Genre: Visual Novel, Strategy RPG
Players: Single Player
Publisher: NIS America
Platform: PlayStation 2, Nintendo Wii
One day, when I was casually perusing through the old PS2 games of my local GameStop, I came across a rather interesting game. It was a brand new boxed set that had been marked down repeatedly. Naturally curious, I read the back of the box. “The stars of Broadway battle against evil warlords of ancient Japan in New York in their steam-powered mechanized battle suits, spearheaded by a Japanese youth burning with the spirit of the samurai!” After reading that, I knew that I had found something special.
Sakura Wars is by far the most Japanese game I’ve ever played. And by that I mean it has one of the most ridiculous anime-esque premises I’ve ever heard. The game takes place in an alternate 1928 New York filled with steampunk technology. It places heavy emphasis on incorporating American culture and ideals, such as freedom, unity, hard work, individuality, and cultural diversity.
You play as Shinjiro, a Japanese immigrant who has come to New York to be the captain of the Star Division: a group of Broadway stars that don mech suits to combat evil. Now if you’re wondering why Broadway stars are “secretly” combating evil demons in steam-powered mech suits, well I’m as lost as you are. So Long, My Love is technically the 5th game in the Sakura Wars series but the first to be officially released in the west. I assume that the whole steampunk and Broadway aspects are explained in previous titles but here they give little explanation for it.
However, So Long, My Love’s actual narrative is structured like your typical monster of the week anime. The game is even separated into eight separate episodes, with the first two thirds of each episode dealing with a particular character and a problem that they’re facing while also delving into their psyche and backstory. The last third of the episode is then dedicated to an all out battle with that “weeks” monster. But because of this structure, the game’s pacing suffers. You spend anywhere from two to four hours just wandering around talking to people and then an hour or two in combat. This, at times, makes both the exploration and combat sections overly tedious. It would of been nice if they could of interjected shorter battle segments throughout each episode instead of just lumping it all together at the end.
Also, as with many monster of the week style shows, Sakura Wars plot just isn’t that good. While each of the individual character’s stories are well written and interesting, the actual plot centering around a demon trying to revive his master is rather uninteresting, poorly executed, and just clichéd. That’s not to say that it couldn’t have worked, it’s just that the game needed to put more emphasis on building up this big scary evil and his minions that are encroaching on New York.
Now, Sakura Wars is a visual novel, and as such has a large emphasis on branching dialogue to build your relationship with the five main girls. Most interactions involve your typical three choice branching dialogue but depending on the context of the situation you’ll only have so much time to respond. Failing to respond in time will force you into a fourth choice where Shinjiro simply says nothing at all. In other situations, you’ll be given you’ll be given an extended amount of time but will have to make multiple decisions relatively quickly. Other times, you’ll only have a single dialogue choice but will have to manually determine the projection of Shinjiro’s voice. Lastly, the game incorporates quick time events where you use the two analog sticks to perform various actions in a set amount of time. As you complete an action, the meter in the middle fills up, however, depending on what you’re doing, filling the gauge to max isn’t always ideal. By incorporating these more dynamic types of dialogue prompts, Sakura Wars propels itself past other visual novels for a more interactive experience.
As you interact with your teammates, you’ll slowly gain or lose standing with them depending on the choices you make. This manifests itself in two ways: morale and bonds. Morale is how motivated each individual teammate is and determines if they gain any stat bonuses or penalties for that episode. Bonds, on the other hand, represent how strong your overall relationship is with each character, along with their relationships with one another. Unlike morale, bonds don’t reset after each episode and determine only Shinjiro’s stats along with the power of each character’s joint attacks. By having stats work like this, the game effectively discourages the player from focusing their attention on a single character to get their ending, lest the player gimp themselves in the combat sections. This helps underline the narrative’s focus on building friendship and not romance.
Combat in Sakura Wars utilizes a simplified turn based tactics battle system with each character being able to perform a set number of actions based on their mobility gauge. While all characters can perform the same basic actions, they differentiate themselves by having different base stats and attack ranges. Characters also have a SP meter which drains by using joint attacks, super moves, and healing. In addition, Shinjiro can switch between three different stratagems, each of which will give small stat boost along with changing the mobility cost for defending and recovering SP at the cost of either disabling the ability to use super moves or heal.
Because of its lack of enemy diversity and all characters being essentially the same, Sakura Wars’ combat ends up relying more on strategic positioning and not class diversity. Mind you, this isn’t a bad thing at all. Instead of learning new skills to keep combat fresh, Sakura Wars instead requires the player to complete multiple objectives to win, often times within a set time frame. These objectives usually require you to intelligently split up your team and have them move between different areas. Furthermore, some objectives need to be completed in a set time forcing you to pick and choose which enemies to kill and which to ignore. Additionally, boss battles typically take place against giant mechs that have upwards of 15 different sections that can be attacked and disabled! These fights likewise require you to strategically separate and attack different sections of the enemy to cut down on the number of attacks they have, along with exposing their weak point. So despite Sakura Wars’ combat mechanics being rather simple, it does offer quite a bit of strategic depth.
In total, there are six different endings depending on which of your teammates has the highest affectation for you. Upon completing the game, you’ll unlock a new game plus where your bonds are carried over and you’ll also gain the ability to skip over any text you’ve already read before. This helps significantly speed up subsequently playthroughs without having to worry about missing new dialogue and encounters. The only downside is that the game doesn’t indicate what choices you’ve previously made, meaning that unless you have an amazing memory you may end up repeating some of the same choices.
So Long, My Love is one of the best strategy games I’ve ever played. It’s biggest faults lie not in gameplay but in the game’s poor pacing and overall narrative. Because of this, Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love falls just short of a perfect score with a 4.5 out of 5. If you’re a big anime or even Power Rangers/sentai fan than this game is definitely worth your time. However, for those simply looking for a good strategy game it may not be worth your time to sit through the long visual novel portions to get to excellent combat portions.