Right up front, I feel the first thing I should make clear is that prior to playing this game for review, I knew practically nothing about Sakura Wars. I knew the game by reputation as something of a legendary SEGA series, as well as comprising some of the “other” characters whose deal I didn’t quite get in the Project X Zone titles.
In truth, I’m sure I’m far from alone in this. After all, the series was effectively exclusive to Japan throughout the Saturn and Dreamcast eras until 2010, when Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love came to the Wii and PlayStation 2 in North America. Already five years old on the PS2 in Japan, this would mark the first Sakura Wars video game released in the west — and until now, also the last. As such, unless you dabble in Japanese gaming much, the lore and history of the series is likely as lost on you as it was on me.
Fortunately, the new release of Sakura Wars for the PlayStation 4 has just this type of player in mind. Due to the amount of time which has passed since the last entry in the series, the developers at SEGA elected to take the soft reboot approach to the series.
For those unfamiliar, what this means is that while this is in continuity with everything that came before, it’s removed enough that you don’t need to be intimately familiar with the original releases to understand and enjoy this entry. Think Transformers: Beast Wars, Batman Beyond, or Star Trek: The Next Generation, in that it’s been years since the events of the previous iteration took place, and a new group of heroes are stepping up to carry on in their stead, with some references and characters carrying over to help tie things together. For instance, one of the heroes of this title, the eponymous Sakura Amamiya, was strongly influenced by the earlier hero Sakura Shinguji when the latter saved the former’s life during an attack.
The quick gist of the story is that in the 12 years after the last title, the Great Demon War saw several combat revues wiped out, with a decade of peace following. Combat revues are teams of
mech pilots who fight off demon attacks and invasions, but for some reason have to fund themselves through other means, such as performing plays on stage. Unfortunately, the Imperial Combat Revue’s all-girl Flower Division hasn’t been doing so hot in that department as of late, and have had to rely on the Shanghai Combat Revue to pick up their slack. As such, they’re on the verge of shutting down, despite their once-illustrious legacy, and it will take nothing short of a miracle for them to continue operating.
That’s where you come in. As former Imperial Japanese Navy ensign Seijuro Kamiyama, you’ve just been transferred to the Flower Division to act as their new captain. With luck, determination, and some new assets, there may be hope for the Imperial Combat Revue yet — provided you can help them win the biennial Combat Revue World Games tournament.
If this sounds very anime to you, then you’re right on the mark — this game is very anime, perhaps as anime as you can get without pulling giant hammers out of nowhere and producing giant floating sweat drops (though to be perfectly honest, neither would feel terribly out of place here). Of course, with all the spin-offs into manga and, well, anime (including one set a year after this series that’s now airing through Funimation), it makes a certain degree of sense. (Pro Tip: While the games have been mostly Japan-exclusive, the anime has been decidedly not, if Wikipedia is to be believed.)
More specifically, Sakura Wars is a blend of different types of anime genres. There’s a bit of steampunk (it takes place in a sort of alternate 1940), a bit of mecha, a bit (or maybe a lot) of harem, and maybe just the tiniest hint of magical girl (at least insomuch as the costumes go). Oh, and there’s that whole tournament thing mentioned above, because who doesn’t love a good tournament?
As such, the game is also very story focused. Like, very story focused. Basically, each chapter plays out like an episode of an anime (why not just call them episodes? Your guess is as good as mine), right down to eye-catches and “Coming Up Next Time” teasers for the next episode. The pacing and arc for chapters feels like something from a Sailor Moon or Power Rangers episode, too. You know the deal: One of the characters has a problem, the cast tries to deal with it, demons attack the city, the character is inspired and realizes something about themselves during the climax, they save the day, and then they reach the resolution. The big difference, besides interactivity, is that the chapters take a fair bit longer than 22 minutes to hit all those beats.
This results in a rather firm divide between the story (aka “adventure”) segments and action portions of the game, and while I didn’t keep a running tally, the story portions outweigh the action considerably.
During these story portions, you’ll be able to wander around the Grand Imperial Theater and other parts of Tokyo, talking to people, running errands, and getting up to high jinks. A major part of these involve moments utilizing the “Live & Interactive Picture System,” or “LIPS” for short. You’ll be given a variety of choices for how to respond to something within a time limit (or sometimes a meter with how intensely you want to say it), and your choices can affect the trust the other characters have in you, and their performance in battle. it manages to be a little open, but kind of linear at the same time.
In combat sections of the game, Sakura Wars has apparently abandoned its turn-based strategy tradition in favor of something a bit more action-y. The result is 3D action that might be best compared to a musou game (think Dynasty Warrior or Hyrule Warriors). You go through stages alongside a partner in your mechs, swapping between the two as needed, and tearing through enemies to reach the end boss. It’s nothing especially fancy, but pretty solid, especially now that a patch has added some lock-on and control customization features.
Overall, I could go on and on about this game (truth be told, I’ve barely even scratched the surface of most of my notes here), but summarily, I rather enjoyed it. It’s not flawless by any stretch: For instance, cutscenes can go on for the better part of half an hour or so, and you’ve got no way to save during them. You can skip through them up to LIPS points now, thanks to the patch, but odds are that if you’re playing this, you’re in it for the characters and the story, so why would you want to? So playing can require some degree of commitment.
Like many games, Sakura Wars has shortcomings that can be inconvenient, awkward, or a little weird at times, but none of it is enough to overcome all the things it does well. Enjoyable characters, a real sense of episodic anime style, great art direction and some unique character designs, and solid gameplay make this one to check out, particularly if you’re a fan of anime.
Oh, and it has a pretty awesome soundtrack, too. Check out the opening for a theme song that will not only pop up during gameplay, but stick around in your head for a while afterwards: