Launching exclusively for the PlayStation 4, Sakura Wars brings back one of Sega’s beloved anime franchises just as we were starting to think it wasn’t going to happen. Here’s our review.
Sakura Wars originally launched on the Sega Saturn and because I never owned that console it was always one of those titles I was curious about but never got to play – especially when it branched out to having its own anime and became a bit of a pop culture phenomenon. Of course, much of that happened in Japan, and the franchise’s games have always been a bit of an “import only” affair since many of them never made it West.
The new Sakura Wars game is a reboot of the franchise, with a completely original story and modern day visuals. It retains its mixture of visual novel-type storytelling, romance, JRPG and visceral combat though, so fans of the original games should feel right at home despite the absence of familiar characters from previous games.
You play as the leader of a theater group of mostly female performers during a time where, post-war, the business of the performing arts isn’t exactly booming. It’s a mixture of middle of the 20th century Japan and steampunk elements, making for a great visual blend that is especially vivid during the game’s combat sequences – which features mechs squaring off against each other in hack and slash gameplay not too unlike that which we see in the various Warriors franchises.
Your protagonist isn’t just the leader of a group of stage performers – this is a group of talented artists who also show their worth in combat when they face the demons that plague Tokyo. You’re their leader, though as Seijuro Kamiyama you apparently also have to struggle with having the hormonal balance of a 21-year old. Rather than just being a strong leader and building the theater back up to its former glory, you also regularly engage in relationships with members of your cast – which during these times is a little awkward.
Luckily, the approach to these elements is mostly light-hearted, like when you take someone out to dinner to help them overcome doubts that they might have. Nevertheless, it’s not exactly the shining star of great workplace ethics in 2020 so those sensitive to these issues might want to take heed. The narrative itself is told through chapters (or episodes), which gives Sakura Wars a nice anime TV show-like style. And although the combat scenes fit the visual style perfectly, the bulk of the story is told through visual novel-like conversations (which unfortunately aren’t fully voiced). This includes a variety of optional ‘objectives’ or story arcs, which you don’t have to engage in to progress the story but help you flesh out your own role and the relationships you have with the NPCs in the game. Whether it’s the main story of an optional conversation, a lot of the gameplay here consists of picking a certain response and having that affect your relationships – for better or for worse. It’s certainly nothing we haven’t seen before, but it’s been handled well through mostly funny writing.
Combat is certainly a highlight of the game, and if you’re a fan of Warriors-like combat then you’re going to wish there was more of it in Sakura Wars. There’s a fairly simple control scheme and stringing together combos feels fluid and natural pretty quickly. You also have access to a character-specific super move, which makes it fun to switch dynamically between the two characters you can take into combat with you. Confrontations can be replayed after you unlock them though, so if you’re really eager to pummel some demons then you don’t have to wait for the narrative to let you.
In its rebooted version, Sakura Wars is an entertaining game that succeeds based on its interesting premise, story and likeable characters. Its blend of genres is also still fresh, as the crossover between visual novel, RPG and combat makes sure you never grow tired of one particular aspect of the game. As such, I can forgive the sometimes awkward writing and enjoy myself – something that’s helped by the excellent visuals.