Publisher: NIS America
Genre: Life Sim / Action / Role-Playing Game
Reviewer: Marcus Way
Overall: 8 = Excellent
I’ve waited a long time to properly play a Sakura Wars title. Ever since the original’s release on the Sega Saturn back in 1996, the series has held a strange hold over my imagination. Aside from the impossibly irresistible bright mechs and strategic combat, what has really intrigued me is the unique dual design that has been implanted from the beginning. The games are broken down into two modes, adventure and battle. Dubbed a ‘dramatic adventure,’ Sakura Wars thoroughly weaves its adventure elements into its tactical combat through the Live & Interactive Picture System (LIPS). By interacting with the world and building relationships with your teammates, you and your squad will be more effective on the battlefield. The combination is certainly novel, and it’s proven to be quite popular overseas.
The series is so popular, in fact, that Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love is actually Sakura Wars V. Despite being the fifth in the series, though, the 2005 PlayStation 2 release requires surprisingly little familiarity with its predecessors. To be honest, I’m not sure anything can really prepare you for what’s in store. It’s one thing to say that you’ll be adventuring in an alternate reality set in a 1920s New York protected by a musical troupe, but it is something else entirely to experience it – the music, the nods to steampunk, the awkward generalizations. I suppose the first question would be, “Why a musical troupe?” Well, because it is apparently a good cover for a squad of mech-piloting freedom fighters, despite the fact that a city block has to be lifted in order for the massive slingshot to have enough room to fling the mechs into action. And while the robots are used to physically defend the citizens, the singing and dancing mentally defends their spirits … against something. Man, what a weird game.
As LieutenantShinjiro Taiga, you are sent from Japan to head up the New York Combat Revue’s Star Division. Unfortunately, you aren’t the Taiga the troupe had in mind and are quickly relegated to janitorial duties. Earning the group’s trust and proving your worth is your first goal, and will remain crucial throughout your assignment. Building trust and getting into combat entails building up a rapport with your teammates through a series of conversations, tasks, and interactions during the adventure portion.
Adventure isn’t quite the right word as what you do isn’t so much thrilling as it is living out a light life simulator. At times you will get to explore New York with by using a world map to quick travel to several areas of where you can walk around using a pretty rudimentary system, simply going from point A to point B and either talking to someone or waiting for a scene to kick in. During downtimes, you can use the free time to take snapshots for a contest—winning items featuring the other squad members—or talk to random city folk. Often, you will have to be weary of the on-screen clock and keep a pace to see tasks completed on time and thoroughly. The tasks, like the conversations tend to run on a timed system that not only takes into account direction action but inaction as well. Fail to show up at a location to overhear a conversation or take too long to respond during a chat, and the situation changes accordingly. As you might guess, the game offers quite a few possibilities for each playthrough.
The biggest way to make an impact isn’t through chores but through talking. Conversations aren’t just a fun way to show off some colorful still shots or tell a few jokes; they are crucial in how your game unfolds. LIPS consists of four modes: Normal, Double, Stick, and Analog. In addition, there is also another interaction type, Click Mode. Normal lips are situations whenever Shinji is engaged in conversation and either asked a question or put on the spot, with one of three answers, or possibly none at all, needing to be given before time runs out. Double is similar to Normal, except that additional time is given for multiple decisions to be made. Stick requires the moving of the classic controller’s analog sticks or the nunchuk’s with the directional pad, which typically involves rotating them in any number of ways to fill up a gauge before time runs out. Analog is more with tone, but instead of selection from a set of options, you build up a gauge to determine how Shinji will project his voice – forcefully or meekly. These typically have responses correlating to mood and manner, with the choices being nice, neutral, or irate. Following the best path to a happy squadmate means greater combat effectiveness, so finding the best path to the person’s satisfaction—with the lovely sound effect of success—is paramount.
Click Mode is the odd man out of the interactive actions. There is no time limit or gauge to fill here, only scenery to explore and topics to bring up. These portions are actually very reminiscent of classic PC adventure titles as you move a cursor across a screen and watch as it changes to the interact with specific objects. The cursor will allow for buttons to be pressed, items to be grabbed, and areas explored with searches changing depending on what items you focus on. If you want to get a teammate better, you might ask them about a picture of their family; if you want them to smack you, you can stare at their chest. Playing nice is advised, however, as you should always build up trust.
Once you do enough favors and win over a few of the troupe, you’ll finally get a taste of combat. I should stop right here, though, to give you a warning: it took me nearly an hour and a half before I got into my first fight. Let me just say, that is a very long time to wait whenever you’re sucking up—‘What a lovely jacket!’—and running around doing chores. This isn’t some anomaly due to the game getting on its feet: it took an hour and a half before I got into my second fight. This is a clear warning that Sakura Wars might not be what you expect, or possibly too much of what you want. But don’t let that deter you from trying it out, because it’s by delving into its world that you get the most out of it. Treat your squad as if you’re playing out an anime and you’ll be rewarded with loyalty and possibly affection. And in So Long, My Love, loyalty and affection mean harsher beatdowns.
