Inside Pulse 12

Review: Sakura Wars: So Long My Love (Playstation 2)

Sakura Wars: So Long My Love
Genre: Turn Based Strategy/Dating Simulation
Developer: RED Entertainment
Publisher: NIS America
Release Date: 03/30/10

Sakura Wars is a franchise that, despite enjoying a pretty decent amount of popularity in Japan, has never seen a US release of one of its games. The reason for this isn’t hard to understand, to be honest, as the games combine turn-based strategy combat, which is something of a niche genre, with dating simulation elements, which can be politely be described as “extremely niche oriented” as far as US acceptance is concerned. Sega has essentially chosen to leave the series in Japan due to concerns over marketability, and companies that translate third party games for US release have either lacked the funds to do so or have essentially told their fanbase to give that hope up (I’m looking at YOU, Atlus), leaving the series out of US reach unless you happen to be fluent in Japanese (hi Alex) or willing to follow a translation guide. Well, Nippon Ichi has decided to be the company to take the risk on the series, as they’ve brought Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love, also known as Sakura Wars V, to the US market on the PS2 and Wii. Alex already covered the Wii release of the game to see how it compares to the original PS2 release, but I wanted to look at the PS2 release of the game for a few different reasons. Partially, I wanted to review the game because I had been looking forward to its release for several months, and partially, I wanted to review the game because it looks to be one of the last great PS2 games to be released, which deserves some recognition on its own. Mostly, however, I wanted to review the game because I’d never been able to spend any sort of significant amount of time with the games due to their lack of translation, and I was interested in the cross-breeding of dating simulation mechanics with turn-based strategy gameplay. Listening to someone tell you how it works is fine and all, but sometimes it’s better to see it through your own eyes.

I mention this because, having not had any experience with the franchise beyond what others have told me about it, when I say “unless you’ve played Sakura Wars, you haven’t really played anything quite like this”, that’s not hyperbole.

Sakura Wars V casts you in the role of Shinjiro Taiga, nephew of major series protagonist Ichiro Ogami and all around inexpereinced nice guy. Shinjiro is elected for transfer to the New York STAR Division to assist them, as their team is apparently green as grass (not that Shinjiro is any better). Upon arrival, Shinjiro is essentially treated like an unwanted outsider until fate intervenes and forces him into the position of team commander when the present commander, Ratchet Altair, is injured in battle and essentially hands him the position. This goes over about as well as a mime at a Metallica concert, leaving Shinjiro with the unenviable task of leading a team of people who don’t like each other very much and like him even less into battle, all while trying to convince everyone that’s he’s actually a pretty decent guy. The story is presented like an episodic anime, with different chapters that focus on specific characters and a sliding scale of bad guys, much like a Sailor Moon or something similar, so fans of anime or more developed Western cartoons will appreciate the pacing from the start. The translation of the dialogue is pretty good, all in all, and the story in general is fun and well written all around, which is good because the game relies a lot on its story and character interactions. The nicest thing that can be said of the story, characters and dialogue in the game is that you will spend a significant amount of time reading text, processing story information and navigating through the plot, and it never really becomes boring or cumbersome in the least, which is to the game’s credit. The most interesting thing about the story, however, is that it mixes some surprisingly deep and complex concepts into its cheery anime storyline, making for a plot that doesn’t take itself too seriously but isn’t immature and inane. Put simply: Sakura Wars V has one of the better stories of any game released this year.

So long as you can get past the fact that everyone in both languages pronounces “Gemini” like “Jiminy”, anyway. I get that she’s supposed to be southern, and that the name is being pronounced weird for that reason, but it’s kinda silly that Red decided this was okay and NIS continued with it.

Sakura Wars V looks great artistically, and while its 3D isn’t entirely the best the PS2 can handle, it’s well designed and looks great. A good portion of the visuals are 2D models conversing with one another, which are well drawn and pleasant, and the animated cutscenes that pop up are also fantastic looking and meld 2D artwork with 3D models beautifully. The 3D in-game graphics generally look good, between the somewhat authentic 1920’s New York environments and the easily distinguishable character models, and the STAR mechs are well animated and quite pretty in motion. On a purely technical level, the 3D rendering in the game isn’t the best the system can push out, but on an artistic level, there’s a great amount of attention to detail present in the game that’s impressive and enjoyable. Aurally, Sakura Wars V is also pretty well set up. The PS2 version of the game includes both a Japanese language and an English language disc, so you can choose which you’d prefer, depending on if you’re a purist or if you want English dialogue. Both dialogue sets are pretty good, all in all, though of the two, the Japanese language track is the better choice, if only because the English voice actors feel the need to add the appropriate accents to their speech when acting, and this does not always come off in a convincing fashion. The music alternates between somewhat authentic sounding modernized period pieces and straight upbeat anime-style tunes, and while none of it is amazing, it works well overall and is fun to listen to. The sound effects are well produced and implemented and fit the game nicely, whether in battle or otherwise, and by and large, they all work rather well.

