Review: Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love (Wii)

Sakura Wars V: So Long, My Love
Developer: Red Entertainment
Publisher: Nippon Ichi
Genre: SRPG/Dating Sim
Release Date: 3/30/2010

Long time readers know that Sakura Taisen is my favourite video game series of all time. The cast, the animation, the battle system, the music and the relationships all combine into games that I would rather play than those in any other franchise. So of course when Nippon ichi announced that they would be bringing over a Sakura Taisen game, I was ecstatic. Finally, my friends and staff would get to experience not only my favourite video game series of all time, but Sega’s most popular and best selling franchise ever. Seriously – this thing outsells even Sonic the Hedgehog by vast quantities in Japan and it’s considered one of the “Big 5” RPG series across the Pacific along with Pokemon, Final Fantasy, Megaten, and Dragon Quest. I won’t waste time conjecturing about why Sega blew this opportunity for over a decade; instead I’m just going to thank Nippon Ichi for making one of my dreams come true.

Now the thing here is that we are getting the fifth game in the series, which acts somewhat as a standalone, although some concepts and characters will only truly make sense if you have played the previous games. Otherwise you are just thrown into a happy steampunk alternate reality 1920s filled with mechs and demonic furries. For those looking for a little more back story, you can check out my review of the Sakura Taisen Complete Box or my individual commentaries on Sakura Taisen 1, ST2 or ST3 from our old Saturn and Dreamcast features.

Now, as it is a bit odd for me to review a game I have played and beaten several times in the past five years (since 07/07/05), as if it was new rather than a retro game, I will be shying away from talking about the other games and comparing this to them. This is a straight look at how the game fares in its Wii port and whether it’s worth purchasing.

Let’s Review

1. Story.

It’s 1928 and you are Lt. Shinjiro Taiga of the Japanese Navy. You’ve just been transferred into the “New York Combat Revue, Star Division” courtesy of your Uncle, who is the leader of the Royal Floral Assault Division back in Japan. You may be wondering how a branch of the Japanese Navy is active in New York City, but it is more a joint project between the US (who runs the show here) and Japan (who has the experience with what this unit is meant to represent). You see back in Japan it was discovered that large cities have the ability to channel and empower emotional energy, both negative and positive. That energy also draws people to large cities which then creates an ever growing loop. However evil gods, demons and monsters attempt to use that negative energy for their own ends and that’s where the Royal Floral Assault Division came in. Under the guise of a theatre troupe, they would perform great theatrical works, which would creative positive emotion, thus acting as a buffer against evil-doer’s nefarious schemes. Then they would go out and fight the bad guys in their steam powered mechs of positive energy. No really, this is an alternate steampunk reality where emotional energy is as much fuel as gas or coal. Japan would then team up with France to help give Paris their own division and now it’s time for the USA of A to get its own troupe of sexy ladies who can channel emotion energy, put on a great thespian performance and kick ass – sometimes all at once! Much like your uncle Ã…Å’gami Ichirō, you are one of the few men that have the ability to channel enough emotion energy to power a mech, so you are roped into joining the New York division, who are more than a bit let down when they meet you as they thought they were getting your famous uncle instead. Now it’s up to you to prove your worth as well as sweet talk the ladies in the division so you can become a unified powerful force against evil.

Each chapter of the game is one to two hours of story that can be best defined as interactive anime or a dating sim. The story will go along and occasionally you’ll have to make dialogue decisions by choose one of three possible answers or not saying anything. The result will affect the story, sometimes drastically and each answer will also affect how one or more of the Combat Revue members think of you. At the end of each chapter is a multi-battle tactical RPG session and then each chapter ends with an animated preview of the next one similar to what you see at the end of an episode of an anime. You really should go into this knowing the game is 75% story/dating sim and 25% combat, but both are amazing and well worth experiencing.

A common complaint I hear from a lot of my female gaming friends and readers is how two dimensional female characters are. Even headliners like Jill Valentine or Lara Croft are accused of lack substance but thankfully you won’t find that in Sakura Wars V. Each of the Sakura Taisen games features some of the most fleshed out female characters in gaming. Some people might be put off by the term “dating sim” and think it means all you are trying to do is bed these women, but that is quite far from the mark. Each chapter is devoted primarily to a single girl where you learn a great deal about the character. You also don’t try to romance them as much as you are trying to get to know them and become their trusted friend and ally. Romance can happen, but it is definitely nowhere near the focus of the sessions where you interact with the girls. There is more depth to each of these girls than you find in the cast of most RPG’s and although it might be odd to be the only guy in a combat division in a 1920’s military situation, but it is no more odd than piloting steam powered robots with numchaku or missile launchers while you are fighting demon furries.

