Developer: Sega | Red
Release Date: July 7th 2005
Platforms: Wii, PS2
Reviewed On: Wii
While multimedia franchises are fairly common in Japan — with especially popular examples like: Hack and Pokemon reaching Western audiences — Sakura Wars is something of an oddity even among Japanese gaming franchises. Beginning with a single game released on the Sega Saturn in 1997, Sakura Wars has since spawned several anime series, a movie, five video games, and even a series of live stage shows that are performed to this very day. But despite the series’ popularity in Japan, the Sakura Wars video games did not reach America until 2010, when Nippon Ichi Software America released Sakura Wars V: So Long My Love on the PS2 and Wii. Today we will discuss the world of Sakura Wars, give a brief overview the series’ history, and wrap things up with a review of So Long My Love. So without further introduction, let’s jump in!
The world of Sakura Wars is an interesting one that blends elements of the steampunk genre with alternate history and good ol’ fashioned anime logic into a setting that is simultaneously odd and endearing. Diverging from our world’s events sometime in the 19th century, Sakura Wars introduces the invention of the steam-powered Kobu mecha that, combined with a series of wars between most of the world’s major powers and demonic invaders from another world, ultimately leads to a world powered by steam, riding on tenuous state of peace that might be broken at any moment by the threat of extra-planar monsters.
To keep this precarious world full of smiles and happiness, a collaboration is carried out by various nations to create a fighting force to defend against mankind’s newest foes, taking the form of the Imperial Flower Troupe — a group of young women of extreme spiritual power who train the twin arts of combat and theater to better prepare themselves for the battles to come. By day these girls put on stage shows covering some of the world’s most popular plays and musicals, and by night they fight against the demonic hordes that threaten to engulf the entire nation of Japan. The success of this program would eventually lead to the formation of two similar troupes in far-flung corners of the Earth, with the new group of girls situated in both Paris and New York, the setting for Sakura Wars V, which I will talk about in a moment.
Well, by now you may have noticed that Sakura Wars, for lack of a better term, is rather “anime” in both story and setting. This is by no means a bad thing, as it allows the various corners of the Sakura Wars universe to be earnest and goofy. While it may be a series in which women in steam-powered robot suits fight demons, gods, and ancient Japanese warlords in between practicing for their latest performance of Romeo and Juliet, Sakura Wars carries out these seemingly ridiculous story lines without a hint of irony, resulting in a fun experience that is not bogged down by having to appease any convention but its own.
With all that in mind, we arrive to the meat of this article: the retro review of Sakura Wars V! Originally released in Japan in 2005 and 2010 in America, Sakura Wars V brought the long running series to the new world with the formation of New York City’s Star Division, a diverse group of young women brought together to protect America from any supernatural foe courageous enough to lay siege to her shining shores. Taking on the role of Shinjiro Taiga, a young military soldier with training in the ancient ways of the samurai, players are thrust into the Star Division as its newest recruit. Things become hairy quickly as, in his very first battle, Shinjiro is forced to take up the mantle of leadership after Rachet, the group’s original leader, is mortally wounded by enemy mecha. From then on it is up to the player to help Shinjro win the loyalty of the Star Division’s ranks of highly capable individuals, and adjust to life in the Big Apple.
Shinjiro’s journey is carried out across two modes of play. The first is a visual novel styled storytelling in which the player explores the city on foot, talking to various characters, and partaking in conversations that can be used to increase the bonds between the young samurai and his fellow mecha pilots. There are obvious dating sim elements in the game — the girl with the highest affinity for the protagonist takes center stage as the heroine of the game’s finale and ending, but the interactions also strengthen camaraderie between characters and translate to better combat performance. This system, which some in our audience may notice is rather similar to the Social Links from the Persona series, replaces traditional experience point-based level up mechanics and lends Sakura Wars V a very casual and grind-free pace that is perfect for both seasoned RPG veterans and those just looking to experience the game’s unique story.
In addition to the various multi-choice questions that are common in games like this, Sakura Wars also employs something called LIPS, which, despite the silly name, amounts to Quick Time Events where the player uses either the PS2’s dual analog sticks or the Wii’s remote to escape from danger and accomplish difficult tasks by pressing a particular series of directional commands or spinning the controller’s analog sticks. Success typically brings a rise in affection between Shinjiro and the people involved in the incident, while failure breeds just the opposite. Typically after interacting with a number of events or conversations, Shinjiro will get a message on his phone from headquarters that he either must report for work or that something horrible has happened and he will soon be drawn into one of the game’s many battles against the evil forces threatening the city.
