It might seem surprising that one of Sega's longest-running and most successful franchises would never have seen the light of day outside of Japan, possibly a result of it being perceived as "too Japanese". namely due to a strong adventure game component which is commonly referred to as a "dating sim," because there's a lot of talking to pretty girls with romance in mind. Thankfully NIS America decided to take a chance on introducing this series to folk outside of Japan, gambling that the combination of a compelling adventure game-style narrative and excellent tactical combat game would be appealing, and they were right.
Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love is the fifth game in the series, but don't let this be a barrier because it features a new main character and a new team in a new city. Throughout the story you'll take the role of Shinjiro Taiga, a fresh-faced recruit from the Japanese Imperial Navy sent by his uncle (the star of the previous four Sakura Wars games) to find his way in the newest part of the global defence force: the New York Combat Revue. As the name implies the defenders of New York City in this alternative steampunk world of 1928 are also musical performers on Broadway. The recurring theme of the series is that through musical performance the heroes help unite the people they're sworn to protect, though you'll only see snippets of performances in cutscenes rather than full songs.
Steam power has made America great, but the young country's desire for history has led to the amassing of artifacts from all over the world, some of them attracting the attention of dark forces beyond our ken. The mechanised divisions of the musical troupes found in Tokyo, Paris and now New York are tasked with protecting the world from these forces – a job that will prove quite tasking for Shinjiro as he needs to learn to be a leader and build strong relationships with and amongst his team members, which is where the "dating sim" part of the game comes in.
To call it a "dating sim" sells it short because the game really isn't about getting a date – though opportunities will present themselves and we do hope Shin will find his true love – but is more of an interactive story. This "adventure" part of the game is the bulk of gameplay: interacting with other characters, choosing dialogue options and running around town. Though this might not sound very appealing it's actually a lot of fun thanks to the variety of actions performed, with standard scripted dialogue broken up by one of three different activities: a multiple choice response, a single response of varying intensities and a mini-game requiring movement of two input devices ( and if using the Remote and Nunchuk or left and right on the Classic Controller/Pro) to fill a meter as a measurement of success in simulated physical activities.
Of course no story is complete without great characters, and this game has them in spades. The Japanese script has been translated with aplomb, without any dumbing-down of references to Japanese culture between the handful of Japanese characters present. Characters grow and change over the course of the game making them fully realised as individuals who you'll get to know as you play. Excellent voice acting plays a huge role in bringing these characters to life, without any awkward delivery to found. You'll come to feel real affection for the characters in the game – even ones you may start out disliking – so effective is the combination of animated cut scenes, still shots, voice and text used to tell their stories.
Every chapter will include a free-movement section where you control Shin directly, moving him between neighbourhoods in Manhattan and places of interest within them where different story encounters take place. Most of these are timed, meaning that you won't necessarily be able to experience every possible dialogue sequence, so subsequent replays can offer new stories to keep the game fresh. You'll also be able to buy photos of characters from this and previous games in the series, as well as earn more via a photo contest wherein you use your "Cameratron" to photograph areas of interest to the main characters, providing further replay incentive to complete your image collection (nothing too naughty folks, this is a PEGI 12 game after all.)
Key to success in the battle sequences that end each chapter is teamwork: rather than earning experience in combat like a typical RPG, you increase in rank and build strong relationships through the adventure sequences, as you try to deal with personal issues being faced by the other team members. You'll be able to monitor how well your teammates respond to you in a given chapter and their overall relationship with the other revue members via breaks called "Eyecatches," which also give you an opportunity to save your progress.
The chapter-ending battles are played out using one of the best tactical systems we've had the pleasure to experience yet. Eschewing the standard grid system, turn-based combat instead sees players directly moving character mechs in-turn about the battlefield, with the movement points used indicated on a dynamically shifting gauge at the bottom of the screen. Both movement and attack are paid for out of this pool, though you will also require spiritual energy (referred to as "Pneuma" in keeping with the steampunk theme) to perform feats like super moves and healing.
Normal attacks can be chained together in combos of up to five simply by repeatedly pressing – assuming you have the movement to pay for it – for maximum offensive flexibility. The battles are played out in two stages, with the first requiring the protection or elimination of specific targets, and the second being a boss battle. The latter is typically played out in "flight mode," which is a real treat: allowing players to fly their transformed mechs around the bosses to find their weaknesses, targeting different bits to take them apart piecemeal.
As noted above, teamwork is critically important to success. The stronger the relationship between members, the stronger the joint attack they can pull off against multiple foes, which will become essential to success in defending critical targets in the final chapters. Better still, these "joint" attacks only use one movement point (same with special attacks), providing a variety of strategic choices in how to dispatch the enemy. Character dialogue and interactive adventure sequences will continue into the battles and characters that get eliminated will have their trust in Shinjiro negatively impacted, giving you an incentive to get everyone through intact (don't worry, they'll be back in the next battle sequence and only Shinjiro's loss will prompt a replay.)
Whilst the gameplay is excellent it's the visual and audio presentation that elevates it to the next level. The character intros that play out prior to every battle are so wonderfully over-the-top that you won't mind the fact that they're unskippable. Battle sequence graphics are equally fantastic, featuring intros at the start of each character's turn and terrific extended sequences for the special attacks of both characters and enemies (though any of these can be skipped with a simple button press if desired.) Boss battles in particular are a real tour de force with massive attacks and big special effects. The animated sequences look like they came out of a film and the entire game is given the feel of an episodic series; each chapter ending with a preview of the next in a montage of audio and video clips concluding with the tagline "Bang! To the rooftop!" It's great kitsch and is a capper on the charm of the whole experience.
As a port of a five-year-old PS2 game, you won't find widescreen or progressive output supported, though 60Hz is supported on the European release and the visual fidelity cannot be faulted. The score, which ranges from ragtime jazz and musical theatre to cinematic battle music, is very good, though unfortunately the mix tends to be a bit too loud during some dramatic dialogue sequences, making the lack of any sound options other than mono/stereo or turning off the voice-over a bit disappointing. Players who lack a Classic Controller will likely find the adventure sequences which sometimes demand simultaneous input from and a bit frustrating and motion control would have been desirable as an alternative rather than directly porting the PS2 controls. Using a Classic Controller is the recommended way to play, but requires a little memorisation as button prompts and tutorials reference the Remote and Nunchuk control scheme regardless of what you're actually playing with.
Though some might regard the 8 chapters and 10-15 hour playtime as a bit on the short side, considering most of the game is narrative, it's actually quite a rich experience. The fact that player choices made in the adventure portion affect not only the battle sequences, but provide for multiple endings and story paths means that you'll want to replay it multiple times to experience everything this game has to offer.
Ultimately any issues we have are minor quibbles compared with the amount of fun we had playing in this world. It's a coming of age story that seems aimed at a younger crowd, but that didn't stop us being captivated by the characters and ultimately moved by the sentimental dramas played out. If you have an interest in story-driven RPGs, interactive stories or just want to try a style of game that may never see the light of day outside of Japan again, we reckon you should buy it now!