Sakura Wars 2019 (Sega): Good while it lasts, but it doesn’t last

Real Talk 2020: Things are rough for everyone right now. As a remote-working freelancer I’ve already started to lose work, so I’ve been keeping myself busy with personal projects like reviewing a game that nobody asked me to review. If you enjoy this piece I’d greatly appreciate a tip on my ko-fi, if you can manage it.

My favorite part of an RPG is the talk. I can take or leave the dungeon crawling; I’m more interested in all the conversations that are awaiting me when I get back home. I like to patrol the area, talk to every major and minor character, and see what I can squeeze out of them. In a really well-written game, this background information stirs the imagination, immersing players into the game world more deeply than any video cutscene would.

If you’re also fond of talking to RPG characters — and especially if you want to flirt with them a little — you’re the player who will get the most out of Sakura Wars. Just be warned that the game ends just when you’re getting comfortable.

That Sakura Wars (Japanese title New Sakura Wars) is talky is not really a surprise: it’s a revival of a Japanese visual novel series from the 90s, after all. From the Saturn to the Dreamcast, Sakura Wars was one of Sega’s biggest hits never to leave Japan. Back in 1990s America, the over-the-top anime and very specifically Japanese aesthetic of Sakura Wars was evidently not considered mainstream video game material. The only Sakura Wars game to appear in English prior to this one was the series-killer Sakura Wars V: So Long, My Love.

But today is a different day, anime in the West occupies a comfortably large niche, and Sega’s US branch now translates text-heavy games like this one. So we in the English-speaking world also get to enjoy this revival of Sakura Wars, a sequel/reboot with an almost completely new creative staff. (Only Kohei Tanaka returns on music, swinging for the fences as always.)

Not only does the game trade in the old visual novel interface for a full 3D world, it gives us a new generation of modernized characters with Kubo Tite of Bleach fame designing the main heroines. (If the new Sakura is any indication, he’s been watching a lot of Kizuna Ai.)

In an alternate-history 1930s Japan, the all-female Imperial Theater Revue perform plays to entertain the people and hop into giant robots in secret to battle demons. If you can’t suspend disbelief for that premise, you definitely won’t be able to deal with the 90s anime vibe throughout, or the Love Hina-level bath hijinks to come.

The stage performances mostly take place off-screen, and the battles aren’t the game’s strong point. So what do you actually do in this game?

The male player character (Kamiyama) is the captain and patriarch of the Flower Division squad. Though you’ll fight alongside your team against the demons, your real job is to manage the girls from amateurs to aces while gaining their trust and supporting them through their personal issues. Of course, you’ll end up chastely dating your favorite, and the game offers a broad range of anime types: main heroine and childhood friend Sakura, rough Hatsuho, bookish, misanthropic Claris, icy Anastasia, and little ninja Azami (who is thankfully presented more as a younger sister than a romantic option… but the presence of such a young character in the dateable cast made me pretty queasy).

Immediately after saying this, this character heads to town and sets up a fortune-telling booth, where she will commit various shenanigans

Most of the game is spent in a series of ice-breaking character-focused chapters, like the early episodes of an anime. Despite embodying broad stereotypes, each of these characters proves genuinely endearing once you get to know them. It’s not just their story and background, but the the little moments walking around the theater delivering pep talks and idle chat that make them so likable. Even characters I didn’t think much of at first, types I typically ignore, revealed their facets when I gave them some time.

Anime Male Gaze

For me, it wasn’t the main story — nonsensical and truncated as it was — that kept me playing. It was just chatting with Sakura and her friends. For an example, the best running joke in the game is repeatedly coming across your playwright Claris’ journals, filled with self-indulgent chuunibyou fantasy, and watching her cringe as you read them out to her, oblivious and dad-like. I was playing for this kind of moment, and by the end I wished I’d gotten more of it.

You’ll spend most of your time running in circles around the beautifully rendered Grand Imperial Theater, talking to patrons, staff, and the Flower Division girls. At once palatial, run-down, and deeply lived-in, the building itself is perhaps the most impressive character in the game. The developers’ love for this home — itself the site of three previous Sakura Wars adventures — is palpable in every bit of wear. Take a good look around.

After a chapter or two the theater starts to feel claustrophobic, and the game opens up tiny new spots to explore around Ginza; a single city block, a tiny cafe. All the space in the game adds up to about the size of a single RPG town, densely packed with new events and conversations like a miniature of Kamurocho from the Yakuza series. It’s here where you meet the game’s large side cast, each of whom you can interact with and win over, just like the girls in your squad. (You can even hit on a tsundere Tomokazu Sugita.)