To be honest, there is nothing like Sakura Wars: So Long My Love in English, both in terms of gameplay and story. In fact the only negative thing I can say about the story is that the characters aren’t as memorable or awesome as the games that take place in Paris or Tokyo. I love Diana, Ratchet and Gemini, but had no emotional attachment to Cheiron, Rosarita or Subaru. Overall, this was my third time through the game (first in English) and I still found the cast crew and story to be better than 95% of the
RPG’s I’ve played through in the past few years. If you’re really looking for a character driven RPG, you’ll have to try really hard to find one in English that does it to this degree (or this well).

Story Rating: Great

2. Graphics

You would think that a five year old game that has been ported from the PS2 to the WIi would take a big hit here. After all, this was a game in the mid-life of the previous console generation. Well, the truth is that for 2005, Sakura Wars V was one of the best looking games on the PS2 and so large chunks of the game have aged exceptionally well. This is especially true of the animated cut scenes which at times look almost high definition of quality. To be honest, these anime scenes look almost high definition at times and in terms of animation quality, this is arguably amongst the best you will find on the Wii. The same can be said for the static images of each character. You won’t get a lot of animated visuals during the story scenes or dating sim parts, but what you do get are beautifully looking character portraits with a wide range of emotions and visuals. Now some gamers will no doubt be disappointed by the lack of actual moving graphics in these scenes, but this is very common place for most dating sim titles.

What hasn’t aged very well are the in-town graphics. The visuals for when you are walking around The Big Apple are very dated for a current console generation game, but at the same time, it still looks better than the majority of titles I have played for the Wii since it came out. That’s kind of sad when a game that looks old on the PS2 still looks above average for Wii titles. Still, that only helps this game out since we are reviewing the Wii version here.

The battle graphics are still enjoyable and although they are obvious early PS2 visuals, the detailing of the backgrounds and the large bosses you’ll have to fight hold up even five years later. What they lack in 2010 quality, they make up for in original character design and innovative locations for a battle. Your first few battles will be around the Statue of Liberty for example.

Overall, the game is a bit bi-polar as some of the visuals like the animation and portraits look as if they are from a PS3 or 360 title, while the in-town walking around graphics definitely show their age. At the end of the day, even with bits of the game looking dated, the overall package is still better than the majority of titles released for the Wii which either shows how high quality Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love is…or how bad and numerous the Wii’s shovelware is.

Graphics Rating: Above Average

3. Sound

Now unlike the PS2 version, which comes with a disc featuring the Japanese voice overs as well as the US dub, the Wii only gets the North American voice cast. Why a system on life support got the bonus materials and the dual disc set and the most popular console in the world only got a no frills edition escapes me, but it’s probably because the PS2 has the original and this is just a port. I’m sure the lack of the Japanese cast is reason enough for many people to eschew this version and go right for the PS2 version, but for those of you without a PS2 or the 60 Gig awesome version of the PS3, take heart as the US voice cast is actually…pretty good. I mean sure, I’m annoyed that everyone seems to pronounce Gemini, “Gem-in-knee,” but that is more a director’s choice than everyone, including the actress playing Gemini somehow being unanimously unable to pronounce the word right. I found the entire cast to be quite enjoyable and I’ve been playing the Japanese only Sakura Taisen games for over a decade. If I could enjoy this even though I knew what the Japanese cast sounds like, then people brand new to the series will enjoy it just as much, if not more. The only actor I took issue with was Gemini’s and that was more how irritating the version of the Southern Accent she used was rather than her skill as an actress. My favorite was probably Ratchet, which made me happy as her voice actress was my favorite in the Japanese version as well.

So we have a solid voice acting cast, but the music just blows them out of the water. The soundtracks to the first two Sakura Taisen games are easily in my top ten of all gaming and the main theme song is tied with Persona 2‘s Velvet Room Operetta as my favourite track from gaming. It was great to see the later as a wordless background track in several scenes and at times I just closed my eyes and remembered back to being a wide-eyed youth being blown away by the Sega Saturn versions of these games. The entire musical score is amazing and again, even though the game is technically five years old, it’s head and shoulders above most RPG’s released since then, as well as many other games. Truly, this is a game that deserved to have a soundtrack released with it, and yet the special edition didn’t come with one. Why are you so cruel Nippon Ichi?

