Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love is available on the PS2 and Wii, courtesy of NIS America. This review is of the Wii version of the game.
Sakura Wars: So Long My Love is a hybrid adventure-RPG about a Shinjiro Taiga, a Japanese samuri-in-training who is shipped to New York City to serve in the New York Combat Revue, a Broadway musical troupe that moonlight as steampunk mech pilots. After reading that sentence, you probably have a good idea whether you are the target audience for this title or not. If you are, you probably won’t be disappointed. If you’re not, well, the game won’t do much to change your opinion about Japanese niche titles.
Sakura Wars is not so much one game as two connected by a common story, with the game broken up into chapters that mirror the episodes of an anime series. It has two discrete modes: adventure and battle. The adventure mode begins each of the game’s chapters, establishing the chapter’s storyline and is played out mostly through dialogue and city exploration. The dialogue segments consist of conversations between Shinjiro and other members of the New York Combat Revue, played out in a series of text boxes overlaid on manga cut-out characters and largely static illustrated backdrops. You can choose between different responses or adjust the magnitude of your response. This will elicit either positive or negative replies from your teammates, and they in turn will influence how motivated your teammates are during the later battle segments.
Your status with your teammates can also be impacted by the completion of various side quests throughout the city. The game’s open world version of New York is fundamentally a hub; very little happens, but instead it serves as a way to spatially organize the characters and backdrops mentioned above. You walk across the city to a location, enter it, and then converse with whoever is there via text box. It’s a simplistic design, and is bound to turn off players expecting the complexity seen in most contemporary sandbox titles. That said, the design is actually rather effective, efficiently organizing the game’s real content and allowing the player to easily find the locations and characters that they are seeking. Similarly, the text-centric approach of the adventure segments will likely fail to impress players who hear the term “adventure” and think more of The Legend of Zelda or Okami rather than Zing’s Quest or Newgrounds, but for those who are looking for an old school style adventure with a heavy emphasis on building and maintaining relationships, there is more than enough here to satisfy. The dialogue trees present plenty of diverse options and these options are usually equal parts believable and amusing. It would have been nice if your choices in your interactions had a more substantial impact on the main plot, which remains mostly linear, but the changes that you are able to influence in characters are usually satisfying.
Once you complete the adventure portion of a chapter, you enter the battle mode. The battle segments are turn-based RPG mech skirmishes between the members of the Combat Revue and their magical/steam powered adversaries. There is a fairly unique movement-based system in these battles as each mech has a movement gauge that diminishes whenever it attacks, heals, defends or changes location. This movement gauge becomes the battle mode’s universal currency, forcing the player to prioritize their approach to each turn, since energy used to heal or move is energy you will not have to mount attacks on your enemies. Later battles become strategically complex, forcing players to carefully optimize how their movements are used.
But the most interesting aspect of the battle portions is how they build upon the relationships you establish during the adventure portions. Characters have joint attacks that they can perform, combining their abilities to deal more damage to enemies. The power of these joint attacks is dependent on your relationship with the characters involved. If you’ve cultivated happy friendships with them then their joint attacks will be more potent than if you’ve neglected or annoyed them. Similarly, your teammates get stat boosts during combat based on how motivated they are, and their motivation also comes out of how effectively you’ve befriended them and met their demands during the adventure segment. This gives the adventure segments an added level of importance and helps to ensure that players who are in it for the action don’t haphazardly click through the dialogue trees.
Sakura Wars can be played with either the Wii Remote/Nunchuk or the Classic Controller. Both layouts work effectively, with buttons mapped to intuitive locations and responsive controls. The Wii Remote configuration makes very little use of the controller’s IR or motion sensing abilities. A few segments use the remote as a pointer to select objects to examine from the game’s static background, but that’s about it. These point controls work fine, but it would have been nice to have more Wii remote integration. For example, it could have been used to aim the watch camera that is used in several of the game’s quests. Still, the controls that are present work, and I don’t want to complain too much about hypotheticals.
For many players Sakura Wars will succeed or fail on the strength of its story. Given that much of the gameplay centers around navigating dialogue trees to advance the game’s plotline, if either the dialogue or plot were weak the game would quickly become a chore. Thankfully, this is where the game is most successful.
Here is a Japanese game that actually has far more to say about American society than most American games. The game explores a number of themes, including obsession with the justice system, individualism, the belief that hard work is tied directly to advancement, racial and ethnic tensions, poverty, and on and on and on. The second chapter is particularly outstanding in this regard with a plot that centres around an attempt to redevelop Harlem into an upscale community, forcing out its residents, with a upward mobile black lawyer (one of your teammates) trapped in the middle and forced to chose between the community where she was raised and her new social position. Not only is this a plot that mirrors the gentrification happening in Harlem today, but is also one that most mainstream American games would not dare to touch.
That’s not to say that the game is self-important or pretentious – quite the opposite. The game is full of self-aware cheesiness and campy humor. Lots of this comes from Shinjiro’s confusion about American culture and the sexual tension between him and his largely female team. Thankfully, most of the sexual humor is limited to good fun and innuendo and never gets unnecessarily coarse or exploitative.
NIS America should be applauded for their impressive translation of the game’s dialogue. There is very little of the awkwardness or blandness that is too often present in these sort of translations. Instead you get clever, snappy, fun dialogue between characters. It’s obvious that this is a loving translation and that a lot of effort has gone into finding the best words and phrases to communicate the comedy of the Japanese original. There are a few questionable moments—Hamlet is repeatedly referred to as a musical in one chapter—but the text hits far more often than it misses.
Graphically the game is a mixed bag. The anime cut-scenes and illustrated adventure segments are beautifully drawn, with lots of clever or amusing details. Each of the characters has a unique design and these designs are universally interesting, conveying lots of color and emotion. The city hub is, however, rather ugly. The game’s status as a PS2 port is on full display here, with low detail polygonal characters and locations. The streets, parks and buildings have none of the uniqueness or detail present in the animated sequences and, in fact, look very generic. This could be any videogame cityscape. That’s not to say that the city looks terrible, just mediocre and lacks the character so clearly present throughout the rest of the game.
The battle segments suffer from some of the technical failing of the city, but they are partially redeemed by the impressive boss designs. The non-boss enemies, on the other hand, are pretty bland and repetitive.
Sakura Wars has eight episodes, each of which will take roughly two hours. Some players will enjoy replaying the game to test different outcomes and try and get different responses from their teammates, but some will find that the largely linear structure of the main storyline discourages a return visit. Ultimately, it’s exactly this willingness to accept linearity and old school play styles and focus on relationship building that will determine whether you can enjoy Sakura Wars.