Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love Review «

Back in the mid-’90s, I was a wide-eyed Japanophile who imported Super Famicom games, read Famitsu religiously (well, the katakana, at least), pined over the endless supply of anime-infused role-playing titles that would never come Stateside, and treated Western comics and games with utter contempt. In short, I was exactly the kind of gamer who would’ve fallen in love with a Japanese strategy-role-playing/dating sim like Sakura Wars, So Long My Love.
But it’s taken 14 years for the Sakura Wars franchise to finally reach Western audiences, and I’m a different kind of gamer now. Sure, I’ll always love Japan, and I’m still generally amused by anime shenanigans (in small doses, at least), but it takes more than giant robots and a cadre of scantily clad, anime babes to get my attention these days. And that’s really my biggest concern when it comes to Sakura Wars. It’s not that it’s not a good game — it’s a very good one, in fact — it’s just that much of the game’s potential audience may well have outgrown the concept and moved on to decidedly more mature fare.

After all, don’t let the bare midriffs and heaving bosoms fool you — Sakura Wars is far from “mature.” It’s silly, slapstick anime in the vein of Tenchi Muyo! or Urusei Yatsura — complete with the requisite nonsensical plot that’ll make your head ache should you actually stop to analyze it. Shinjiro Taiga, the son of a famous Japanese Imperial naval general, finds himself whisked away from the rigid structure of an alternate-reality, 1920s Tokyo and into free-wheeling, steam-powered New York City. But this is no mere vacation; Taiga’s tasked with assisting an all-female, mechanized combat unit masquerading as a theater troupe. Needless to say, hilarity, hijinks, and anime babes with ridiculous, unlocalized names like Gemini Sunrise and Ratchet Altair ensue.

As you’d expect in a tale like this, Shinjiro’s got his pick of various flavors of coquettish, saucer-eyed ladies. And the trained anime observer will be able to spot most of these character archetypes before the girls even open their mouths: the aloof one (or the tsundere, to those in the know), the sweet one who just happens to have a comically violent side, the androgynous one (no, this isn’t Western hyperbole — gender-bending and cross-dressing play major plot points), and the Seemingly Unattainable Authority Figure.

Even though Sakura Wars’ in-game technology runs on steam, I’m hesitant to describe the universe as “steampunk” — “punk” is in decidedly short supply here. This world is cheerful, candy-coated, and cartoony — literally and figuratively. Like most contemporary anime tales, Sakura Wars relies heavily on stereotypes, from the character tropes to the oversimplified, idealized interpretation of America. Most depictions are relatively benign and inoffensive, but some players will surely cringe uncomfortably at the game’s rendering of Harlem, which takes a few cues from Rumble in the Bronx’s infamously outdated take on the Big Apple. Hell, I half-expected Tony and Angelo, Rumble’s laughably anachronistic West Side Story-inspired hoodlums, to make cameo appearances. And depending on your perspective, Sakura Wars’ over-the-top writing and voice acting will either add to the charm or detract from it; I enjoyed it, but some players will definitely have a hard time tolerating some of the characterizations — particularly straight-shootin’ Texas gal Gemini and her down-home drawl. If you’d like to opt for the Japanese-language track, though, you’ll have to jump on the first print of the PS2 version; the Wii release only offers English voiceovers.

Click the image above to check out all Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love screens.
Though it doles out the stereotypes at a blistering pace, Sakura Wars is a lot more complex than your typical anime story — not necessarily in its plot, but in the execution and structure. The game’s story arcs are divided into chapters, and over the course of a given episode, you’re presented with several multiple-choice responses to various plot points. But these aren’t one-sided, Dragon Quest-style conversations where “But thou must!” is the only acceptable conclusion. Sakura Wars puts you on the spot and demands a response within five seconds — with helpful sound effects indicating if your answer improved your relationship with a particular character. These split-second decisions almost make the game play like a bizarre anime incarnation of Heavy Rain at times. Your actions have ultimate consequences; sure, they’re fluffy, silly anime consequences — there’s no sinister Origami Killer lurking here — but these ramifications affect relationships with teammates, influence battle prowess, and ultimately alter the game’s ending.

To simplify matters, think of the story elements as Sakura Wars’ “grinding” portion. Instead of fighting alongside your comrades in order to level up, you’re flirting with them. Each story arc leads up to a sweeping, strategized conflict between two factions of giant robots on a gridless battlefield — and your friendship level with your various teammates affects how effectively you’ll partner up in battle. So, while Sakura Wars offers you the freedom to be cruel, it’s not really in your best interest. For example, I found certain characters extremely grating and wanted to respond sarcastically every time they opened their mouth, but I had to bite my tongue knowing that I’d need them on my side later on.

Click the image above to check out all Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love screens.
Since the majority of each chapter focuses on character interaction, combat comes in one lump sum at the end of each episode. And since you’re getting a chapter’s worth of fights all at once, this oftentimes results in some extremely……drawn……out……affairs. Thankfully, these epic skirmishes include helpful checkpoints, but expect to spend upwards of three hours (or more!) completing some battles. If you don’t have the patience to complete a fight in one sitting, though, you can always save midbattle and return to combat at the very second you dropped out, which affords you the opportunity to divide the mammoth confrontations into more manageable chunks.

With battles few and far between, then, your enjoyment of Sakura Wars really boils down to how well you can tolerate extended anime storytelling sequences. If you’re like me and find them more amusing than annoying, you’ll be perfectly content. Younger anime fans weaned on Naruto and One Piece may find some of the fashions and conventions a tad dated (and question how anyone could find early-’90s bangs attractive on a woman), but they should still enjoy the goofy interplay between Shinjiro and his harem.

But even if you’re a lapsed anime fan who’s long since tossed your grainy Tenchi Muyo! VHS fansubs in the trash, don’t simply dismiss this as glorified moe-infused fan service. Yes, the dialogue can be trite and vapid, but Sakura Wars goes much deeper than a simple “dating sim” — Western gamers really haven’t seen this mix of real-time, visual-novel storytelling and giant-mech strategy before. Besides, even if you’re skeptical, don’t you owe it to the 15-year-old version of yourself to at least give the game a shot?

 

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