In the game’s second mode of play, players take control of the Star Division and command Shinjiro and company as they engage in pitched robot-on-robot combat. In typical strategy RPG fashion each member of the team takes turns fighting against enemies with both physical attacks and devastating special maneuvers. But unlike the rest of the SRPG genre, there are no magic points or other numerical measurements to mete out how and how often you can attack. Instead you are given a lengthy action bar that quickly depletes in specific portions as you both move and make attacks on foes. This often leads to a balancing act of wondering whether it would be more tactically sound to spend an entire turn dashing across the map at distant foes, or going all out with a blitz of steel against nearby enemies. Though a simple system in practice, this method of turn management makes for battles that can be rather simple at times, which some gamers might find rather annoying, but also that requires some thinking on how best to engage the enemy.
Sakura War V‘s gameplay is simple and fun, but its story and characters are by far the best part of the experience. We’ve talked about Shinjiro a bit earlier, but it is interesting to note his development across the game’s run time. While his predecessor in past Sakura Wars was a part of the Japanese Navy and thus a military man with some experience in the field of military tactics and command, Shinjiro is a greenhorn who must slowly work his way up from 19-year-old samurai-in-training to someone who can command the respect of those around him and deliver swift and decisive commands on the battlefield. This evolution is tracked through Shinjiro’s interactions with the five members of the Star Division’s strike team and his own efforts to adapt to life in the big city and his day job — first as a ticket taker, then later as a performer at the Little Lip Theater, the group’s base of operations and site of their Broadway-styled shows on a nightly basis.
This development is aided by Shinjiro’s interactions with the women around him, who individually have a stories of their own to tell. Beginning in the game’s second chapter with with Chiron Archer, an African-American lawyer, each chapter until the 8th episode is devoted to fleshing out the game’s female cast with a mixture of gameplay and story designed to showcase each character’s unique strengths and weaknesses. For example in Chiron’s chapter, her job as a lawyer and adherence to the law is tested with her connection to her past and home in New York’s Harlem neighborhood. This struggle is documented in a series of events that involves a greedy land developer trying to buy up all the land that Harlem is built on to build high rent condos in their place. This eventually evolves into a Phoenix Wright-style legal battle on a rooftop somewhere in the neighborhood. As I said before, Sakura Wars is a series where such goofy events are portrayed without a hint of irony.
The rest of the cast is similarly interesting, including such notables as Gemini Sunrise, a Texas-native who dresses like a cowgirl and is trained in the way of the sword by an ex-samurai warrior, Subaru Kujo, a Japanese prodigy who sees breaks conventional gender roles; Rosita, a young gunslinger from South America with abandonment issues; and Rachet, the Star Division’s Ex-leader who Shinjiro replaces after an unfortunate accident. The cast is lively and colorful and manages to showcase multiculturalism in a way that feels fairly natural in regard to the narrative.
The world of Sakura Wars’ 1920’s Steam Punk New York is well constructed for such an old game and allows players to explore locations such as Central Park, Harlem, and more. While the game’s decidedly weak 3D graphics stand out, this is more than made up for by the vibrant anime-styled artwork used in most character-to-character interactions, and the story sequencing compensates for its faults.
The plot is interesting enough — it covers Shinjiro’s attempts to gel with the rest of Star Division, and later pits the crew against a the threat of an ancient Japanese warlord summoned into the present by dark energy harvested by his demonic servants. But as is true of most character-driven RPGs, the true worth of Sakura War V is mostly in its character interactions. For example, in my last playthrough I found myself caring far more about Gemini’s inability to fit into New York’s social scene or Rosita’s loss of her father then I did about the battles that happened between story sequences. This is not to say that Sakura War V‘s story is bad, but that player immersion is dependent personal investment character development.
So while Sakura Wars V‘s graphics are subpar compared to modern games of its genre, and its battles are simple at times, the plot is interesting if you are not used to the particular brand of insanity that makes up the Sakura Wars’ universe. If you are looking for an RPG a bit different from the norm and that boasts an interesting cast of characters that you will actually care about in the end, then you might just enjoy Sakura Wars V.
In all I give the game a 7/10. Now I leave you with the live-action version of the theme song from Sakura Wars V:Warriors of the Earth!