Eager to please genre fans, Sakura Wars delivers an old school experience with a hefty dose of drama.
Originally conceived back in 1996 as a way to offer an RPG franchise on the Sega Saturn, the original Sakura Wars series was a mix of visual novel, dating sim and round-based strategy combat. It follows an all-female theatre troupe based at Tokyo's Imperial Theatre, putting on shows as the Flower Troupe to keep the spirits of the populace high, while also acting as the Imperial Combat Revue, a paramilitary operation tasked with defending the capital from monsters. To do so, they use mechs called Kobu, powered by the strength of their spirit.
With its anime stylings and a cast of lovable protagonists, the franchise became a wild hit in Japan before its fate was sealed along with the Dreamcast. The west only saw the localisation of the last Sakura Wars game, Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love, its New York setting and all-new cast considered a good entry point into a series often deemed to be too Japanese.
This new Sakura Wars constitutes a soft reboot, set a decade after the events of the originals and using established gameplay but featuring a completely new cast. You take the role of Navy ensign Seijuro Kamiyama, who becomes the Flower Troupe's new captain. It's your job to help restore the Imperial Theatre to glory and keep Tokyo safe. In order to make a gaggle of women into a real team, you need to get to know them, help them overcome personal struggles and realise their true potential.
As Seijuro, you spend your time either talking to these women or fighting demons in musou-style action combat. Sakura Wars' dialogue is built around the series' patented LIPS system: you get three dialogue choices, but only have a limited amount of time to pick an answer. The dialogue options themselves are recognisable if you've ever played another game with dialogue choice - you have a good option, a cautious option and a sleazy, impulsive one. There's also 'analogue LIPS', a conversation option where what Sejiuro says is predetermined, and you only settle on the intensity with which you want to say it.
Just like in a visual novel, the answers you pick determine the other character's opinion of you. Each of the women conform to established personality types - the bookish one, the short-tempered one and so forth - and you get to know them better the more you talk to each of them. If you gain a character's trust, you can trigger a 'trust event'. In this event, which uses first person POV, one of the women will have a personal chat with you that will end in some PG-13 touching. These situations can be deliberately naff - one character just wants to practise a romantic scene in a play - but they are, and this is important, fully consensual and do not reduce the young women only to their bodies, even while ogling is definitely going on. Context and nuance are very important here.
Action combat is new for the series, and a step away from Sakura Wars' more typical Fire Emblem-esque turn-based strategy. You can freely move your Kobu around, use light and strong attacks, and unleash a special attack once a spirit point meter has filled. Both in combat and in conversation, your actions influence your team's opinion of you. Fighting quickly without getting hit raises team morale, which in turn has an effect on attack and defence. Making the girls like you outside of combat also determines your starting morale.
The story of the new Sakura Wars is quickly told: the old Combat Revue, including teams from other countries that appeared in previous Sakura Wars entries, died in a grand battle to seal away the powerful Archdemon, saving the world from certain destruction. Of course it turns out that the Archdemon threat is still very real, and reveals itself just when the Flower Troupe is participating in the Combat Revue World Games, a public battle event determining the reputation of several international combat troupes, because clearly saving the capital against monsters isn't enough already.
Sakura Wars is firmly dating sim/visual novel first, combat second, as it belongs to a genre of games called 'gal games' - dating sims for heterosexual men. The player controls a male protagonist in a setting where they're almost exclusively surrounded by young, beautiful women, and players may 'pick' their favourite. In Japan, gal games are part of the mainstream, so much so that dating sim elements are a natural part of many games you know - take the Fire Emblem or Persona franchises for example. While there are many gal games that take dating to misogynistic, demeaning extremes and borderline illegal territory (I drew the line at Tokyo Mirage Sessions, for advertising often misogynistic and borderline illegal practices in a real industry), Sakura Wars remains above board.
Sakura Wars does regularly dip into bouts of panty humour, having you find women's underwear or 'ending up' in a women's bathroom for comedic effect. This sort of humour might be immature to western audiences, but it's a result of a culture that treats bodies in a very different way. I can't laugh about it, but I understand why it exists. I'm split on the borderline creepy dialogue options, which include asking for a kiss or making sexually ambiguous jokes.
It's important that, unlike other games which paint you as the hero no matter what you say, these options are always penalised - you're explicitly encouraged to be a good person, and that expectation entails giving players an option to be bad. I do however need to point out that the creepy options are always played off for laughs, which is pretty jarring considering the overall respectful tone.
Sakura Wars' real strength lies in the passion with which it delivers its story. Designed like a TV anime, complete with episode previews and title cards for 'ad breaks', it focuses on a different member of your troupe with each chapter, while also driving the overall story forward.
The plot doesn't even remotely make sense and I didn't mind in the slightest. Nothing about the game is smart, it even spoils its own plot several times with 'clever' foreshadowing and likes to fix problem using deus ex machina. "How is this possible?" a character says at one point about a surprising twist in their favour, only to receive the answer "I don't know, but it is!"... Okay!
The plot is silly and the combat's simple, but I loved spending time with the main characters and seeing what they have to say and how they react to the increasingly high-stakes plot developments. And boy, do they react. There are life and death situations, fisticuffs, and battles set to the triumphant title theme while characters discover their true strength thanks to the power for friendship. The passion all but incinerates your screen. What's not to love? It may not make sense, but each episode has a clear dramatic arc that resolves satisfyingly.
Also, Sakura Wars just looks consistently great: each scene is presented from multiple camera angles and almost-static images and anime sequences offer further visual variety. The different environments, while little more than pretty backgrounds for conversations, are detailed and the design of each main character is memorable. I do miss the instantly recognisable style by Kosuke Fujishima, who has designed the characters for previous instalments -here, mangaka Tite Kubo of Bleach fame takes over. The designs of the new mechs however is a new favourite of mine, each coming with their own specialty like a giant hammer or an ice pistol. The demons don't really get a chance to stand out in battle - if you look closely you can see them stumble and fall overdramatically like kaiju in old Japanese monster films. Everything about Sakura Wars is as over the top as an old monster film, but it's that very cheesiness that had me enraptured.
They don't make 'em like Sakura Wars anymore, probably with good reason, but this new incarnation, like the old games, is earnest, unapologetic anime nonsense and wish fulfilment at its best.