Special effects and in game noises are equally well done. Whether it’s a giant mech walking around and hitting someone with a razor fan or a giant floating clown shaped robot shooting lasers at you, it all sounds great.

Again, the only real complaint I can make here is that the Wii got shafted on the Japanese voice tracks, but thankfully the US cast does a stellar job. That and I wanted a soundtrack. Insert sad face here.

Sound Rating: Classic

4. Control and Gameplay

The first two Sakura Taisen games were closer to a typical SRPG in terms of combat. The third and fourth games would use what was called ARMS which stands for Active Real Time Machine System. The dating sim parts of all four games used what was known as LIPS, or Live Interactive Picture System.Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love follows the later two games in that it uses LIPS and ARMS, but in porting the game to the Wii, somethings were changed, such as moving the control scheme from the Dual Shock 2 to the Wii’s Wiimote and Nunchuk. The Wii version also supports a Classic Controller scheme, but oddly enough, even though it should have the same layout as the Dual Shock 2, some things simply don’t work in the LIPS parts of the game, leading me to wonder how this got past Quality Control.

Let’s tackle the lips system first. For the most part, LIPS will occur when your character has something to say to a girl. You’ll have one of three choices, or you can choose none of the above and stay silent. Each choice (or non-choice) will elicit a different response from the girl and depending on the scene may open up or close off sections of the game to you. Although it seems pretty shallow with its multiple choice type test setting, LIPS is exceptionally deep as it keeps constant track of what each girl thinks of you and each choice you have previously made to ensure what paths branch and which do not.

LIPS variations include: Double LIPS (Where you have to answer a series of questions or choices in rapid-fire succession), Stick Lips (Where you use the control stick and the D-Pad with the Wiimote and nunchuk or the two analog sticks on the classic controller by pointing them in certain directions or performing fighting game type maneuvers with them), Analog LIPS (where you crank the analog stick to show how loud or quietly Shinjiro is talking), and Click Mode (where you will move a cursor around and click on things to trigger discussion topics. All of this works fine with the Wiimote and Nunchuk, although it does feel a bit awkward at times. It almost feels like the game is meant to be played with the Classic Controller, and since it IS a PS2 game, it kind of is. The problem is that Analog LIPS and Click Mode have severe issues when you try to use them with the Classic Controller. The analog sticks on the Wiimote have issues performing the analog stick aspects in Analog LIPS, which is odd as they are ANALOG STICKS after all. The other is that in search mode, you can’t use one of the analog sticks to search the area (or girl). The game simply doesn’t recognize the sticks and thus the cursor will not move. Instead you’ll have to use the Wiimote to move in these bits, which of course defeats the whole point of using the Classic Controller. Why and How Nippon Ichi managed to mess up what should have been a straight control port from the Dual Shock 2 to the Classic Controller is beyond me, but it’s rather sad. As well, younger gamers using the Classic Controller will get frustrated as the game will only ever show instructions for using the Wiimote and Nunchuk controls and so those controls will constantly be on your screen instead of Classic Controller versions. As such, you’re probably better off sticking with the Wiimote and Nunchuk controls, as weird as it may seem to someone who has played the games on the Saturn, Dreamcast or PS2. Still, aside from the Classic Controller issues, the game plays quite well and the basic nature of the controls are simple enough for anyone to learn.

Then we have ARMS which may confuse a lot of RPG fans at first. Remember when Phantom Brave and Makai Kingdom did something truly awesome in jettisoning the grid based system 99.99% of SRPG’s use? Well Sakura Wars V takes that one step further by jettisoning something else – experience points and leveling up. Now don’t freak out. True strategy fans should be salivating at the mouth about this because it really gives you a chance to see how tactically brilliant you really are. This system is also similar to what can be found in the Slayers Royal games except that still has a grid.

Basically the power of your characters and their attacks in the battle scenes are controlled by all the conversations and simulation bits. Remember, the basis of this game is that emotions and positive energy rules the day, so the better your bonds are with your comrades, the more powerful they will be. Shinjiro will gain new abilities and commands, and the girls will be able to do more powerful attacks and have more spirit energy. In other words, Sakura Wars isn’t ROLL-Playing like a tabletop hack and slash game or an action RPG, but it is true ROLE-Playing where the crux of the game is on character and relationship development.

During battles you’ll be able to control what you do through the mobility gauge at the bottom. With each action you take, be it move, heal, attack or defend, the bar will go down. You can also do any action in any order, as long as you have enough of the bar. Once done, the game moves on to the next character be it protagonist or antagonist. At the end of each battle, you’ll be healed up to your normal starting HP and Spirit and you’ll either start the next stage of one, or the chapter ends, depending on if there is a boss battle or not.

