Review: Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love

New York, New York! It’s the city that never sleeps. According to Japan, it’s also plagued by malevolent demons. But not to worry — the theater troupe of Little Lip Theater is always on call. Yes, they can put on a magnificent show, but they’re also tasked with keeping the citizens of the Big Apple safe. Unfortunately, their newest member isn’t quite who they were expecting: the nephew instead of his respected uncle Ogami! How are they supposed to put on mindblowing performances and keep the peace with this mousy greenhorn tagging along? It’s up to the player to see that Ogami’s successor, Lt. Shinjiro Taiga, rises to the occasion in Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love, for both the Nintendo Wii and PlayStation 2.

Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love can be likened to a delicious caramel frappe: it’s a perfectly blended concoction that showcases the highlights of all of the flavors involved. Take two cups of dating sim, one cup strategy RPG, a sprinkle of sentai idealism, and shake thoroughly. Your end result is a decadent yet quirky treat that’s not for everyone, yet completely accessible to anyone. Unfortunately, it’s a contributing factor as to why the history of Sakura Wars in the West has been a tumultuous one. In fact, it’s quite the pleasant surprise that So Long, My Love, the fifth game in the series, got a release at all. Thankfully, NIS America saw fit to bring this unique mix of strategic elements and dating simulation to the West, where people like me can eagerly devour it. It may not live up to the standards set by the first four games (according to series vets), but it’s a delightful beginning and a great example to follow.

The Sakura Wars series has pulled a Metal Gear Solid moment and has ushered in the nephew of the star of the previous titles rather than allowing gamers to bask in Ichiro Ogami’s light. Of course, this is all of no consequence to those who would pick this entry up, as we have no reason to expect anything otherwise. In fact, only after research into the Sakura Wars franchise (beyond the anime features I’ve seen) did I establish the fact that these weren’t the standard cast members. The New York Combat Revue team of Shinjiro Taiga, Gemini Sunrise, Rosarita Aries, Cheiron Archer, Diana Caprice, Subaru Kujo, and Ratchet Altair are enthusiastic and effervescent characters that invite you to explore every nook and cranny of their being. It’s a good thing, as the game revolves around who you know, how you treat them, and the manner of relationships you form. It’s almost like real life — except earning someone’s trust back is only a reset away. Each and every member of the Star Division are riveting character studies and it was a treat getting to know their inner workings. And the supporting players were no different: Michael Sunnyside, the eccentric New York playboy and commander proved to be a laugh a minute, spouting every thought with brazen wit (buying up land in a certain neighborhood to thwart a major corporation’s plans was a bold move, indeed!)

With a backdrop of a highly-modernized steampunk 1920s New York, it’s hard not to fall hopelessly in love with the narrative and its cast of colorful yet flawed characters. The country-fied cowgirl Gemini (pronounced rather strangely, “gem-uh-knee”) and tight-laced Cheiron supplied me with more than just a chuckle here and there, and Subaru’s androgynous looks and character had me guessing much longer than it should have. Of course, getting in with the exclusive New York Combat Revue isn’t the piece of cake I thought it would be initially. Since the clique-like NYCR was expecting Shinjiro Taiga’s uncle rather than him to lead them into victory over the demons plaguing New York, they treat him like an outcast initially — a reject, an unwanted newbie who simply gets in everyone’s way. Because of this behavior toward Taiga, the game forces you to play the part of an earnest combat virgin who must prove himself before being accepted as one of the pack, even though that was his official assignment in the first place. It’s refreshing to see that your choices do so impact the characters surrounding you in such a way and acceptance is not immediate, just like in real-life interaction. In the first stages of the game and throughout until the end, Taiga’s yearning to be “one of them” and to do all he can for this foreign American state are absolutely endearing and inspiring, and I found such pride in making this sniveling young boy into a real captain.

