It’s a bit of a surprise, then, that it took a whopping 14 years for the Sakura Taisen series to finally make it to the States. In stark contrast to, say, Nippon Ichi’s Disgaea or Atlus’ MegaTen games, however, it’s a little easier to see why the series was initially judged to be the stuff of importers and otaku wannabes: Sakura Taisen is, first and foremost, a dating sim. A dating sim with giant mystical energy-powered robots that duke it out in a strategy RPG setting, sure, but it’s understandable that some publishers would be leery of bringing the game over in years past.
There’s another reason for the initial hesitancy: this is a SEGA game, made by an internal SEGA team, and that originally only appeared on SEGA hardware. The series eventually moved to the PlayStation 2 when SEGA’s hardware business crumbled, but the post-Dreamcast publishing environment was even less of a risk-friendly option in the early days, and thus, the series continued to be successful in Japan but only accessible to an American audience with a decent grasp of the Japanese language and the fiscal means to import things.
Enter NIS America, who have not only taken on the unenviable task of localizing and translating the reams of digital text that make up the myriad conversations of Sakura Taisen, but who have also opted to do something SEGA never did: NIS is porting the game to the Wii with the help of developer Idea Factory. One need only look at the fact that the PlayStation 2′s Special Edition is made up of two discs (one with an English dub and the other with the original Japanese dialogue) to see just how much info is in this game.
This is not a series known for its brevity.
That’s precisely why it’s such an interesting and, frankly, amazing experience, though. It’s doubtful even the mighty PS2, with what some would rightly claim is the best RPG lineup in the history of games, has seen many titles with this much replay value. Multiple endings are in there, sure, but there are so many labyrinthine conversation threads and character dynamics that even though your first run through things will likely be over a couple dozen hours, the game is so rife with replay opportunities, it’s entirely possible you’ll head right into a new game after it’s over.
Much of that attraction comes down to two things. First, the game’s turn-based-but-free-moving strategy RPG battles are fantastic, regularly incorporating environmental wrinkles to keep things interesting. Months ago, I plumbed the first several hours of the game to bring you guys some seriously meaty impressions and the general gameplay setup. Given that the preview was a whopping four pages, I’ll leave that link above for you to actually get into the bulk of how the game works. What I will happily try to convey, though, is just how much of developer Overworks’ later SRPG efforts shines through here. This is the same developer responsible for Skies of Arcadia and the absolutely brilliant Valkyria Chronicles — and the latter’s roots are especially apparent almost from the second you start your first battle.
Like Valkyria Chronicles, though, the initial rules are meant as a stepping stone to doing more than just fighting a bunch of evil robots. Things aren’t quite as varied as the PS3 SRPG, but you can see how the developer dabbled in introducing elements like changing areas in multi-zone battles and using the environment to push objects and negotiate particularly hazardous areas long before they moved to the big black brick. There’s a playful sort of experimentation with those base rules, and it makes for battles that never seem to be old despite the monster-of-the-month setup.
The fact that you’ll never really “level-up” via traditional means also puts careful strategy and pre-planning (and, yes, a little trial and error, though you can always continue at the last major checkpoint of the multistage boss fights if you fail) at the forefront. You’re challenged in more ways than just sheer enemy numbers or epic boss battles — though those are certainly present in spades. Changing formations in battle can boost some attributes but lock out the ability to, say, heal when you’re going on the offensive or dole out special attacks if you’re being reserved. Factor in the ability to protect or call in support from other characters (which can strengthen ties during battle or lead to one-off conversation threads), and you have a multitude of options for progressing through a battle.
Instead of leveling up by killing enemies (there’s actually no battle XP to speak of, and wasting time on common enemies can actually be a bad thing in some missions), you’ll do it by building relationships with the rest of the all-female mech driving crew you’ve come to work with at the Littlelip Theatre in steampunk-fused 1928 New York City. Japan transplant Shinjiro Taiga could certainly be in less enviable climes than being the sole source of testosterone in an all-girl revue, but he’s initially regarded with reservation if not outright hostility from everyone in the group — not exactly the warmest of welcomes.
