Game Review

Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love Review

Europe PAL Version

Posted by Sean Aaron

Genre-mashing cinematic robot-girly goodness

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 ((DPAD) and (STICK) if using the Remote and Nunchuk or left and right (STICK) 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 (A) – 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 (STICK) and (DPAD) 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.

Conclusion

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!

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User Comments (34)

grenworthshero

#1

grenworthshero said:

I'd never even heard of this until a few days ago. It looks great. Curse all these good games and their inherent effect on my savings.

Sean_Aaron

#2

Sean_Aaron said:

Well, this one is cheaper than those other games, so you'll really want to buy this first!

Shiryu

#3

Shiryu said:

I have this game BUT... I can't play it. My Wii finnaly gave out for the first time in 3 years. It refused to read the DVD. I was already assuming the worse but every other game works...EXCEPT Smash Bros Brawl.

That's right, after snooping around the web, I found that Sakura Wars is a double Layer DVD like Smash Bros. So now, I'm looking for the official Nintendo Wii cleaning kit. I did manage to boot it once, saw the intro (and that explains why it's double layer...I assume is filled with anime cutscenes) but got back to The Sky Crawlers afterwards.

Thanks for the amazing review, I hope this title gets the attention it deserves. For now I will play Rune Factory Frontier... and Monster Hunter Tri is right around the corner! Remember a time when people said the Wii had no games? No "Hardcore" games? Oh, the fools...

Axoloth

#4

Axoloth said:

Does the Wii version have dual voiceovers or not?

I mean, you said it yourself that the game was/is seen as "too Japanese" and has references to Japanese culture, and I doubt the competence of English voice-actors when it comes to pronouncing Japanese words and portraying Japanese anime stereotypes.
Sorry for being a weeabo jerk or whatever you wanna call it, but Persona 3 seriously scarred me for life :(

Pahvi

#5

Pahvi said:

This review made no difference for me in my plans to buy this game. Well, except maybe slightly increasing the price point I'll buy it at.

@Axoloth: I recall reading in some reviews (e.g., IGN) that only a PS2 version has the Japanese voiceover. The reviewer there was apparently satisfied with the voice actors, though. You might want to check a few other reviews for other opinions on that matter, though.

Sean_Aaron

#6

Sean_Aaron said:

No, only the PS2 version has two soundtracks and that one is only available in North America.

I want to stress that the voice acting really is excellent and you should also consider the fact that the game is set in America and has a cast of characters that is largely American before making any snap judgement about the quality of delivery.

Most of the Japanese cultural references are limited to exchanges via text, so if you're concerned about Japanese audio butchery know that either a non-Japanese character is saying the line and therefore it won't be inappropriate if not "perfect" or it simply won't be an issue at all.

Axoloth

#7

Axoloth said:

Hmm, yeah well, I've been thinking about buying a Swap Magic thingie for my PS2, so I might end up getting the US PS2 version anyway :P

But I'll go look at some videos of the game and get a feel for the voice acting before making any decisions. I wasn't going to buy this game in the first place but if Sean says buy, I'll buy :P
And like I said, I've heard so much bad voice acting that I'm a bit paranoid. Todays English voice acting is excellent though as long as they keep to English words and stuff, so the setting being New York probably makes it okay.
But even though the characters are English, it is still a heavily Japanese game with anime stereotypes, which English voice actors still suck at portraying, but whatev'.

The_Fox

#8

The_Fox said:

I'm still surprised this one jumped out of Japan. It's probably too weird and cutesy to do well outside of a small niche group of gamers.

If you go to eBay you can snag this for fairly cheap already.

FonistofCruxis

#9

FonistofCruxis said:

I wasn't that interested at first but I like rpgs with good stories and anime so I'll pick this up at some point.

darklinkinfinite

#10

darklinkinfinite said:

I got this the day it came out and I absolutely loved it. Despite the game being somewhat lengthy, its just no long enough. MUST HAVE MOAR!!!! lol I do hope this game does well enough that they bring over any future games or even begin localizing prior games in the series (for the Wii, if at all possible)

I love how the whole thing is basically Samurai Pizza Cats but with humans.

Yanagi

#11

Yanagi said:

This game kinda fell under the radar for me after I found out about Monster Hunter Tri, but I'm still highly interested in it. It's amazing that this is the first Sakura Wars game to make it outside of Japan. The last game I played with a dating sim worked into it was Thousand Arms for the PS1, which was made by the same studio.

The one thing that put me on the fence between the PS2 and the Wii versions was the quality of the english dubbing. I'm glad to hear that it was done well. The rest of the game looks great. Once I get an opportunity, I'm picking this one up. Great review.

Bakajin

#12

Bakajin said:

@Sean Aaron: that's nice and all that they put some work into the English track, but some of us are of the opinion that in this day and age there is no excuse for not giving us a Japanese audio track if one has been recorded. Not including it is just laziness.