Of course, it’s up to you to play the role the game seems to want you to play. It’s up to you to mold Shinjiro into a man worth respecting, or one without a shred of it. You do this via different modes of play. Rather than levels, the game is divided up into eight chapters that are accompanied by their own “episode title” and preview of the next scenario, ripped straight from an anime series. It’s an interesting touch to be sure, and a way to gauge whether or not you want to tackle the next segment just yet. In each segment, there are three different game modes. The largely predominant mode sees you interacting via text and dialogue options akin to traditional visual novel-styled dating sims. These sections are expository chunks of plot and as such, you’ll play very little of what you might consider a real game. You may be introduced to a new character, explore the back story of an established cast member, or engage in official Star business.

I found these segments the most enjoyable, as the several different conversations I had over the course of the game were simultaneously touching and hilarious. And unlike games that present a clear-cut dialogue option to advance the conversation, it was more difficult to gauge each character’s reaction. Plus, you’re on a time limit — a steampunk-inspired gauge appears with fluid running out at a brisk pace while you’re presented with three options. Each is accompanied by an image of Shinjiro in an attempt to aid you in choosing what to say. “Fresh” options will see Taiga blushing, aggressive statements will feature an assertive image of him, and so on. Even with these portraits it can be difficult to guess how people will respond, which is the beauty of the system. It’s more about figuring out each unique personality and how to appeal to them, as a universal approach will not always work. The tact required here to ensure you don’t annoy those you interact with on a daily basis is more true to life than I have experienced previously. The game will attempt to guide you on the “correct” pathway to success with a positive-sounding or negative “chime” after every key decision point, but it’s really up to the player to make that choice.

And while the conversations are entertaining, you’ll need to stop pressing “A” mindlessly long enough to take part in the sort of quick-time events that require you to input a string of buttons, match a sequence, or perform a control-related task that will either see you performing excellently or poorly. Unfortunately, the Wii remote isn’t well-suited to many of these events. You’ll often be required to alternate between up and down on both the Nunchuk and the Wii remote, or in half-circles. The d-pad on the Wii remote is nowhere near responsive enough to do this quickly and efficiently, so often you’ll find yourself with a negative outcome when the action required of you couldn’t have been easier. It’s frustrating, to say the least, and from my experience worked much more smoothly on the PlayStation 2 edition. You shouldn’t be punished for the console’s shortcomings, and I am frankly shocked that waggle wasn’t implemented, not in the least.

Fortunately, I didn’t take any issue with the game’s intensity meter: put simply, a vertical bar is displayed that you must (before the timer runs out) raise or lower depending on the events at hand. This was especially difficult to master. For example, it’s often used in situations that require more or less assertiveness and tact. I was asked by one of the Star ladies to hoist her up to change out a lightbulb, but slowly, she cautioned, so she would not fall. At that point I hadn’t yet worked out how the system should have been used, so I went full speed ahead and kept the bar in the red zone, jumping up as fast as I could and knocking the poor girl to the floor. As you can imagine, that didn’t go over well. It’s an interesting mechanic, to be sure, and one I haven’t seen before.

Each conversation is slotted to take around five minutes, as you are given an “hour” in-game before descending upon the meat of each stage. This usually involves building toward the climax of every episode, such as Cheiron’s mock trial or the ascent of Pneuma-powered robots who are simply carrying out the order of turning New York into their own “new world.” It’s important to take this part seriously, as it will have an adverse effect on the battles that unfold at the end of each chapter. Rather than a traditional level grind, interaction is integral to success. Every so often you’ll get a break in the action to access a menu that will allow you to save, check the condition of your party members, and the bonds you’re building between them. Important stats such as attack, special attack bonuses, speed, and similar aspects are built upon how you treat your comrades. If you treat them well and build trust, they’ll grow into powerful allies. Ignore them, let them down, or anger them and you can be sure they’ll be the first to fall when it comes time to hop into a STAR.

