Sega’s beloved cross-genre JRPG, Sakura Wars has finally made it back to the West on PlayStation 4. How does this modern, soft reboot play? This is our review of Sakura Wars, the 6th mainline game in the series.
Charming Characters & Level Design Make For A One-of-a-Kind Experience
Of all the JRPGs, RPGs, action-RPGs I’ve ever played, Sakura Wars stands alone as the most unique. It’s a strange amalgamation of an action-JRPG meets dating sim with musical stage performances and demons. To first-time players of the series, this seems like a lot to take in. Fear not, though, Sega made it very easy to understand by putting you in the shoes of a newly hired captain.
Sakura Wars is set in a steampunk-inspired 1940s Japan where demons have ravaged many parts of the world. In response to this threat, the powers that be formed divisions across various nations to protect major cities, called Combat Revues. Japan’s Imperial Combat Revue’s Flower Division, comprised of mainly young women, serve as both protectors of Tokyo and stage performers in times of peace.
This edition of Sakura Wars takes place ten years after the events of 2005’s Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love and those ten years have not been kind to the Flower Division. The theater has been hit hard by disastrous performances and lack of funding, which has caused their reputation to suffer. Disgraced Navy Officer Seijuro Kamiyama has been hired on to be the new captain of the Imperial Combat Revue, in an effort to turn things around.
As Kamiyama, you get a guided tour of the distinctive, but few, areas of the steampunk-inspired 1940s Tokyo to get you familiar with the environment, what’s going on, and who you’ll be interacting with. The game does its best to not thrust too much at you all at once. Rather settling for more of a slow, methodical pace. In fact, it was a good two hours of gameplay before I ever even got to any combat.
The meat of the 15-20 hour game is set within the confines of the theater itself, as you cultivate relationships with the charismatic, unique cast of characters. That’s where the game truly shines.
This iteration of Sakura Wars features a wonderfully, charming cast you can’t help but adore. The five main members of the Flower Division are Amamiya Sakura, the lovable optimistic swordsman and childhood friend of Seijuro, Shinonome Hatsuho, a shrine maiden with a no-nonsense attitude, Clarissa Snowflake, a very reserved member with a passion for books and magic sensitivity, Mochizuki Azami, a ninja who takes her missions as seriously as she does her sweets, and Anastasia Palma, the world-famous Greek actress whose sole goal is to give a performance of lifetime. There are several other characters, but these five are the ones you mainly interact with.
Sakura Wars allows you to get to know and build relationships with each of these characters. Grow the relationship well enough and gain battle perks, as well as, wooing certain individuals enough to even create very intimate moments. That’s where the dating sim part of the cross-genre comes into play. However, don’t go thinking that any of it is a walk-in-the-park. In fact, it’s very difficult at times to gain favor with any of these women. Luckily, Sakura Wars is very forgiving by creating several instances to make up for any incorrect responses.
As I said, though, charming these endearing characters is the main attraction of Sakura Wars and the sole reason for replaying the game to experience what happens next. Without any sort of combat difficulty option or New Game+, it’s the really fun cast that keeps you coming back for more.
Severely Lacking Combat Mechanics & Questionable VO Choices
For all its lovable characters and enigmatic whimsy, Sakura Wars is extremely lacking in its combat mechanics. Oftentimes, it felt like the combat part of the game was a late-addition to the game as almost an afterthought.
The format of Sakura Wars is split into two parts. Usually, the first part is reserved for the relationship building/story aspect of the game. Then, there is an intermission where the game allows you to see how your relationships have progressed. Finally, the second part tends to jump into a combat angle. For whatever reason, I thought the transition would feel more natural than it did.
Unfortunately, everything from the combat to the overall environmental design just lacked the same quality as the interactive relationship building part. Explorations on foot in the interactive part featured gorgeous, carefully designed areas. Whereas, the environments in combat felt limited and minimally detailed.
Furthermore, the controls were very basic, with most enemies lacking any sort of challenge. I found myself mostly sleep-walking through most of the combat, waiting to get back to the story aspect of Sakura Wars. That’s a real shame to say, because I went in very excited to control and fight in the mechs known as Spiricle Strikers. Unfortunately, the simplistic, yet clunky combat design made controlling them feel anything but exciting.
When operating the Spiricle Strikers, the game employs a simple button scheme where you form combos based on how many times you hit circle before hitting triangle. Most combat situations are then easily resolved by using the special attack ability that square initiates. The special abilities are very impressive and the best part of the combat, but if I had a nickel for how many times I accidentally hit it at the wrong times, I’d be Jeff Bezos rich.
Another part that took me out of Sakura Wars was the strange, unpredictable Voice Over decisions. The game features an excellent cast of voice actors that deliver their lines brilliantly. However, there are several moments in which the game suddenly opts for no voice and just text. This is usually something that happens in games with side quests or interactions that don’t matter, but it happens in key situations in Sakura Wars. It’s rather unsettling, at times, and very odd.
Artfully-Crafted Soundtrack That Stays With You
Switching gears to one of my favorite parts of Sakura Wars, the music. As Sakura Wars is a game that’s partly about the performances, you’d have to go in believing the music is incredible. I’m happy to report that it very much is.
The opening theme sets the tone for an epic, classy experience with incredible vocals and a symphonic orchestra that simply doesn’t quit. I can’t get it out of my head and I’m in no rush to evict it. From there, the soundtrack progresses from one classic to the next, as each performance features a new song to marvel at.
What’s more is that the music is still just as profoundly good as you’re running around the theater. Each distinct tone helped empower each situation, no matter how mundane. It’s all so good, it had me strongly considering purchasing the soundtrack.
Should You Buy It?
Sakura Wars is one of the most distinct games I’ve ever played. For some time, I had a hard time putting my finger on what the actual game was, but it’s simply a combination of a lot of things that make certain game genres great. What’s more is that it just has this feeling of elegance and grace. Don’t get me wrong, it has its doom and gloom, but all of that feels inconsequential compared to putting on world-class performances and saving the theater.
If you’re into JRPGs and have never played Sakura Wars, I think this game will be right up your alley. If only for the character interaction. The cast of characters is truly what makes this game enjoyable. Furthermore, the episodic format really makes it feel like you’re exploring an interactive anime.
All that said, Sakura Wars is very much an acquired taste. If you want a JRPG with combat that’s as excellent as the characters, then I wouldn’t recommend Sakura Wars. However, what I would recommend is at least checking out the new Sakura Wars The Animation series on Funimation to see if this is something you’d want to experience. It provides nice context and a good preview of the characters, even though it’s a completely different story.
Overall, Sakura Wars is a one-of-a-kind experience that has a ton of replayability, despite its 15-20 hour gameplay time. Its twists and turns are extremely predictable, there are plot holes out the wazoo, and the combat is lacking, but all those negatives are superseded by an endearing cast that you can’t help but care about and do all that you can to return the Flower Division to its former glory.
Big thanks to Sega and developer Red Entertainment for the opportunity to check out and review Sakura Wars. It’s available now on PlayStation 4.