Sakura Wars is a loving tale of friendship brought to life by a splendid cast of characters.
Sakura Wars has a legacy. Premiering over 20 years ago in Japan, the series follows the Imperial Combat Revue (ICR), an elite squad of female fighters who pilot mechs, kill demons, and perform live theater. Combine this bizarre setup with a steampunk aesthetic and you have the making of a cult series. When the original came out, it was one of the most anticipated games of the time with it only trailing Final Fantasy VII in popularity. Despite huge success, the only game in the series to be translated to English was the PS2 game Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love – the fifth entry in the series. Unfortunately, it didn’t sell very well in the west, and the series went on hiatus. Now, after 10 years, Sega is trying to again capture western audiences. Taking place 12 years after the last game, and featuring a whole new cast of characters, Sakura Wars is a soft reboot that hopes to attract old and new fans alike. I hope they succeed, because this new Sakura Wars is a delight.
Players take on the role of Seijuro Kamiyama, a Japanese navy officer who has been demoted and placed in charge of the ICR’s flower division. The ICR is not what it once was–all the legendary warriors perished 10 years ago. The flower division, the combat and acting arm of the ICR, is now made up of talented, but green, newbies. The ICR is on its last legs, so the manager, Sumire Kanzaki, takes on the newly disgraced, but capable Seijuro in hopes that he can tap into the team’s potential. In essence, the game is about a young man helping a bunch of hot women find their talents. Yes, it might sound sexist and banal, but the execution is anything but.
Sakura Wars is a loving tale of friendship brought to life by a splendid cast of characters. All the characters have predictable arcs, but the execution is sublime. Every core character, including Seijuro, is vulnerable at one point or another and they all suffer from self-doubt. Their struggles feel real because they are not easily solved. None of the characters are free from their pain at the end but they find the tenacity to press forward – to assert themselves – thanks to the support of the team. Unlike many games where character relationships always feel mediated by the player, the members of IRC’s flower division all have tangible relationships with one another, aside from the player and Seijuro. Seijuro is no prince that individually saves each member; rather, they all save each other.
It’s a good thing that the characters are so enduring because most of your time in Sakura Wars is spent conversing with them through a gameplay system called “Lips.” Lips takes on three different forms: a standard dialogue tree, a gauge to control Seijuro’s emotions, and environmental interaction where you can ask characters about the room around them. The system is standard but the presentation bolsters it. Characters animate gracefully, conversing in a way that feels both organic and appropriately histrionic. They feel alive.
Dialogue options, of course, mean choice, but the player has little impact over the narrative. The main story is immutable and regardless of your actions, the game will have the same ending. Actual story variation only manifests in two ways: how much each member trusts Seijuro and who he romances. Trust is required to unlock special side conversations and scenes with characters, so it is important. However, unless you make Seijuro harass the girls at every possible moment, it’s easy to max out everyone’s trust and see all the scenes. That leaves the only real variation being who you romance, and, again, the variation is minimal. There are only two scenes that change depending on who you romance: a dating sequence and the game’s epilogue. That may sound egregious given the game’s emphasis on character interaction and story, but trust me, it actually is not much of a problem. I replayed a chapter multiple times just to see the varying dating sequences; they’re that charming.
Sakura War’s individual scenes also feel remarkably dynamic. The interactive conversations can play out a multitude of ways even if the end results are the same. For instance, there are numerous opportunities for Seijuro to flirt or be a peeping tom. These sequences are all comic and fit the character: Seijuro is goofy and not at all suave as the girls can fluster him easily. If you engage in the behavior too often, though, you’ll hurt your trust, but as long as Seijuro is not a total cad it isn’t a problem.
Despite the rich character interaction, Sakura Wars suffers from a cumbersome main story. At 25-30 hours, the game is by no means short, but it feels rushed nonetheless. Much of the game revolves around an international tournament where the ICR is competing to regain their prestige even though the primary conflict concerns a deadly terrorist. Both plots work great together in theory, with the character heavy tournament section being a perfect setup for a morally gray finale. Tragically, the game interweaves the two stories in an effort to wrap things up quickly, resulting in plot holes, mercurial decision-making, and unfulfilled potential. The general idea of the story is excellent and there are wonderful character moments throughout, but ultimately, it’s a tale in the shadow of what could have been.
Sakura Wars other major problem is its dull action. Combat plays out in a standard hack and slash format with the player being able to switch between 2-3 unique mechs, all of which are bland. Each mech has 3-4 attacks and moves stiffly, encumbered by a wonky dodge mechanic. Enemies come in few varieties as well, so the action itself is never compelling. But the sequences themselves remain entertaining thanks to impressive banter and contextualization. Plus, once the player has built up enough trust with a team member, team attacks become available. These attacks are uninteresting from a gameplay perspective, since they only provide a temporary stat-boost, but the animations that precede them are astute, heartfelt, and lovingly rendered. Unique for each team member, these anime shorts are not about violence, even though they empower the characters to enact violence. Rather, they’re metaphors for the characters’ relationship with Seijuro. The sequence for Azami, the precocious ninja, is especially touching, as it reflects the profundity of being understood. They are not overused either since the amount of trust required is so high you only see each one of them twice, at most.
Presentation brings the world and characters to life. Stylized visuals capture the feel of a modern anime, beautifully depicting an alternative version of 1940’s Japan. The music also dazzles and helps amplify the game’s theatrical tone. Like many games of its kind, Sakura Wars features a lot of unvoiced dialogue, but rather than being annoying, it’s charming, thanks to characters’ pantomiming to swelling music, akin to a a classic silent film. Also, the game’s main theme is a joyous anthem that pulsates with optimism. It all beautifully captures Sakura War’s loving spirit and theatrical tone.
Sakura Wars is far from a perfect game. It lacks narrative choice, gets bogged down by poor plotting, and has tedious combat. But even so, the final product is something of a marvel. Every element of the game reinforces the bonds shared between the characters. By focusing not just on characters but also the emotional intimacy that binds them together, the game becomes indelible. Sakura Wars reminds you just how special relationships are and makes you want to connect with others. If that is not a hallmark of true art, then I don’t know what is.