To liven up the dialogue sessions, Sakura Wars uses timed questions to put some stress on the player, force them to pay attention to the dialogue (you will be quizzed!), and get more sincere answers out of them. I like this approach: it keeps you from tuning out and goes a long way towards immersion. For a more organic experience, you can depend on the game’s auto-save to save after every single question. But if you want perfection, or to experiment with the obvious, comical “bad” answers, you’ll be saving and reloading about every two minutes.

Aside from the occasional curve ball, responses are pretty obvious: The answer displayed on the left is wimpy and gutless, the top is the response of the straight-arrow, hot-blooded leading man (almost always the “right” answer), and the answer on the right is the buffoon or creep choice. Though these responses have little impact on the overall narrative — they just add to or subtract from the hidden “trust” stat — it’s fun to have your choice of captain to roleplay as. I plan to do my second run as “Captain Dumbass.”

I picked tough, goofy, slightly insecure Hatsuho. She also has a little fang.

I found the romance angle a little tough to read, because I played it monogamously (Hatsuho, thank you) when the game intended for me to be a playboy, flirt around, and date the cast before making my final choice — story-disguised as naming a “vice captain” — at the very end of the game. Your choice doesn’t have any effect on the story, and you don’t get a lot of unique feedback from your chosen character: I wondered after dating Hatsuho if, indeed, we were “dating”. (We weren’t.)

On top of this, the story centers so heavily on Sakura and her relationship with the player character that it feels increasingly weird as the game goes on if you chose to pursue anybody but her.

(According to PSN trophies as I write this, 34% of players chose Sakura, versus under 8 percent for the rest of the girls.)

I guess I have to talk a little bit about the action now: it’s mediocre, and mercifully brief. You might not notice this game was built in Sega’s usual Sonic the Hedgehog engine until you see that Sakura Wars’ strategic mech battles have been replaced with platform levels and straightforward brawling in which your robot jumps with the same rubber-ball bounce as a certain blue hedgehog.

Each member of the squad has her own robot with its own unique move set, but the game chooses who you’ll be using at any given time. The lock-on doesn’t work, enemies are tough to see coming, and without an area map it’s frequently hard to understand where you’re supposed to be going. The saving grace here is that the game is easy, and these problems will definitely not get you killed as you breeze through the dungeons.

And right when you’re comfortable with your squad, Sakura Wars ends. After five chapters of taking it easy with the heroines, the game removes the brakes like a TV anime that just got cancelled mid-season. It blasts from the first of many big reveals towards an ending — any ending — ASAP. Unfortunately, the villains are generic, their plans transparent, and the resolution nonsense. The script’s idea of drama is to unveil a terrible truth and then immediately take it back. Lots of melodrama, no consequence, zero impact.

One of the many reasons I’m sure this game was cut off mid-production is that there’s no way the guy who wrote 428: Shibuya Scramble (Jiro Ishii) turned in this.

Sakura Wars doesn’t so much end as it runs out of stuff. The beginning of the game is so densely packed, but the last third is a long, empty tunnel. Side characters feel jammed in, particularly the members of the other international Combat Revues. Some of these characters you speak to two or three times in the entire game, and you can tell from looking at them that they were clearly meant for more.

A striking guest character courtesy of Persona character designer Shigenori Soejima looks like she’s teleported in from another planet: surely she couldn’t have been meant to sit in the theater lobby talking about omurice the entire game, could she?

This hypothesis of mine is only strengthened by the fact that the new Sakura Wars anime, currently airing, is a direct sequel to the game that immediately features some of those under-used side characters as central to the story. (If you care at all about spoilers, do not watch the anime — even one minute of it — until you beat the game.) It’s probably the closest they can get to a sequel pitch: reactions to the game in Japan seem mixed.

I came into Sakura Wars ready to like it, and in the middle my expectations were satisfied! But when I found out that what I thought was the middle was actually more like the three-quarters mark, my expectations crashed down to earth. As is, this game is a 7. Given another year or so to cook, though, it could have been great, and that thought cuts deep.

Real Talk 2020: Things are rough for everyone right now. As a remote-working freelancer I’ve already started to lose work, so I’ve been keeping myself busy with personal projects like reviewing a game that nobody asked me to review. If you enjoy this piece I’d greatly appreciate a tip on my ko-fi, if you can manage it.

Sooolar wind. Anime/games writer. Sometimes on @polygon? @Kawaiikochans is the sum of my efforts. Serious about stupid.