Sakura Wars (2019) on PS4 is the sixth mainline game of the long-running Sega alternate history sci-fi multimedia franchise and only the second to be released in the West. With this sort of history, many might expect the game to be impenetrable to newcomers; however, I found it to be a great jump-on point.
Sakura Wars is an Action Role Playing game with Visual Novel and Dating Sim elements set in a steampunk alternate history 1940 Tokyo. You play as a naval officer, newly transferred to the Imperial Combat Revue, a team of young and inexperienced mecha pilots who fight to defend Tokyo from invasions by extradimensional demons while helping to fund their activities and reinforce the peoples’ spirits against despair by also working as a theater troupe. 10 years ago, a massive demonic invasion nearly doomed the world and saw the disappearance of the previous Imperial Combat Revue. Since then, the Revue has struggled to rebuild, with the current crop of new recruits struggling to accomplish their duties. Facing irrelevance and disbandment, the player character has been brought in to get the group into shape in advance of an international Combat Revue tournament.
The majority of the game’s playtime is spent walking around the Combat Revue’s theater and other points of interest in the city, interacting with your squadmates, members of the other Revues and assorted other NPCs to build character relationships and advance the plot. This is definitely a game for people who enjoy reading and listening to dialogue. It’s very likely that sticking to the main story, there will be a couple hours between most of the action sequences.
At certain points, you’ll be given a choice of lines or reactions to a circumstance. Usually, this is presented as a handful of options with a time limit, so you have to go with your gut rather than pondering them over. Occasionally there’s a system where you express the same idea, but you can choose how fervently with a meter. Your choices may cause the characters to react positively or negatively. Consistent positive reactions unlock optional scenes later on. Fortunately, the translation does a pretty good job of capturing the “feel” of a line’s delivery in context, rather than being words you’d choose for your character delivered in a tone that you very much would not, a frequent issue in games like this.
It’s in the characters and interactions that the game really shines. Character designs are great, featuring the work of famous designers like Tite Kubo, BUNBUN and Shigenori Soejima, with writing and translation that really captures each character and very high quality (Japanese only) voice work. Most side characters have a quest or some kind of similar episode that provides a fun diversion from the main storyline and fills out the personality of the cast. The main heroines (your other party members) get some fantastic group interactions, lengthy individual plotlines and possibly a few hints of steamy romance with the hero.
It’s pretty clear from the get-go which of the 5 party members is intended as the “main” heroine, but all of them get a pretty good amount of screentime and character development. The characters, relationships and the whole feel of the game world are an absolute joy. Between quality writing, acting, graphics, an amazing and well-fitting soundtrack and stylistic elements from TV anime like “next episode” previews and intermission eye catches, the game radiates a very unique and compelling “feel” throughout. There are a few potentially problematic elements of sexualization reminiscent of many popular anime and manga series, but they’re fairly light compared to other games of this variety, and most can be avoided with appropriate player choices.
Unfortunately, the combat really isn’t up to the same standard. It’s not bad exactly, but that’s about it. It’s a typical Warriors-style repetitive button-mashing affair, with simple combos and the occasional super move, but without those games’ scale, tactical elements, combo depth, or difficulty. And make no mistake, this game’s combat is *easy*. In my full play-through on Normal, I only had a character get knocked out once to see how this would affect my score and never got close to actually failing a mission. Different characters have different strengths and weaknesses, and missions can be replayed with different heroines in the party and to try for the highest scores, but the combat isn’t always really up to the task. Other than trying to get trophies or collectibles or filling the relationship meter with a particular heroine, there’s no particular reason to experiment with some of the deeper strategies hinted at in the character abilities— why use the character with low damage but heavy stun and control elements, when the combat is simple and easy enough to just burst through with a high damage character more quickly and for more points? And even as a “score attack” possibility, the fights are extremely easy. I cleared all but one of the story missions with an “S” ranking on my first attempt and the majority of the optional replays as well. Also, some of the mechanics and conditions in combat aren’t particularly well explained in tutorials, which I didn’t find much of an issue, but less experienced players or those eager to see all of the really cool special move cutscenes may find this frustrating.
In addition to the lackluster combat, some of the plot twists are very predictable, and there are some definite pacing issues. But really, this is a game that one picks up for the characters and feel of its world, and those elements are so brilliantly executed, these valid complaints can feel like nitpicks. The unique atmosphere and genuine warmth of the character relationships are such a joy, especially in these difficult times, that I really couldn’t care that I was defeating “desperate” combat scenarios with ease— it was all to move the characters further on their journey. In all, I thought the game was fantastic. If you think you’d like a game about pretty anime people getting to know and respect each other, blushing from time to time, producing the magic of live performance, and occasionally fighting giant monsters in super robots, you’re probably right!
Find a copy of Sakura Wars
**Written by Jason Peters, Adult & Teen Services Specialist