combat growth that if this series continues, I hope the team takes some time to add depth here.
The visuals and sound are fantastic. I felt like I was wrestling with the camera during combat more than I would have liked, but the art oozes style and the music really compliments the scenes well. The cutscenes in particular look like they were ripped right out of an anime show and are quite impressive. Because so much of the game’s content revolves around the relationships you build along the way, there is a New Game+ provided, which is nice because it gives you the opportunity to try and approach relationships a bit differently along the way.
All five of the female characters in your group have interesting personalities, and your decisions matter over time. Usually a single conversation is safe and won’t make or break the potential relationship, but if you pay attention you start to get a good idea of their likes and dislikes, what they lack confidence over, things of that nature. There are some decisions where you simply “can’t win” – and what I mean by that is you’ll make some characters happy and others unhappy with your choices. It becomes a balancing act, as having too low of a relationship score with some characters might mean you cannot use them in battle or access certain parts of the game later, so while some gamers will be tempted to pour their everything into a single favorite, keep in mind that it is meant to be a team and you don’t want to go to extremes that alienate those team members. It is an interesting dynamic, to say the least.
In terms of the personalities and interactions, there is a bit of that anime awkwardness that comes into play at times. You quickly get the impression that neither Kamiyama nor his team have all that much real-life dating experience, which leaves them sometimes fumbling about themselves and their interactions. These can range from cute to cringy depending on the particular interaction. I can also see a scenario where someone feels that it is inappropriate that Kamiyama is essentially the supervisor or boss of these women, so should he be pursuing romantic relations with them at all? I would counterargue that this is escapism and we’re using mechs and demons to tell a story here, so don’t overthink it – I tried not to.
Sakura Wars is a welcome franchise reboot that I hope sees more titles released by SEGA in the future. The mech combat is fun, but could use some more depth. The majority of your time will be spent in the visual novel / dating simulation portions of the game, but the characters help to elevate the overall plot. Wonky camera angles hurt the presentation, but the overall visuals and music make this about as close to an interactive anime as you can get.Score: 7.5 / 10