The cult 90s classic Sakura Wars is back after 15 years in hibernation, but has gaming left this dating sim granddaddy behind? Sam Brooks reviews.
Sakura Wars, a series which debuted in the 90s, revolves around an army captain who is assigned to a secret unit in the Japanese military, comprised entirely of women who utilize their spiritual power to pilot giant robots, while they also maintain a front as a takarazuka (all-women revue) theatre company. To make matters more complicated, the army captain has to wrangle the romantic affections of all the women in that theatre company, while defending his particular 1920s location (Paris, Tokyo, New York) from an onslaught of interdimensional demons.
If you made it to the end of that paragraph, well done! You are probably in the niche that has made Sakura Wars a cult hit in the west, and a huge success in its native Japan. You’re also probably well ahead of me on the fact that, after a fifteen year dead zone after the release of the fifth game (the bizarrely titled So Long My Love), the series is having a soft reboot, staying in the same canon but jumping ahead to the 1930s. But how does the slightly tattered formula of Sakura Wars hold up nearly 25 years after its debut?
The things that stay the same are the core elements; the theatre, the mechs, the demons. The previous revues have been locked in another dimension to prevent the Archdemon from coming back, and the protagonist, Seijuro Kamiyama, is charged with bringing a new squad of the Imperial Combat Revue up to speed. The shadow of the lost revues looms over him, and the new squad, as a subtle, welcome nod to the history of the series. It’s a game that is about remembering what is gone, while moving ever forward. The past success is there, but it means nothing if you lose your next battle.
The big thing that’s changed is the gameplay, and it feels like a feint towards relevance; reactivity over stateliness. The original Sakura Wars games were more visual novels, with turn-based strategy elements, but the reboot trashes the turn-based element entirely in favour of Musou-style gameplay; mashing one button for basic attacks, another for special attacks, and a third for super special attacks. It’s a strong foundation for future sequels, as it’s pretty hard to mess up that Musou formula, but it’s also very rudimentary. When it comes to the actual gameplay, if you put Sakura Wars against other games in its very own niche, whether it’s Platinum Games or the actual Musou series, then it comes up short. Let’s be real, though: nobody’s here for the gameplay, though.
No, people are here for the ladies. By which I mean, people are here for the characters and, to a lesser extent, the story. The highlight of the series has always been the character design, the writing and the performances; Sega has always had an uncanny knack of being able to define a character immediately, and make the audience fall in love with them. It’s not so much that you get onside with one of the women (your protagonist is, as ever, a blank slate ready for your projection) but that you get onside with all of them.
Even when they often fall into archetypes – the earnest First Girl, the brash fistfighter, the timid mage, the mysterious ninja, and the aloof foreigner – it’s surprising that Sega manages to fill them out with specificity and life. This applies to all the characters here, but none more so than Anastasia, the aloof foreigner who is brought in to bring up ticket sales at the theatre. Over the course of the game’s 15 hours, she breaks back layer upon layer, and the way that she is written with a high level of psychological plausibility, not something that I’d ever expect from a game like this, is genuinely rewarding. We believe why she does what she does, not just because the plot tells us she does, but because what she does, says and thinks does. It sounds like a low bar, but that’s more than you can say for a lot of video game characters. The affection from the women in this game is pretty much a given, but where Sega succeeds is getting the player to repay that affection.
The thirsty elephant in the room remains. One of the fundamental elements of Sakura Wars, arguably part of what made it popular, is that the dating sim elements are a core part of the gameplay. It’s not gilded on top of it, like problematic sprinkling, the better you do at courting the five women who you’re fighting with, the better they’ll be fighting demons in their giant robots. You know, just like women in real life. It wouldn’t fly in the West, where romantic elements in our RPGs are largely binary and singular, and where the shameless, adolescent horniness of a game like Sakura Wars is treated with outright derision. It’s hard to argue against that derision, given that this is a game that has multiple scenes where conversation prompts come from what part of a woman’s body the protagonist is looking at (the ribbon in her hair, her eyes, her hands, to name some of the least ridiculous and most socially acceptable). To say nothing of the bath scenes, a regrettable anime trope that should stay where they belong, in the mist, unseen by all except those who explicitly, inexplicably want to see them.
You can’t call it anything other than objectifying, but even so, and I loathe to give this a but, the actual romantic scenes are written better than I’ve seen many in the West. There’s actual attention paid to each character’s insecurities, their histories, and their prides, be it Anastasia’s family history, or another character’s fear of her tremendous magical abilities. The visual novel is not a form that inherently lends itself to well-written romance, but Sakura Wars has a history of doing it better than anybody else, even when it tips its hat to anime thirst and the genre’s perhaps obligatory objectification. When you gamefy romance, there’s going to be some objectification, some sense of goal-setting and goal-achieving. If you’ve a problem with that, chances are you didn’t get past the first paragraph up there.
On the other hand, there’s an audience whose every box is ticked by Sakura Wars, in any form. It’s the granddaddy of the dating sim genre, and perhaps the first example of a mainstream (to apply that term very loosely) series to not just integrate the elements of a dating sim, but start with those from the bottom up. It laid the road that games like Dream Daddy and the upcoming Best FriendsForever gleefully prance down, so it’s welcome to see the series return in 2020, even with basic gameplay and adolescent thirst. The series has always had a strong foundation, but it remains to be seen whether it’ll be able to build on that for future gains, rather than standing securely, safely on what’s always worked. The saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” but that doesn’t mean you can’t give it a new coat of paint, right?
Sakura Wars was played on a PS4 with a review code provided by the developer. It was completed once.
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