First and foremost, Sakura Wars is a dating sim. Don’t let that stop you though – it’s a darn good dating sim, and to up the manliness a bit there are also giant robots and SRPG battle mechanics. It took a long time for Sakura Wars to come to the US, and that makes sense. It’s chock full of wacky Japanese tropes that hang together just enough to skirt the line between ridiculous and wonderful. Originally a PS2 game, Overworks (who are responsible for gems like Valkyria Chronicles and Skies of Arcadia) has not only brought Sakura Wars to the west, but they also ported it to the Wii to appease those of us who no longer have a functioning PS2 or a PS3 with backward-compatibility.
So Long, My Love is unique. Despite being the most recent entry of the series in Japan this marks its first outing here. The narrative supports this very well. Shinjiro, the main character, is new to the US. As he is acclimating to life in New York you will be getting used to the controls and interesting meld of genres. Sakura Wars isn’t for the 15 minutes at a time player. I spent 90 minutes moving through text at the opening before moving into the battle tutorial. Sakura Wars is deep and rewarding, but you’ll need to humor it a bit to get started.
Instead of alternately watching scenes and kicking butt a la Valkyria Chronicles the dialogue in Sakura Wars is more interactive and a game unto itself. As conversations progress you’ll occasionally be presented with response choices (usually 3). Choose correctly and you’ll hear a chime and the “next” option. Choose poorly and the conversation ends and you’ve missed an opportunity to advance your relationship with that character. And this mechanic isn’t restricted to just one character. Most people you speak to keep track of how good you are at saying the right thing. Don’t sweat it when you get one wrong, there are tons of opportunities to flesh out your compatriots personalities. And you want to improve your relationship with each of your coworkers even if you don’t really care for story. As you get to know them and form stronger bonds you’ll reap the benefits in battle later. Stronger bonds mean Duo attacks, and you definitely want to use Duo attacks.
When you’re not busy playing the dating sim half of Sakura Wars you’ll be piloting giant mechs. Where do these mechs come from? They come from a giant ship called the Ahab that is launched via ballista from the bay doors of the Littlelip Theater (where you conveniently work as an usher) that nobody noticed. Really. I couldn’t make up things that sound this awesome if I tried. Your STAR (Super Telekinetic Assault Robot) runs on mobility (similar to AP from the Front Mission series). Moving, jumping, and attacking all cost mobility. The system is nice and forgiving, too – move back where you started and your mobility comes back. This is nice because it means that mobility is bound more to where you end up than how you got there. Mobility is also used to defend – you’ll need about 25% of your allotment remaining – or heal. Duo attacks use a different gauge called the Spirit Gauge (it’s like mana). These Duo attacks are available depending on who else is on your team and how much they like you (I told you the dating sim part was important). Spirit attacks also drain the Spirit Gauge, and these types of attacks are analogous to magic or summons, right down to the pre-rendered scene that plays out when they’re executed.
But that’s not all! When it comes time for a boss fight the more traditional SRPG mechanics give way to full 360 degree movement and elevation in the air. Bosses all have multiple attacks and weak points so their fights play out like a puzzle within the SRPG framework. It is important to prioritize targets and take out offensive weapons before hammering on weak points to protect your team and their STARs. Take out boss defenses and weapons in the right order and you’ll come away unscathed. Choose poorly and you’ll get to try the fight again – thankfully Sakura Wars checkpoints before milestone encounters so you’ll never lose a ton of progress by falling to a boss.
As the game goes on, something interesting happens. The characters become more than just talking portraits during cutscenes or caricatures to woo in any other dating sim. You’ll come to care about your team and get to know them as well-defined characters. Sure, on the surface they’re identifiable by common traits like hair and skin color, but each girl has a distinct personality and it is clear that NIS spent a lot of time faithfully translating the characters and dialog for a US audience. NIS has taken what may be the last high-note RPG for the PS2 and started what I hope is a pattern of high-quality RPGs on the Wii. You’ll play Sakura Wars multiple times, and it’s short enough to support that without feeling like a retread because of the sheer number of ways conversations can go and the choices that must be made about how to spend the time you have to wander around the streets of New York. If you enjoy SRPGs and branching dialogue that actually affects gameplay, then Sakura Wars definitely deserves a spot on your shelf.
Plays Like: Sakura Taisen, Front Mission
Pros: Highly replayable, interesting characters, big stompy mechs, huge flying bosses, strategic battles
Cons: Can be a bit overwhelming – particularly the dialog choices