But then it wouldn’t be a challenge to actually build relationships if he just showed up and it was pillow fights and sleepovers every night. The fact that every chapter brings with it the opportunity to constantly build trust (and, yes, eventually some romance if you opt to go down that path) means that all the cutesy play dates and idle conversation is actually a means to strengthen the whole party; the more the girls trust you, the better they’ll fight in battle — literally.
This isn’t a superficial improvement, either. Hit points, spirit points used for everything from healing to special attacks to tag-team blows, segments on that Mobility Gauge used for both movement and attacks, attack power, defense, agility – everything depends on getting to know each of the characters better. It also means helping them to grow closer to each other, resulting in team attacks that don’t actually require the party leader to have some serious oomph. Because of this fundamental link between the conversation/dating sim bits and the strategy-based battles, Sakura Wars is almost constantly teaching you something, which is the key to keeping it all interesting.
The characters, certainly, are the biggest help. You’d think that a pistol-packing little girl, an androgynously aloof and downright hostile Japanese import, a wheelchair-bound Shakespeare-quoting blonde, Japanophile Texas transplant and a tough chick lawyer from Harlem would make for an annoying group to deal with, but… well, they aren’t. At all. Cutesy pretenses fade to genuinely interesting tales of woe, stern facades melt slowly revealing someone deeply connected to their community, wide-eyed optimism becomes an earnest sort of longing to belong. At nearly every point where you think the game is going to retreat completely into its admittedly heavy Japanese influence, it pulls back and veers off in an unexpectedly interesting and oft-times disarmingly touching direction.
Perhaps this is why the series has done so well in Japan and is held up with such reverence by those that were adept at understanding first kana and then kanji as the series went on. It wasn’t the barrier to entry; it was that the characters are genuinely interesting. Wreathed in typical anime tropes initially, sure, but that fades slowly and admirably as the layers of each character are peeled back. I hate to say it, but I actually got invested in making sure all these characters were taken care of.
Granted, decades of being the go-to reviews guy for all manner of quirky and oft-times downright embarrassing games from Japan (admittedly a generous portion coming from NIS America itself) has given me a cast-iron gullet for the kind of saccharine sweetness and government-quality cheese that emanates from a lot of these games, but I never rolled my eyes or sighed with that “oh, Japan” sort of feeling so many of these games with anime-rich presentations encourage. These are real, interesting characters, and they lose much of their outward appearance the more you get to know them, which is a real testament to the quality of characterization and indeed NISA’s localization that they popped like more than cardboard cutouts. Suffice it to say that if you could put up with the last two Persona games’ more annoying characters, it’s relatively smooth sailing here.
The dynamics of dealing with the dozens of conversation topics and reaction opportunities is the key to making everything work. Though you’re regularly paired up with someone while exploring New York, plenty of conversations are with multiple attendees, and often responses are binary — pleasing some while leaving others nonplussed or even offended at times. Starting out, it can seem daunting to try to juggle so many personalities at once, but the beauty of the LIPS System is that as you learn more about the characters, their attitudes can change. Spend enough time getting to know someone and you’ll not only start to gravitate toward more correct responses, but you may actually change how they respond to things that would have grated on their nerves in the past — or at the very least the illusion that it’s happening is sound. I won’t know for sure until I try a different tactic on my second run-through.
I have to give plenty of credit to the English dubbing in this case. Though you can opt for the Japanese voice track in the PS2′s Special Edition, Wii owners are by no means “stuck” with a lackluster cast — though the anime tone will be that much stronger if you do, of course. In fact, I recognized a couple of familiar voices, including what I’m almost certain is Melissa Fahn, who did a fantastic job in selling Ed’s quirky personality in Cowboy Bebop. That the voices in the game not only help make the characters more engaging at times but don’t hamper things makes a big difference, though, again, I’ll fully admit that I’m more than used to hearing these kinds of performances after so many years.