Once you engage in combat, all of your time during the adventure portion, helping out the others and listening to their problems, comes into play. After a suitably over-the-top and cheesy team intro, complete with each showing off their moves, you will have direct control over everyone in a turn-based system. Battlefields can consist of a number of areas, sometimes with interlocked objectives, and there are also times when your mechs transform into ships and take to the air. The majority of the battles take place on the ground and within just a few areas, but the diversions help. The real joy of the battles is the payoff from cultivating the various relationships with the troupe. Like traditional role-playing combat systems, characters are limited by movement (mobility gauge) and attack (spirit). The mobility gauge is depleted by movement and basic attacks, the latter of which can be strung together for small five-hit combos; the spirit gauge is depleted by executing special attacks, joint attacks, and healing. Depending on how trusted and beloved you are, you might find yourself with some extremely potent joint attacks—two members attacking the same unit simultaneously—and, if you’re sufficiently convincing during battlefield chats, the greater their bonus boosts, and those conversations are influenced by what happened during the adventure portion. It’s all intertwined in such a way that keep track of all the probabilities is near impossible and the best you can hope for is to win them over from the get-go.
On the whole, combat is above average but not much more. Those wanting a really complex or in-depth tactical system will be disappointed, but that’s only because combat is simply part of a larger system. This isn’t like Final Fantasy, where you can brush offer interaction in favor of grinding out in battle. All aspects of Sakura Wars have to be approach holistically; the dual design is only superficial, an easy way to establish the underlying connections that integrate everything together. This won’t be obvious, however, due to one of the game’s biggest problems: pacing. It’s difficult to know just how much of an impact an action or comment has when it takes so long to become pronounced on the other end of the spectrum. And not only does the hour, possibly hours, create a seemingly significant gulf between modes but it can also be a drag. Sometimes I want to get into combat, not go pull even more levers and catch more grief for some nonsensical slight.
Catching flak over unintended actions or consequences can get a bit aggravating as well. I understand the trope of a fish out of water trying to find its footing, this case being an overeager young man finding himself dominated by domineering teammates whose gender mystify him. The goal of building a cohesive squad of members that care about one another presents its own challenge, I understand that, but there were times when I wanted to just tell someone to shove it. And having to keep everyone happy ends up deterring you from being anything but ridiculously polite, otherwise you jeopardize unity and combat effectiveness. As charming and endearing as many of the characters are, there will be many times when they get upset for next to no reason, with you taking a hit for something—I can only assume from a random response some time before—that, by all accounts, you had no control over. Even if you do get a chance to let loose, it’s very, very tame. It’s tough not to think of Shinji as a simp whenever his only responses to being chewed out range from ‘I am so sorry!’ to ‘Please stop yelling at me!’ The weird reactions also don’t jive with your supposed position within the group, which should be as a leader, not the water boy.
But as frustrating as the characters can be, there are many genuinely funny moments. The writing is solid and the voice acting is pretty good throughout, though PlayStation 2 owners get a sweeter deal with both Japanese and English dubs. I did find one character in particular that really stood out as a highlight: Gemini. The weird would-be cowboy hero from Texas has a fascination with samurai that leads her to hilarious reenactment of scenes from movies that should be decades into their future. Even if some of the acting isn’t terribly great, they somehow still manage to fit in, especially when you view the sometimes-awkward world the characters inhabit (re: Harlem, ruled by the Centaur gang and where jazz and soul food reign supreme).
An item I do want to mention is the game’s strange implementation of the classic controller. As this was a PlayStation 2 game originally, it was design for analog sticks. Now, the controller and nunchuk work well, don’t get me wrong, but this game would be perfect for the classic controller. Unfortunately, the analog sticks do not work in Click Mode. This means that you will inevitably have to use the remote in conjunction with the controller, which is just awkward. Both methods present problems when filling gauges too, as the classic controller’s hexagon base causes some problems for some actions while trying to use the directional pad is uncomfortable for others. As great as an alternative as the classic controller should’ve been, and by all accounts should be, the remote and nunchuk are the way to go.
Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love is a niche title, there is no doubt about that. If you do want to try it, then give it time; its intricacies aren’t immediately apparent, but they are there and will offer an immense amount of replay value to fans. Just make sure you know what you’re getting into and you’re prepared, as the pace can be grueling if not. If you’ve found your mech combat wanting for a more personal touch, or you just want to get lost in a very weird and largely charming world, then check out Sakura Wars.
(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)