Developer: SEGA CS2
Genre: JRPG, Action RPG, Dating Sim
Audience: PEGI 16
Release Date: 28/04/2020
A code was kindly provided for review purposes.
Making it big in any profession is always going to be a challenge. Across acting, dancing, and fighting mechanised demons, the Flower Division are in desperate need of a boost. They must come out with a unique, showstopping performance. But it’s not just the in-game characters that are being held to this lofty standard.
One down, Six Macross
The Sakura Wars series has had a long-term break, with the previous entry, the brilliant Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love, releasing way back in 2005. However, this decade-and-a-half-old bar was set high. Despite SEGA’s latest coming as a welcome surprise when it was first teased in 2016 (gaining plentiful hype as retail release approached), Sakura Wars’ brand-new entry is something of a reboot of the RPG dating sim, thus carrying the weight of the series’ expectation.
While this type of relatively niche genre-mash up game is never going to broadcast its performance across the industry, it’s energetic top-tier production deserves all the applause it will undoubtedly get from its modestly sized audience. Whether it’s enough to draw out a larger crowd is up for debate.
Full Petal Panic
Put in charge of the Flower Division of the struggling Imperial Combat Revue, Captain Seijuro Kamiyama has been thrown in the deep end. Tasked with changing the groups fortunes on stage and off; he’s certainly got his work cut out. Luckily for him he’s bang in the middle of a harem where he can engage in the usual series’ dating circles with associated melodramatic hijinks.
Tying these events together are short jaunts through the quaint Japanese streets. Beyond your main and side-quest markers, and their accompanying encounters, these sections offer little by way of interactivity, but most shortcomings are diluted by the atmosphere, driven by the delightful music tracks and feel-good art direction. There’s adorable sincerity to the quirky theatrics surrounding the game’s narrative and although the drawn-out pace and constant barrage of seemingly pointless additional dialogue, Sakura Wars never offends. While the team of demon-busting girls do follow archetypical roles, they’re entertainingly written with enough charm and deadpan humour to make up for their lacking captain, which reluctantly brings me to one of the negatives.
Struck a NERV
Somewhat annoyingly, playable protagonist Kamiyama-san manages to be plain as an unseasoned rice ball. At his best, he’s a fall-guy on receiving end of derogatory comments, at his worst he’s a total creep. The guy’s heart might be generally in the right place and he somewhat grows with his experiences, but he’s pretty useless and reminds me of that type of office manager who spends their day completing self-assigned tasks that the rest of the staff know serve no tangible purpose. The voice actor does a sterling job of the role but frankly wasn’t given much to work with. Even the usual ‘everyman’ take on charisma is missing. Fortunately, the rest of the cast ranges anywhere from goofy to comically aloof and more than makes up for Seijiro’s snoozefest of a presence.
There’s nary an encounter without dialogue choices, during which small jingles alert you as you whether you’re in someone’s good books or crusin’ for a bruisin’. Building in the background is your statistical relationship level with each of the members of the Flower Division. The charm of a thoroughly Japanese take on Western-style theatre within a steampunk version of Taishou-era Tokyo is as exciting as it sounds. While locales are kept free of bloat and exploration isn’t exactly a core-theme, what’s on display is an absolute treat, full of vivid colour and quirky details. Character models are displayed in the tried-and-tested plastic 3D anime style, looking bright and clean but with this art-style, preference will play a key part on personal enjoyment. The characters, as well as the in-battle mechs, are well-animated with striking over-the-top movements and gesticulations.
Gurren Lagann and Agann and Agann…
The trademark Sakura Wars chunky mecha arrive in style, sporting a powered-up chibi-Gundam look. These may seem familiar to series fans but what has changed is the tactical grid-based battle style in favour of a more straightforward hack-and-slash action RPG formula.
The captivating machines tend to feel very similar in movement during the real-time combat phases of the game but differ more significantly in attacking style. With a single dodge button removing the need for any form of blocking, aggression is rewarded. Utilising the button-mashing combo sequences of Dynasty Warriors fame, the light auto-combo can be interrupted with a press of the heavy attack, unleashing a different end to the combo depending on the timing of the heavy attack.
While battles can feel stiff and floaty in equal measure, they are fast enough to satisfy anyone looking to smash up some robotic demons for kicks. Propping up this simple and standardised system is a decent-feeling double jump, allowing for some elementary mid-air juggling.
Missing, however, is any nuance or depth in the action, with arguably the most complex mechanic being the good ol’ bullet/witch time-like slowdown as reward for a well-timed dodge. Furthermore, the way combat takes place entirely in detached, remote-feeling flat environments feels disjointed for a 2020 action RPG. Compiling the problem is the lack of variety in enemy models. After all, repeatedly powering through a group of very similar units eventually devolves any chaotic maelstrom of excitement into a fleeting melee of tedium.
Stepping back outside battle and into the world of romance, Seijiro’s not-so-smooth-talking can have the ladies lining up (perhaps they have a masochistic desire to bore themselves to sleep), leading to dates and shenanigans which, if fruitful, can power-up your battle partners and unlock additional fighting techniques. Where things get a touch more intimate, there’s a level of insurmountable cringe that will take a hardened otaku to appreciate but generally, mileage will depend on how you take to the obvious, but often humorous anime-style side-stories. Battle rewards aren’t enough of a draw alone, with all but the odd boss providing little challenge throughout the game’s 30-or-so hours.
Bringing a multi-faceted, choice-oriented, full-fat dating sim experience (with creepy warts and all); solid, enduring battle mechanics; lively voice acting; a formulaic-but-effective plotline and a flashy visual showcase, Sakura Wars puts on a stunning display for fans new and old. What’s more, the ease of accessibility should keep those initially on-the-fence engaged enough to see it through. There won’t be an industry-wide standing ovation waiting for Sakura Wars but it’s good enough to prompt a polite round of golf-clapping from even the most jaded pundit.