Sakura Wars: For when you want a day off from feminism
Sakura Wars is the sixth entry in the Sakura Wars franchise because games companies are terrible at naming games sequentially. Although, the lack of number or subtitle does make some sense because Sakura Wars serves as a soft reboot to the franchise. I’ve not played any of the previous games so I’ll be reviewing this from the point of view of a reboot and as a jumping-on-point for the franchise. So, if you’ve never played a Sakura Wars game and want to know whether to give this game a shot, this might be the review for you.
Sakura Wars is an action role-playing dating sim. It takes the genres of action-adventure game and dating sim and slams them together with the ferocity of two particles in the large hadron collider. I personally find dating sims quite hard to review as they are, in general, terrible. Their portrayal of women as ditsy, weak girls who were completely lost until you, the strong male protagonist came along and solved all their problems is problematic at best. Getting romance as a reward for some basic human decency feels very icky. I understand that’s part and parcel of the dating sim genre but I’d like to make it clear that Sakura Wars in no way subverts that particular expectation of the genre, with the player character, Seijuro Kamiyama, eyeing up every woman he comes into contact with.
The premise of Sakura Wars is, to put it lightly, mental. It’s set in an anime-styled alternative Tokyo with a heavy steampunk aesthetic. The world is plagued by demons who regularly attack populated areas and wreak havoc, manipulating the fabric of the world and attacking anyone in reach. To protect the people of Tokyo, there are ‘Imperial Combat Revues’ who use giant mechs and even giant-er swords to fight off the demon invaders. So far, so sane, but this is where the weirdness is dialled up a bit.
From what I can tell, the combat revue that Kamiyama has been made captain of, The Flower Division, is 90% theatre troupe and 10% demon fighters. The all-female troupe (no point in any superfluous characters our straight male protagonist won’t be able to romance) spend most of their time as a theatre, selling tickets and putting on plays, with the rest of their time spent preparing to fight demons. Unfortunately, they are absolutely appalling actors so don’t make any money from their plays and can’t afford the upkeep and maintenance of their mechs, meaning they are also relatively ineffective demon-slayers. Gambling the safety of the population on your soldiers’ ability to run a successful theatre seems like an absolutely insane way to run a state military organisation to me, but I do find the way Sakura Wars leaves sanity at the door quite charming.
The dual focus on theatre and combat carries over to the gameplay, which is split into two alternating sections. The first section, which I’m going to refer to as Hugo Talkingsworth for brevity, focuses on the dating sim and role-playing genres. In Hugo Talkingsworth you deal with the theatre side of things, building relationships with the women in the Flower Division. Relationships are built using a LIPS system where you are presented with a situation and then have a few seconds to chose one of three options to respond with, usually one positive, one negative and one unbelievably sexually intimidating. If you chose the correct options in these conversations with the members of the division, you build up your ‘trust’ with them which determines their effectiveness in the combat sections.
The LIPS system is a little bit unpredictable, à la Fallout 4, where you’re only given a short, somewhat unrepresentative preview of what Kamiyama is going to say. It gives you some of the words but not the tone. The preview might say something like ‘It’s going to be okay’ where he actually says ‘Of course it’s going to be okay. What are you, some kind of moron? Why the hell wouldn’t it be okay? You should be ashamed of yourself.’ Hugo Talkingsworth is really a glorified cutscene where you occasionally have to walk from one place to another so the game can give you some more exposition or give you a LIPS choice. There is very little real gameplay in these sections so you’re really pining for the combat sections when they come along.
Unfortunately, the combat sections, which I’m going to refer to as Margaret McStab, don’t quite live up to the excitement you might expect from the ‘fighting demons in giant mechs’ promise made in the game’s description. They’re fairly generic hack and slash affairs which present you with several waves of enemies to fight. There’s nothing particularly unique about any of the enemies so all of Margaret McStab feels very repetitive and uninteresting, almost like she was added as an afterthought to fulfil the ‘action’ part of the brief when the game actually wanted to go down the route to being a full-on Hugo Talkingsworth. All in all, Sakura Wars’ approach to combat is similar to my mother’s approach to fixing any IT issue, you just mash a button until all the bad things go away.
The sensation of Sakura Wars wanting to be a pure dating sim that has completely done away with the combat is reinforced by the time balance given to the two types of gameplay. The first Hugo Talkingsworth section is a full 90 minutes long, which is a harrowing thing to sit through when it’s literally all cutscene. Compare this to the first Margaret McStab, which is only about 20 minutes long and not particularly engaging. The situation is compounded by the way the game constantly takes control from you to do a bit more cutscene-style exposition and dialogue, even in a Margaret McStab.
Considering the focus on Hugo Talkingsworth, I also found some of the voice acting choices a bit bizarre. The game is entirely in Japanese with English subs and for most of the cutscenes and in-game dialogue that’s how it’s presented – a character’s model is animated to be talking in Japanese, with Japanese voice acting over the top and English subtitles. Apart from sometimes. Sometimes there just isn’t any voice acting. The characters are still animating as if they’re having a conversation and there are subtitles but the exchange is completely silent. This is especially jarring when the change happens mid-interaction with a few minutes of a conversation being voiced, the next few minutes being silent and the final few being voiced. I thought this might be a glitch in my version of the game so I looked up some Let’s Plays, but, nope. It looks like it was a conscious choice to have some sections unvoiced, for some reason.
Overall, I think Sakura Wars just isn’t for me. If you like a game that’s framed as a long anime TV show with the occasion interactive section, this game is 100% for you. If you like dating sims for their depiction of ‘healthy’ relationship building, this game is 100% for you. If you’re more interested in a game’s aesthetic theming, art style and soundtrack than the gameplay, this game is 100% for you. Unfortunately, I’m none of those people so the appeal of Sakura Wars passes me by. If you’re a veteran of the genre, I’m sure Sakura Wars is a great example of an action role-playing dating sim. However, as a layman with no history with the franchise, Sakura Wars looks to me to have very little going on and what is going on is slow, drawn-out and low-key misogynistic.