Sakura Wars Returns with Flying Colours (PS4 Review)

The Sakura Wars (aka Sakura Taisen) series is possibly Sega's worst-kept secret, at least for us in the West. Most Dreamcast fans have probably encountered it at some point, but without the ability to understand the Japanese language, most have not proceeded further. This Japanese steampunk-themed tactical RPG series was a massive hit in its country of origin, spawning sequels and spin-offs, as well as crossing into other forms of media. As I'm writing this, the Sakura Wars multi-media franchise has surpassed over 4 million units shipped in Japan.

Despite the series' massive success, Sakura Wars was probably deemed too culturally-different for Western gamers, probably due to its heavy use of unfamilar (at least, back in the late '90s and early 00's), visual novel/dating simulation-style gameplay. The only Sakura Wars game from the original batch to be localised into English was the fifth game in the franchise, Sakura Wars V: So Long, My Love (released on the Wii and PS2). Most would probably agree that it wasn't the best entry the series had to offer, but hey, at least it was something. The series would then remain untouched for many years.
This was no small franchise. A big thanks to our very own Mike for the pics.
But Sakura Wars has stepped back onto the stage and into the limelight once again. Sega have blessed us with a worldwide (albeit, staggered) release of a flashy modern-gen reboot of Sakura Wars, exclusively for PlayStation 4. Developed by Sega's CS2 R&D department, Sakura Wars saw involvement from new and returning staff; including veteran Sega producer Tetsu Katano, director Tetsuya Otsubo and music composer Kohei Tanaka. Tite Kubo, the creator of manga ultra-hit Bleach was responsible for the designs of the main cast of characters. Guest artists BUNBUN (Sword Art Online), Ken Sugimori (Pokémon) and Shigenori Soejima (Persona) contributed their talents towards the designs of various supporting characters. It's clear from such star studded pedigree that Sega really pulled out all the stops for this one, and as an owner of a pre-order copy that turned up three days early, I'm happy to confirm that it resulted in a big success. If you're a fan of Sakura Wars, you'll be happy to know Sega have done the franchise the justice it deserves. If you're new to Sakura Wars, this is the perfect entry point.

Keep those stickers sealed, lads. 40 quid on eBay in 20 years.
The game takes place in 1940, in a fictionalised steampunk version of Japan's Taishō period, where teams of mecha-wielding heroes fight against demons that threaten peace around the world. You play as Naval captain Seijuro Kamiyama, who is transferred to Tokyo to lead the Imperial Combat Revue's struggling Flower Division. The Flower Division is a team of beautiful female mech pilots headquartered in Tokyo's imperial theatre. The team sucks at theatre performance, and are lacking the funds and skills required to really put the fighting force into their secret roles as Tokyo's protectors.

Despite being a re-imagining of a 23-year-old property, the plot of Sakura Wars is still one that deserves to be experienced by all, and excels when placed into a reboot that utilises all the benefits a fully 3D current-gen engine has to offer. Sega has taken a franchise that, while excellent, perhaps never had the chance to see its true potential due to the limitations of the visual novel-medium. 2D backgrounds made to compliment character art and walls of text have been re-imagined into beautiful, fully 3D environments that are fully explorable. Characters now move through these spaces in cutscenes that feature fluid, varied animations. The game looks stunning, and is highly polished, with not a blemish to be seen anywhere. 
The brand new cast in this re-imagining are fresh-faced and as charming as ever. No irritating one-dimensional anime-tropes are at play here. Each character has depth to them, and you'll have witnessed them at their best and most vulnerable only an hour in to play. The members of the Flower Division compliment each other with natural ease. Even Seijuro, despite being the main character in a game that places more emphasis on its female cast, is no one-note yes-man protagonist. Well, he isn't if you don't want him to be. That's where the game's traditional "LIPS" (Live & Interactive Picture System) system comes in. On many occasion during cutscenes, you will be given a timed choice on what to say or do. What you select can positively affect your respective relationships with the game's main cast of characters, building trust with them that serves to power them up in the game's battle segments. I'll probably get chewed out by some RPG nerd on Reddit for the comparison, but if you enjoy the relationship-building of RPG series like Persona or Fire Emblem, you're bound to love Sakura Wars - 'cause it has a lot of it. There's plenty of time spent away from the battlefield, and you'll be spending a lot of it getting to know your teammates better.
If I had to critique one thing about all this, it's that while a lot of the game's main cutscenes feature excellent Japanese voice acting, a lot don't. This wouldn't be a problem if the transitions between these scenes weren't so damn smooth. One second you'll be watching a scene of fully-voiced characters conversing, only to be swiftly transitioned into the jarring sight of character's lips moving without any voices coming out as you are introduced to what the creators deemed to be a "less-important" scene. In all honesty, I would've loved for the game to be fully voice-acted, but I understand that might not have possible to implement, possibly due to time or budget constraints. It just sadly results in a few really great scenes losing the true oompf that voice acting could have granted them.

The franchise's exhilarating mech battles have broken free from the constraints of the series' tactical RPG roots, allowing full, free-reign control of the Flower Division's mecha troupe as you hack and slash your way through hoards of enemies. While the tactical RPG battling of the original games was great, and this change might not be so welcomed by some, the new fully-moveable combat system is the liberating and fresh take on fighting that the iconic steam-powered mechs of this series deserve. While the fights add nothing new to the hack-and-slash fighting gameplay formula, they are flashy and exciting, and when combined with emotional morale-boosting story bursts, really tie everything together nicely.
I don't think I've waxed lyrical about a brand new release for a while, at least not as much as I have with this one. For once, it's nice to have my pre-release hype for a game realised. Sakura Wars definetly pulled through in that regard. In the moments I spent playing it, I felt like I had been reintroduced to an old friend I'd not seen in many, many years. It reminded me of the attention to detail and craft that Sega can output when they are working at their very best. And, at the risk of sounding like the biggest retro gaming boomer going, that's something we've not seen from them in quite a long time. If you feel what I'm saying, pick up a copy of this game. Send Sega a message.

Sakura Wars is out on the 28th of April. That's today! Are you thinking of picking up Sakura Wars? If so, will this be your first time with the franchise, or are you a long-time fan? Sound off in the comments, or let us know on Twitter


Unknown said...

Was on the fence with this one, now after reading the review I have placed my order. Looking foward to playing it once again.

Tom Charnock said...

Great review Lewis. I have never played a Sakura Wars game, but have only ever heard good things from those who have. This seems like a good entry point for someone like me with no experience in the franchise.

phillylou said...

Thanks for writing! I've seen the pink sakura wars DC floating around, but didn't have any idea what it was. I'll check it out!

Blondejon said...

I'll send you a copy of the Japanese saturn game mate