Each character has a special attack that shows off their personality and skills. There are also joint attacks where two characters combine for extra damage and has a special trust improving ability called “Protect” that well, protects a fellow member of your squad from damage. Strategy RPG fans may mourn the loss of spells and levels, but everyone will love how accessible and easy the ARMS system is to understand and yet be impressed with how deep combat truly is, especially in the latter chapters of the game.

Overall the Wii version of the game does have two noticeable control issues if you are using the Classic Controller, but the Wiimote and Numchuk combo work just fine even if it takes a bit of getting used to after my years with the Sega Saturn and Dreamcast versions of this game. The PS2 version will give you a better overall gameplay experience, but Wii owners can enjoy the same quality experience, albeit to a slightly lesser degree.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Good

5. Replayability

Not only are there a half a dozen possible endings for the game, but the sheer amount of options and paths you can encounter through the LIPS portion of the game ensures you can play Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love over a dozen times and still encounter new paths or commentary. There is so much to see and do in this game and it is hard not to love these characters, so whether you are a long time Sakura Taisen fan like myself, someone new to the franchise or a casual gamer who hasn’t really touched SRPG’s due to how complex they can be, you’ll be able to put this in and love it.

Replayability Rating: Great

6. Balance

The funny thing about Sakura Taisen is that the game runs the full gambit of balance. It can be exceedingly hard, exceedingly easy or somewhere in between. It’s all about the relationships that you form with the rest of your team. The better you get on with everyone as well as manage the trust they have for each other, the more powerful your team will be and the better time of things you will have. If you continually piss the ladies off, well, good luck with those final battles kemosabe!

Now keeping your teammates happy doesn’t mean wooing sex or being amorous towards them. Each one has their own distinct personality and you’re going to have to keep them in mind as what earns the respect and/or admiration of one might do the opposite for another. An example is that Gemini is a romantic and passionate about all things while Cheiron is a stone cold lawyer that deals only in black and white. Sentiment and poetry might work with Gemini but it will piss Cheiron off. It’s a matter of psychology and truly knowing your partners that will allow you to save the day.

I love games that actually let you role-play and where plot factors into the eventual battles. You see so little of this in RPG’s be they Western or Japan and no one does it better than RED’s Sakura Taisen series. Battles can be challenging even if your partners are happy and newcomers to SRPGs or RPGs in general will find the battle system easy to understand and will no doubt love the LIPS sections of the game. It’s hard to think of an SRPG that is balanced this well simply because this subgenre is usually geared only for long time fans of it these days rather than bringing in new gamers. Well, here’s your gateway drug kids.

Balance Rating: Unparalleled

7. Originality

As I said at the beginning I have to look at this primarily as a new North American release and not with my experience having played all five games in the series along with the spin-offs and the like. This actually helps out Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love as I can’t say, “Oh well Game X in the series did aspect Y better,” because honestly, 99% of you reading this will never play game Y.

With that said, you have never experienced anything that comes close to the Sakura Taisen franchise and you probably never will. A game that takes place in a alternate universe during the Roaring Twenties with a Steampunk but bright and shiny twist that involves using plays and musical numbers to harness the positive mental energies of a cities so your giant mechs can go kill furries is so outside anything that has been released in North America that you have to try it just to say you experienced something this crack-tastically awesome. Even better the game is rock solid and a lot of fun to play. It’s just a mix of so many concepts and genres, but it does each piece better than most titles that stick to that entire genre for the full game. THAT’S how impressive a Sakura Wars game is and as this is the first to hit North American shores, I can honestly say it is unparalleled with its innovation, gameplay and style on these shores. I guess if Nippon Ichi ever brings over the other four, this would be the first time a sequel would get a higher rating in this category from me than the earlier titles.

Originality Rating: Unparalleled

8. Addictiveness

Once again, my prior experience with the series comes into play because I have A) already beaten this game twice before so this was a third go-around for me and B) I feel this is the weakest game in the series. With those two things in mind, obviously I wasn’t as glued to my screen as I would be if this had been a first run new release for me. Still, I loved my time with this and really enjoyed being able to play (and hear) the series in English for the first time.

