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Game Review

by Myles Gibbs,

Sakura Wars

PlayStation 4

Sakura Wars
Sakura Wars is a reinvention of the 1996 title that spearheaded the genre of the dating simulator and JRPG fusion. Set to a beautifully executed 90's steampunk anime aesthetic in the Taisho Era, this game follows a primarily-female cast through their struggles to maintain Tokyo's Imperial Theatre, and their goal to learn to fight demons together as the Imperial Combat Revue. This game has a colorful and varied cast, and with a powerful set of dialogue controlling tools, I can easily recommend it to any fan of the dating sim genre.

Sakura Taisen, released in 1996 Japan on the SEGA Saturn, was a pioneer for games like Shin Megami Tensei (Persona) and Fire Emblem. It was one of the first games to try and pair a sort of Social/Dating Simulator into a tactical JRPG title. Now, in 2020, SEGA attempts to recreate that magic in Sakura Wars by delivering on the same aesthetic and premise as the original, but with an updated cast, art style, and action-based combat. Following the success of titles like Persona 5 and Fire Emblem: Three Houses, this game clearly aims to remind players who executed on this concept first, and how they did it so well. However, while the aesthetics of the original game are perfectly reimagined here, there are certain glaring issues within this title that simply cannot be overlooked. I'll start with something they got right – the design.

The aesthetic of Sakura Wars is one of its most attractive features. The visual style and music in this game set a tone that I was immediately excited to see come to fruition. The graphic choice the developers went with was simply stunning. This game screams anime. Every single frame of overworld exploration looked like it came straight out of a high-quality animation studio. SEGA decided to fuse CG and digitally drawn styles to create a look that practically glitters, and I'm happy to say it never fell into any of the “uncanny valley” pitfalls as its peers. The music, strategically, has been entirely left alone. It's been re-recorded in high definition, of course, but it shares the same brassy, orchestral style as the original. While the visuals are completely updated, the music truly sets the tone here. It reminds you that you're essentially playing a mid-90's mecha anime, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

This game starts to see pitfalls in its gameplay, which is split into two parts; a dating simulator and action-based combat. It hits the former squarely on the head. This was my first dating sim experience, and I must say, it surprised me. The characters are designed well, and the voice acting holds up excellently. I was disengaged by many scenes where characters motioned silently while textboxes progressed, but enough scenes were fully voiced that I wasn't let down in the slightest. The highlight of the dating simulator segments was the Live & Interactive Picture System, dubbed “LIPS.” In short, it allows players to make precise decisions in conversation, from dialogue choices to levels of intensity to being able to guide an entire conversation. I was thoroughly impressed, as it allowed me to feel as though all of the decisions that I made were uniquely mine, which made the progression of the plot feel unique to me in the same way.

Where gameplay had failings was in its other segment, the action-based combat. Throughout the first major battle of the game and its initial six hours, I found the combat to be a completely laughable waste of time. My units were bulky enough that they stood no chance of falling, and all the while, characters were prattling on about how harrowing the situation was. For a bit of perspective, I was able to destroy the first boss with precisely one press of the special attack button. Trudging through this tedious combat made me wonder why SEGA decided to move away from the tactical turn-based combat (think Fire Emblem) of the original title. It would have fit well with the theme of making decisions throughout the game and would've been much less tedious than repeatedly slicing through wave after wave of the same enemy. While the difficulty of combat eventually improved, forcing me to learn to time my dodges to make it through an encounter, enemy designs and combat visuals didn't help. The backgrounds quickly got stale, and there were only so many types of enemies in the game, and they all looked very similar to one another. The bosses were a saving grace though, as they offered interesting designs as well as a peak in difficulty. Comparing the combat segments to the rest of the game, it was clear what the development team put the most time into. In fact, I had much more fun playing cards with the girls in the optional Koi-Koi minigame than I did with mandatory combat.

My experience with the writing, just like the gameplay, was extremely varied. Pacing was a consistent issue. The plot would constantly lag before picking up at a breakneck pace. Where it did well was in the character-to-character interactions. The girls in the game had well-realized designs and distinct personalities. In other words, they were prime waifu material. While the actual dialogue was hit-or-miss, I always found the segments where I spoke to the girls to be the most engaging.

While some aspects of this title aren't the most polished, it accomplished what it set out to do. It's a beautiful dating simulator with a varied and colorful cast that divides segments of doting on characters with combat where you mow through waves of enemies in mechanized suits. While the combat can certainly become dull, it works well in switching up the gameplay. Sakura Wars isn't perfect, but if you know you enjoy dating simulators, it's worth picking up.

Overall : B-
Graphics : A
Sound/Music : B+
Gameplay : B-
Presentation : B-

+ This game executes well on the promise of a dating simulator with a cute, colorful cast by utilizing the LIP system of decision-based dialogue. The visuals are particularly stunning, and the music and aesthetic are perfectly reminiscent of mid 90's anime.
Dull combat, hit-or-miss writing, and issues pacing the plot make for a title that can sometimes become tedious to play through. If you came to this game looking for a smart balance between engaging combat and visual novel gameplay, this is not the game for you.

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