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. 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 while all the in-game acting is done in English. 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. Sound effects on the Wii suffer from a bit of compression and sound worse than the PS2 version. Also the audio is inconsistent with the PS2 version. For example, between chapters the audio plays the main theme with Japanese lyrics while on the PS2 it's an instrumental track.
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.
Sakura Wars is definitely a title that every 'core gamer' that owns a Wii should have. 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.