For people new to the series, I think they’ll really like what they find here. Straight SRPG fans who fear change might hate that the majority of the game is story and dating sim, with the SRPG bits only coming at the end of the chapter, but most gamers will find the plot progression, multiple short stories that combined to form a larger overall arc and the many different way LIPS come into play while finishing each chapter off with a series of intense but accessible SPRG battles will keep gamers saying, “Oh, maybe I’ll just play one more chapter…”

Addictiveness Rating: Good

9. Appeal Factor

The great thing about the Sakura Taisen series is that unlike other “Big Five” JRPGs that tend to cater to a specific niche, this franchise has a wide cross-demographic appeal. The same will be true here in the US. SRPG fans will love the fresh take on combat and find the dating sim aspects engaging and interesting. Western RPG fans will be impressed by how story driven the game is and that the focus is only actual role-playing, even moreso than most RPGs developed on this side of the Pacific. Diehard RPG fans will just be happy to see one of the most popular and critically acclaimed franchises ever finally hit North American shores and Wii owners will be happy to finally have another truly solid RPG title for their collection.

The really important thing worth noting is that casual gamers will adore this. You know the ones. The gamers that love point and click adventure titles where you pick dialogue bits via the mouse. The ones that play hidden object games for the stories (that are admittedly quite good most of the time). The ones who playing things like “Real Life High School” or whatever it is called on their cell phones. The getting to know your teammates via the dating sim aspects will be appealing to casual gamers because they’re getting a solid story without any real challenge or complex gameplay. The LIPS mini-games are varied enough that they will enjoy them and the battles will be a great introduction to full on RPG’ing. This really is a package that pretty much any gamer can love. Some of you might even be thinking, “But I’m a girl and Japanese games tend to be rather sexist and portray women as stereotypes or two dimension characters.” You’ll leave Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love impressed with how deep each woman in the game is, and how they are fully fleshed out as people and teammates first, and possible romantic interests a far second.

Bottom line – I have yet to meet anyone that hasn’t at least respected the level of quality and creativity in this series, even if they didn’t gush over it. If you have a Wii (or PS2), then you need to buy this and it will be worth every penny.

Appeal Factor: Great

10. Miscellaneous

So, not only has Sakura Taisen finally hit North American shores (with no help from Sega – those jerks!), but we North Americans are the first to get the game for the Nintendo Wii (even before Japan!) and it’s at a budget price of $29.99, when even at five years old in Japan, it would be worth a full retail price. If you want the PS2 version, it is only ten bucks more and you get a collector’s edition and the Japanese voice cast along with the original control scheme. That’s an awesome deal too! Best of all, you can even get most of the bromide codes off the official website for the game, letting you ooh and ah at all the characters in dynamic poses. This my friends is a glorious day for all gamerkind and hopefully, if the game sells even a fraction as well as it did in Japan, Nippon Ichi will be kind enough to bring over the first four games in the series so you can all meet Sakura, Sumire, Iris and the rest of the Flower Division.

As both a critic and a long time fan of the Sakura Taisen series, getting Sakura Wars: So Long, My Lovebrought to the US is one of the best things to happen this year. And just think – if you liked this game at all, you’ll love the Tokyo and Paris casts even more. Some day my beloved Teikoku Kagekidan. Some day…

Miscellaneous Rating: Unparalleled

The Scores
Story: Great
Graphics: Above Average
Sound: Classic
Control and Gameplay: Good
Replayability: Great
Balance: Unparalleled
Originality: Unparalleled
Addictiveness: Good
Appeal Factor: Great
Miscellaneous: Unparalleled
FINAL SCORE: INCREDIBLE GAME!

Short Attention Span Summary
The Sakura Taisen series is considered to be one of, if not THE best, RPG series of all time when it comes to consistent levels of excellence and nothing showcases that aspect more than when Nippon Ichi can take a five year old PS2 game, port it to the Wii and have it outclass every other RPG for that system. It also manages to be one of the best RPG’s released in 2010 so far, as it sports one of the deepest and fleshed out casts in a JRPG that has actually made it to US shores. It also features one of the most innovative SPRG engines ever and the animation sequences are so good a passer-by might think they are PS3 or Xbox 360 worthy. Now that doesn’t mean the game is without its flaws. Some in game graphics are terribly dated due to the game’s original age, and the Classic Controller has a few issues when it comes to the LIPS sections of the game, leaving you with the Wiimote and nunchuk as your best option even though it’s a bit awkward to those of us who originally played the game on the PS2. In this case, remember for ten dollars more, you can pick up the Collector’s Edition on the PS2 and also net yourself some nifty items and a second game disc sporting the Japanese soundtrack. Even if you don’t have a PS2, you’ll be more than happy with the Wii version and it’ll be the crown jewel in that system’s RPG collection.