How much interaction do you need to enjoy a game? I mean, is the simple act of pressing a button to advance some text boxes sufficient gameplay? I ask you, the reader, because from the outset of Sakura Wars: So Long My Love I felt I was playing something akin to one of those dirty PC anime visual novel titles, light on action but heavy on character development and use of the A button to skip dialog boxes. I think describing the game like that makes
it sound like a boring affair but I can assure you that is not the case, especially when the cast is so colorful and deep and the real action is such a joy to experience. While Sakura Wars may be a little bit heavy on the dialogue, it also wound up being rather refreshing because it felt like the experience was more interesting than your typical RPG fare thanks to the vibrant characters and their bustling world.
To describe Sakura Wars in a word, it would have to be; offbeat. As a franchise it is well known in Japan for being very heavy on the dating-sim aspect where actions affect the team members and players are expected to balance their relationships to keep the team strong. But Sakura Wars also has a very competent strategy aspect and when you combine the two you're left with a very interesting gameplay system that encourages the player to pay attention to the team members and make hard decisions while trying to keep the whole outfit from imploding. In So Long My Love that role lands in the hands of Shinjiro Taigi, nephew to series mainstay Ichiro Ogami. As Shinjiro you'll explore an alternate universe New York where steam powered mechs ply the skies and put a stop to any evil that would threaten the city. You'll also spend a lot of time getting to know the members of the New York Combat Revue, a rag-tag collection of eclectic females who would sooner see Shinjiro go back home to Japan than allow him to become their leader.
The friction between characters becomes the driving force behind Shinjiro's actions. In an attempt to be the pillar for the New York Combat Revue you'll be placed in a number of situations that call for Shinjiro's input or action. Each of the game's eight chapters is dedicated to getting to know and understanding a particular team member. You'll soon find that every character has layers to their behaviors and you'll find that sometimes the best answer can be silence. In particular the frigid character Subaru would rather not mince words when they aren't necessary. Meanwhile the out-of-towner Gemini finds a common thread with Shinjiro in being a transplant to New York and looks to him for support.
Sakura Wars definitely tries to do something different than what typical RPG savants are used to. There is no level grind. You know, that thing developers seem to put in to their games to artificially increase play time? Yeah, you don't have to put up with that at all. Instead the interactions between you and your teammates is what spurs their growth and initially I was thrown off by this system. I was rolling along through the game, screen after screen dismissed by pressing the A button and making choices that at times infuriated my team. Until suddenly it hit me: 'I've been actually making the game harder on myself by not being more careful about my choices.' From that point on I actually spent a lot more time paying attention to my team and I think the game is that much better for putting so much emphasis on a situation that is typically referred to as a 'harem anime' plot. For those who don't know what that is, take a guy, throw him in to a multitude of situations involving a variety of females, jack up the sexual tension to eleven and let hilarity ensue. Thankfully in this title, the tension is definitely toned down to more than acceptable levels.
When it comes time to actually go out and protect New York City, the game switches to a strategy style game with each member of the squad piloting a giant mech. You have full control over each team member when their turn comes around and you'll use their ability points to move them around the field or perform a variety of moves. The most important of these being the ability to combine attacks with other team members. Depending on how strong the link is between the party members will affect the amount of damage dealt by these attacks. Once you've mowed down the cannon fodder enemies you'll fight the chapter boss. These bosses are huge monstrosities that will require your team to take to the sky in order to bring them down. These fights can be intense and are also a ton of fun. If there is any knock I'd have against this game it's that I don't get to fight enough. A practice sortie would have been useful to help learn all the nuances of combat, especially since you have to be very aware of the placement of your troops.
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