Composer Kohei Tanaka has also done a wonderful job in helping to infuse the game with a loungy sort of “Roaring ’20s” vibe. References to Louie Armstrong appear both tonally and as an actual character, and each of the main cast has their own themes that are interwoven throughout the main game. The whole jazz-by-way-of-Japan feel fits the game perfectly, and though the rest of the sound effects on the mostly-static conversation screens are relegated to chimes and footfalls and the odd explosion or “you lose” bass dive, it all comes together to give everything a peppy, cheery sort of mood.
Despite being a 5-year-old game at this point, Sakura Wars isn’t what I’d call an ugly game by any means. No, this isn’t God of War II, but it’s clean and well directed in its own right during the boxy, claustrophobic action sequences (the special attacks are particularly over-the-top in a good way). There’s a fair amount of recycled CG when the STARS Division is deployed, but they’re kept to snippets and often skip ahead or jump back when deploying multiple times per chapter. Plus, there’s actual rumble during them — something that seems to be weirdly missing these days — and who doesn’t love watching a theatre and an entire block of New York City transform into a giant slingshot? Hitler, that’s who. Actually, no, he probably would have dug it, too. The cel-animated cutscenes are also very, very clean and though they’re not all that flashy, they fit the reserved, laid-back feeling of the rest of the game.
When things go a bit more static, the character portraits are not only beautifully hi-res, but they animate well. Blinking and expression changes, for instance, aren’t just a frame swap; they actually transition nicely. I know it sounds like a small thing, but you’re going to be staring at a lot of faces in this game, and it’s nice to see they always stay pleasant. I have to give a nod to the menu system, too, with slick collapsing screens and tilt-perspective typographic accents. It’s a shame that playing the game on the PS3 causes the resolution-switch when going to the mid- and end-chapter save points to cause my TV to completely blank out for about seven or eight seconds, but unless you have the text on auto-advance, you’re only going to miss the odd initial slow-pan camera before a conversation starts — if your TV even freaks out. Playing on a native SD console, obviously, isn’t going to be nearly as troublesome.
It should be noted that Idea Factory’s port isn’t flawless. Though the videos actually seem to run at better-than-30-fps smoothness, the actual 3D graphics — particularly in battles during more flashy effects-driven moments — can chug a little. It even crops up on those menus I love so much, so clearly the engine in place here wasn’t really optimized for the Wii, which is a shame. It’s nothing huge, especially in a game like this, but it is noticeable. That things like the motion controls are really never used (and no, trying to replace analog stick motions with the d-pad isn’t a proper substitute, so rock it Classic Controller-style), and the pointer’s really only implemented for the moments where you can look around a room or, uh, at various girls’ bits shows this was a rather quick ‘n dirty effort. Welcome, sure, but hardly fully Wii-embracing.
There are some things that never really cleared up as I was playing through Sakura Wars. The battles were a blast and varied enough that they never felt tired (though the final fight is an absolute marathon, so I hope you’ve taken the lessons of the previous chapters to heart), but some of the wording in the conversations doesn’t really match up with the actual response. When so much depends on chatting up people with a silver tongue, it can be frustrating to pick an option and then have something rather different actually get said. Yes, it’s the same in general “theme,” but there’s still the odd jarring moment in there. Luckily, there are so many opportunities to talk to people in every chapter that it’s never an issue of screwing something up so bad things can’t be repaired later.
That’s actually something I wanted to make sure I touched on. OCD superfreaks are going to go crazy trying to figure out the “right” way to talk to everyone the first time. It’s impossible. Just go with it; often a “wrong” response offers clues on how to talk to someone later anyway, and really the game is so rife with chances to do stuff that you’ll be retrying for years. Throw in the fact that the game often gives you a rather brief window to just explore the city (or carry out a task for someone) and you’ll never see everything your first time through.
That’s a good thing, because (and I know I’ve said this before) after a decade on the market, the PlayStation 2 is finally getting its swan song and the Wii is getting a fantastic RPG to bulk up its library. The release calendar on the PS2 is a ghost town, and for many, this may be the system’s final bow. Fitting, then, that it’s something you could easily play over and over again for a few more years. Hopefully by then, we’ll be lucky enough to get a follow-up here on the Wii, because this really is an experience you won’t get from any other game. It’s also one that shouldn’t be missed.