Spliced in between traditional conversational scenes and the final segment of each episode are chunks of “free time” that you can spend exploring each area, gleaning information from inhabitants of the city, or speaking with members of your team. This is conducted in a manner similar to how one explored town in La Pucelle Tactics, only with 3D mechanics rather than flat 2D. While I can understand the need for “actual” playtime, however, this often felt like more of a chore than interactive entertainment, and I often left the area early rather than staying the full amount of time allotted after exhausting my conversational options and “hidden” sections where I would interact with one of the girls via “magnifying glass,” observing their outfit, looks, personality, etc. This was definitely the weakest part of the game.

If the game’s “meat” is the lengthy chunks of conversation and plot, then the “potatoes” are certainly the strat-RPG battles encountered at the end of each segment. As I commented before during a chat about the game, this structure is as close as a game has ever shown me to be to an actual anime episode. You get the plot buildup, the events leading up to battle, and then a battle and resolution of conflict in each episode. So Long, My Love is no different, and I appreciated that. Each battle features different demons and their handlers who require specific strategies to take down effectively. If you’ve been paying attention to the specific needs of your comrades, then you should find yourself in tiptop shape when heading into a fight. And if not, you might be looking into restarting the battle.

This is your traditional SRPG, as far as the actual fighting goes. However, while you might be thinking Fire Emblem, it plays out much more like Valkyria Chronicles or even Eternal Sonata. You directly control each member of your party for a set period of time measured in how far you move on the battlefield. Stratagems can be implemented and changed once each time the tides of battle turn back to Shinjiro, and you can choose from playing offensively, defensively, or flexibly. Combined with the ability to play as you would a traditional strategy RPG, there are plenty of ways to solve a pesky demon problem. Each battle is challenging in that you’ll need to figure out each enemy’s weakness and exactly how to tackle it. STARs may fight on the ground and in the air, and you may team up with another member of the division to perform a  joint power move that will work as well as your bond with the teammate in question. Each character also has a “Super Move” in place to unleash when things get rough, and they’re prefaced with a flashy animation sequence to up the gloss factor. They’re versatile and interactive, with Subaru’s moveset consistently coming out as my favorite.

Still, there are some problems to be had even with classic mechanics such as these. It can get downright annoying to lock onto enemy targets, especially in the air. During the first battle, especially, I had such a rough time navigating in the airborne bots and trying to distinguish exactly where my opponent’s weak spot was that I almost gave up and considered the battle to be too buggy to continue. When centered directly over the enemy’s head where I knew a target should appear, I found nothing, and thus could not attack. It happened many more times throughout the game and it was no less frustrating in any subsequent occurrence. It could have been approached in a much less awkward manner, but at least the game is nowhere near unplayable even with these discrepancies intact. I haven’t enjoyed the previous games in the series, but I do hope these issues can be fixed in future releases.

Fortunately, what the game lacks in technical prowess it more than makes up for its shortcomings with buckets of charm. From the crisp anime cut scenes to the fluid character portraits, jazzy and upbeat score, and enjoyable English dub (except for Gemini’s cries of “SHINY!”), the game practically bleeds style, and it’s obvious a fair amount of polish went into making it the best experience it could be. And with multiple branching paths to the end and the choice to cozy up to one of the Star Division girls, there’s loads of replay value. In fact, I’m contemplating another playthrough now that I’m more familiar with the inner workings and exactly how to calculate the trust each event gained me.

This game is not for everyone. Don’t expect to instantly enjoy it if you’re not at all a fan of character interaction or slow buildups, as you will be sorely disappointed. Keep in mind as well that saving is limited to a few times per chapter, so if you’re one who has little time to sit and invest in a game, you may want to make time or reconsider the purchase, as there are long chunks of plot revelations and decisions before you may save. While there are plenty mainstream elements peppered within, this is very much a niche game and one that you may have trouble getting into. But if you decide to take the plunge and dive into a colorful anime world bursting with personality, then I can’t think of too many games that do a better job than this save for the venerable Persona series. If you’ve ever wanted to “live” through episodes of your favorite anime, this would be a great place to start. Hop to it, Shiny!

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