Balance is the key to success in Sakura Wars since your team is only as strong as your weakest link. As you become more involved with the female cast your compatibility levels will grow provided you are able to get under the skin and understand your teammates better. This in turn will pay dividends on battlefield. Your teammates will be more inclined to protect each other from enemy attacks, shutting them down completely and preventing all damage. On the flip side the joint attacks that you can perform will do more damage and will sometimes receive a third combatant to help ratchet up the damage. Most important will be the affect the interactions will have on their stats, boosting up their speed or available number of ability points. In my initial play through I had a strong connection with Gemini and this made her and Shinjiro the most powerful duo on the field. Their joint attacks were outpacing the other members by a spread of about three to one. Fortunately future playthroughs will allow you to carry over the abilities of all the characters to help you get through the game much more quickly which actually will lead to different events in the game.
So it bears mentioning that this game came out in Japan in 2005. It took five years for this game to reach American shores, fourteen years for the franchise as a whole to see American consoles. It comes as quite the surprise that this title is visually competent for a game over five years old. Granted there are times where it looks a little flat and plain, but the mechs and characters look pretty damn good. The mechs in particular have a few good looking effects like reflections showing off their highly polished armor. Even some of the attacks that come off as being over the top have a visually pleasing style to them. Character portraits that are used for dialog are a nice resolution and do a fantastic job of showing off the art of Kosuke Fujishima who is also known for doing the art for a majority of the Tales series games from Namco Bandai.
Audio is a big deal for a game that features musical productions and unfortunately it winds up being a bit of a weak point for Sakura Wars. This is a distinctly Japanese title and the audio will certainly drive that fact home. The musical numbers are all performed in Japanese regardless of the language chosen. Subtitles are provided but a shame that the entire game hasn't been fully provided in English. As for the actual voice acting the cast is well rounded with a few anime series mainstays like Johnny Bosch, Laura Bailey, and Karen Strassman. As for the music the audio is fairly memorable with a main theme that is constantly driving the game, and musical numbers performed by the Japanese cast; soaked in saccharine these tracks are real standouts. Most noticeable among them is the ending theme 'Kiss Me Sweet' which I dare say has more emotional impact than the recent use of 'My Hands' by Leona Lewis for Final Fantasy XIII. While it's not a major thing I have to point out that you cannot take your save file between each language, so if you start your game in English then you're going to be stuck with it unless you want to start a new game using the Japanese language disc. Though this can get a little confusing as I found no difference between the save files when examined in the PS2/PS3 browsers.
Sakura Wars is a game that tries to win you over with its characters and strong gameplay and I really think it succeeds. I found each character to be interesting enough to not ignore them for a majority of the story, though at the outset Subaru seemed to be doing her best to make me not want to talk to her at all. This game also has a surprising amount of depth to it. I didn't discover this until my second playthrough, but some events are actually timed and will not happen if you dawdle through the dialog, and if you at a certain level of compatibility with a character you'll have different dialog options. The game isn't terribly long, and it encourages multiple playthroughs, I managed my first tour through the game in about twenty hours and upon completion was allowed to skip all lines of dialog that I had previously seen. So imagine my surprise when I found stuff at the beginning of the game that I had previously missed. I almost think it's a crime that a strategy guide isn't available for this game, but at the same time I could see it being bigger than the Shin Megami Tensei series books.
As a final farewell to the PS2, Sakura Wars: So Long My Love contains a subtitle that really applies to the console and its fan base. This is a fitting title to finish off my PS2 collection and it's been a long ten years of good times, good games, and a lot of fond memories. It's a little bittersweet, but the PS2's time has now passed, and Sakura Wars is a fine title to provide an encore to a console that I considered done after Persona 4. The gameplay is solid, the characters are memorable, the musicals are, in a word, unforgettable. If you've got any inkling to try this game I say go for it, you will not be disappointed. And if you're on the fence about this title, give it a shot anyway. Underneath the very Japanese surface you'll find a game with plenty to offer at a budget price. It may have been a five year waiting period to get this game, but in the end the patience paid off big.
Five years is quite a wait for a PS2 game. Only the most dedicated would care about it at this point and that's quite a shame. They're missing out on the last great PS2 game.
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