EdEN

#13

EdEN said:

As Shiryu, be warned this is a dual-layer disc and thus you might have problems playing it if you haven't been taking care of your Wii. I got the cleaning kit a while back and use it at least once a month to prevent any read-errors. Kit is cheap and worth it.

CanisWolfred

#15

CanisWolfred said:

I appreciate seeing such a game outside Japan, but it really doesn't interest me much at all. I might rent it someday, but it doesn't sound like something I would ever want to own.

ttocs

#16

ttocs said:

This game is so far outside of what I typically play, but for whatever reason, I can't stop playing it. The game is brilliant and really does hit home with some really good topics on friendship, camaraderie, and in some cases even love. It's a gem of a game.

the_shpydar

#17

the_shpydar said:

I picked this up last week (along with Red Steel 2), and have only put a little time into it so far, but am thoroughly enjoying it. The story/adventure scenes draw you in really well, and it's nice to have a good game that's something "different" than the norm.

KDR_11k

#20

KDR_11k said:

Meh, if you want an interactive story-type thing get the Phoenix Wright games, those do a much better job of making you care about what's going on.

SKTTR

#21

SKTTR said:

So this is not some anime/manga license like Naruto, One Piece or Dragon Ball like someone told me? This is really an original game?

Sean_Aaron

#24

Sean_Aaron said:

@Bakajin: From what I understand the Japanese audio track is only available in the PS2 Special Edition in North America, not the bog-standard PS2 edition. I think it's great that people like the original Japanese audio and I do prefer original audio and subtitles when watching films, but I think it's a shame to pass up on a game just over this issue alone; especially when the translation and dub are as good as this.

@Klapaucius: No GC support, sorry.

@KDR_11k: If Phoenix wright engaged in tactical battles between court cases I'd be with you, but he doesn't so I'm not. I may pick up Another Code R, however...

@SKTTR: Suprisingly the game came first. It was made to look like an episodic OAV, hence chapters with previews before each of them (they also have their own titles). It has spawned lines of anime videos and toys however, so whilst it may seem an odd combination of genres it's been a big success for Sega in Japan; I'm under no illusions that will be repeated elsewhere, but it's nice to hope!

Sean_Aaron

#26

Sean_Aaron said:

There just wasn't enough room here to say everything I wanted to say, so I've blogged about it as well.

I have indeed picked up Another Code R when I was out today, so you may expect a review of that someday (and who knows, there could even be some Phoenix Wright in my future...).

Vinsanity

#27

Vinsanity said:

I've heard that the combat in this game is quite reminescent of Valkyria Chronicles:) It's a must pick up then, though at least one character voice gets on my nerves (the cowgirl chick from all the promos).

I really think it's odd that NIS decided to throw the "special edition" with the dual voice tracks at the PS2 in 2010 and not the Wii, but eh. PS2 games are slightly blurry/muddy on modern HDTVs for some reason - a problem that the Gamecube, Xbox and PSX games played on the PS2 don't seem to suffer from. I'd rather suffer through some uneven voice acting than a consistently muddy picture. Wii version it is, then!

@Rerun: Thanks for mentioning that there's an art book available. I think I'll pick this up from NIS America's website now, and spring for the extra 10 bucks!

Imerion

#28

Imerion said:

Great review! I have been looking forward to this game a long time so it's nice to hear it really lives up to expectations.

dan674

#30

dan674 said:

I rented this and so far I've spent an hour on it and damn.. it's boring. So far no robot-fighting and just reading, looking at pictures of annoying characters I'm really not interested in, and pressing A. I'll play it again later and hope for some actual gameplay, but so far it's disappointing.

Vinsanity

#31

Vinsanity said:

The first chapter of this game was neat. The second one? Not so much. First off, the game needs more music - the stupid "main track" that plays is dopey and repetitive, and it drives you insane when you have to go through so much text. But the thing that really drives me crazy are the QTE prompts, like when Gemini asks about your umeboshi? She says she might not like it, and Shinji says she probably will, and then you have 2 seconds to push a bar towards "feed it to her" or not. Go all the way in either direction, and you fail and she gets mad at you. So then it's a guessing game as to where the eff it wants you to hold it. Oh, and if you don't hit the button when the time runs out, you fail too, because it doesn't just accept where you have the bar anyway at the time of...the timer running out:( It's confusing and aggravating as hell if you're a completionist looking to do everything successfully, because that stupid crap means reloading the chapter and starting all over.

I just wanna get to the next robot fight!

It's still a really neat game, and oddly compelling for something so minimalist. Also, the art book was great in the special edition, so thanks again Rerun for the tip! But man, is it hard to love. What a janky game.

JohnWalrus

#33

JohnWalrus said:

Looks nice. Haven't seen it at the mall, though. So many copies of Carnival Games, and they couldn't fit this in there? Idiots...

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