Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love (PS2)

By Chris Dahlberg

Published on Monday, May 3, 2010

Graphics: 6.00
Sound: 7.50
Gameplay: 9.50
Replays: 10.00

Fans of the series have been waiting over a decade for the Sakura Taisen games to make it to North America, and they finally got their wish thanks to NIS America. NIS was able to secure the fifth game in the series, Sakura Taisen V for the Playstation 2 and Wii and brought it over under the name Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love. For those who are uninitiated with the series, it is a visual novel/relationship simulator that also features some strategy RPG elements. To put it quite bluntly, this is unlike any other type of game that has made it to North America so far (the closest in style would probably be Persona 3 and 4). It is certainly a title that will appeal to a very select group of gamers, but if you are willing to give it a chance or have played visual novels before you will find that it is one of the most addicting games of 2010.

Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love puts you into the shoes of Shinjiro Taiga, a young Japanese man who is sent to New York City to help a fighting troupe that protects the city. While this may sound fairly typical so far, it doesn’t take long before players realize that this is not going to be a typical RPG. The New York City in Sakura Wars is set in an alternate universe and takes place in the late 1920’s, plus the fighting troupe is disguised during the day as a theater troupe. Shinjiro is tasked not only with leading the assault squad in mechs called STARS when an enemy appears, but he must work at the theater during the day and build up relationships with the all female cast that makes up the troupe. These characters all have their own quirks and personalities, which range from the African American lawyer Cheiron Archer to the Texas cowgirl Gemini Sunrise. And this is where things really get interesting. Rather than being tasked with saving the world, your tasks are much smaller in scale and this leaves the game with plenty of room to expand on character back stories and really establish each one as being completely unique.

As the game is basically split into two parts, I will first explain how the visual novel/relationship management aspect of the game works. While the first chapter or so limits what freedom you have, a little ways into the game your days free up and you can choose which areas in the city to explore. There is an in game clock that is always keeping track of time (with some exceptions) so you really have to decide where to go and what characters to meet up with. All of the events are told through static scenes and Shinjiro is often given dialogue choices to choose from. Unlike in other visual novels where the player really has time to read each choice and make a decision, Sakura Wars enforces a strict time limit which forces you to think on your toes. There are also several scenes where quick time events come into play and you will have to manipulate the D-Pad and analog sticks. These help to break up the scenes and can get very difficult at times, and while they do get a little ridiculous (having to swivel both analog sticks in opposite directions with a clock ticking down can be infuriating) players won’t end up hating their inclusion. As you may be able to tell, this is the type of game where you will only be able to see a fraction of the story scenes in your first play through, and as you can date all of the girls and get different endings this gives Sakura Wars high replay value (plus there is a Free Day game mode which lets you explore the city to unlock some additional content). If you can get into the visual novel aspects, the characters will really stand out and you’ll find yourself wondering just what would have happened if you had picked a different dialogue choice in a particular scenario.

At the end of each chapter (there are eight chapters overall), players are sent into battle against an enemy (all of whom are demons led by the undead Oda Nobunaga). Unlike in most strategy RPGs, there is no leveling and the mechs cannot be upgraded. The only element that can be affected is how strong your relationship with the rest of your party is, and this is important because if you have a stronger relationship with a character you can do a stronger joint attack with them or they may be willing to protect you when you’re in danger. So because you can’t upgrade, your success in battle will depend entirely on your ability to think and maneuver strategically. Sakura Wars, like many other games in the genre, uses a movement system where each mech gets a certain amount of movement points per turn to either move to a new location, use a super move, heal, do a joint attack, or defend. One twist that the game adds is that in certain missions you will be able to move from one location to the other, and can often split your forces between multiple areas. The way that this game works is that you are first tasked with a particular mission, which typically involves defeating all of the enemies or satisfying a particular requirement. From there, you take on the boss character which is usually enormous in size and has all sorts of weapons that you must take out before you can defeat them. At times the missions can get a little annoying due to the way they were designed (such as the one where you have to immediately rescue stone statues and have a limited number of turns to do so before you automatically fail) but they never get bad enough that players will want to stop playing.

The graphics in Sakura Wars are comprised of three separate elements. First, there are some anime cutscenes that pop up from time to time. While these don’t occur very frequently they are beautifully animated and really grab your attention. During the visual novel elements of the game, every scene is static (with some limited animation here and there) but features a stunning amount of detail and is on par with your typical anime albeit without the movement. When you are moving to a new location or are in battle the game switches over to polygons. I feel it is important to mention that this game originally came out in Japan nearly five years ago, so the engine is incredibly dated and certainly won’t impress anyone with its technical capabilities. But it certainly is functional, and feels like a nice way to send the Playstation 2 off to greener pastures.

As one might expect from a NIS America title, they really went all out for the localization. If you are lucky enough to get the limited edition first print run of the Playstation 2 version you get two separate discs, one of which features the original Japanese voice acting with subtitles and the other of which has an English dub (future print runs will only include the dub). For the purpose of this review, I chose to play only with the English voice acting in order to see how well the dub turned out. While some of the accents may get on your nerves when you first start playing (particularly Gemini Sunrise’s overemphasized Southern accent), as you get further into the game they will all begin to grow on you and you will realize that each voice actor really gave it their all in order to give their character a distinctive identity. The music is also very enjoyable, as it incorporates some jazz and lounge elements and creates a very relaxing atmosphere for much of the game.

There are still plenty of things I haven’t mentioned, but they are ultimately smaller details and would only add unnecessary words to an already lengthy review. To put it quite simply, I haven’t been this addicted to a game (particularly an RPG title) in quite some time. Since first turning on Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love I have played it almost nonstop and will be preparing to start the game all over again to explore new dialogue choices and fall in love with these characters all over again. It is definitely not the type of game that everyone can get into, mainly due to the visual novel/relationship element but if you’re a person who really loves anime and quirky character driven games then this is a title you absolutely have to pick up.

Overall Rating: 9.50

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