Though Sakura Wars V can be described as a hybrid dating simulator/turn based strategy game, the mechanics of the game only bear a cursory resemblance to those genres, at best. The game alternates between cinematic sequences where you plow through the story, free-roaming sequences where you visit different locations and chit-chat with the members of your party, turn-based ground battles and turn-based air battles as needed, and each has its own interesting and unique elements that make them different. The controls are easy to learn and understand across all of the modes, though the actual mechanics can be quite challenging as you progress. The X button acts as your typical “do everything” button, as it makes choices in conversation, interacts with people in free-roaming mode, commits to attacks in battle and so on, meaning you’ll spend most of your time using the button for just about everything. Moving around is accomplished with the left stick in all instances where you’re able to do so, and in locations where you’re able, you can rotate the camera with the right stick. The various different modes each have their own different context-sensitive controls in addition to the above basics, but most of these context-sensitive mechanics are, again, simple enough to figure out, and the game is often more than happy to explain how everything works in case you don’t get it.

Most of the game will be spent, oddly enough, talking to other people, as the game puts a large emphasis on your interpersonal relationships and how they affect teammate performance. You will literally spend about two hours conversing with your teammates and other NPC’s for every hour of actual battle you engage in. This might seem excessive, but once you realize that these conversations actively influence teammate performance, it becomes more obvious why you spend as much time as you do talking to others. Conversations usually play out along a specific path until you hit some sort of an interactive point in the discussion, which kicks in the LIPS system. LIPS, which stands for “Live and Interactive Picture System”, is essentially an interactive system that puts an actual challenge into impressing people, by making you complete things within a specified time limit. There are five types of LIPS systems that pop up, depending on the circumstances of the event in question. Normal LIPS actions pop up when answering questions or making decisions, and they simply present you with one or more options to choose from when making a decision or answering a question. You can also let time run out if you wish, which is actually beneficial in some instances. Analog LIPS actions work under the same basic rules as Normal LIPS actions, except that you move the left stick up and down to dictate the power of the action, in essence. This could change the tone of a response, the force of an action, and so on, and this can, in turn, influence the response of the person you’re talking to. Stick LIPS actions are essentially analog stick active time events that require you to press or move the sticks in various directions as a timer counts down, with each success filling up a constantly decreasing bar in the center of the screen to indicate how successful you are. Click LIPS are essentially scenes where you click on static scenes to generate different responses and LIPS actions from NPC’s, be they good or bad. Finally, Double LIPS events fill the top half of the screen with a long timer, which counts down as you go through sequential LIPS activities of different types, in hopes of completing all of the other LIPS events before the timer runs out. The LIPS system makes what would otherwise be static, uninteractive dialogue sequences interesting and challenging, giving a good boost to the dating simulation elements from the get-go and making the talking head sections more interesting than they’d otherwise be.

The free-roaming sections are basically less restrained versions of the normal story missions, where you can go talk to various NPC’s in an attempt to boost your relationships (and in some cases, resolve other missions) without a set path to follow. You can wander around through any of the unlocked parts of the city and visit various locations in them, either for random conversations or various LIPS events, depending on the time and the location. Each location you visit consumes five minutes of free time, however, and unless specified, you’re on a timer any time you’re in free-roam mode, so you’ll have to pick your visits carefully. You can also stop at various locations and take pictures with your Cameratron, which will also pop up here and there as part of the various LIPS activities you’ll be tasked to perform, as you’ll have to zoom and focus in a hurry to get the best pics. You can also visit the two shops in the Theater, which allow you to collect various pictures of the characters at different times. Anri’s shop allows you to collect promotional pictures of the characters, while Plum’s shop allows you to turn in pictures from around town for the new show programs released each month, in exchange for more… private pictures of the characters. You can review these photos from the options menu or while playing “Free and Easy Day in New York” mode, which allows you to review pictures and unlock new stuff, such as ringtones, costumes, pictures and even story bits, with passwords. A somewhat complete list can be found on the official website, but apparently even more exist, for those who want even more content for the game, and while very little of it changes the game notably, it’s a cute addition that adds to the game.

Sooner or later you’ll jump into combat, and while most turn-based strategy RPG fans will have a pretty good idea of how this works, the game has more than enough interesting mechanics to make the combat feel fresh. Character’s turns pop up in sequence, and on each turn, you can move around and attack enemies, as expected. Movement is free-form, so there are no grids to worry about, and instead of having a movement range, you’re instead given an action bar to work with. The action bar depletes every time you do something, either by one point for movement or various attacks, or by multiple points for special actions. Characters can attack up to five times in a row, if you repeatedly press the attack button, so you can choose to unload as few or as many hits as you wish. As your characters take damage, they build up their special bar, which can be used for Super Moves, which are high power special abilities, Team Attacks, which allow two or more characters to hit an enemy for big damage, and Healing, which allows you to heal an ally, yourself, or both for some characters. You can also have a character charge their special bar or block incoming attacks by devoting multiple points from the action bar if you wish.

Your team can also operate under three different combat formations, which you can choose on the fly, and each offers different bonuses and negatives. You might be able to boost attack power, for instance, at the cost of the ability to heal, or you might be able to move faster, and so on. Each combat style has its own uses, depending on how you play and your needs at the moment, making monitoring battle conditions a must. You can also ask teammates to help you, essentially moving them to your location and allowing them to start their turn from there, and you can protect teammates, which allows them to take no damage from attacks, though both options are limited, meaning you’ll have to consider those carefully as well. As you progress, characters will develop better relationships with you and each other, allowing them to perform better in battle and upgrading their Team Attack damage with each other, making the conversations you have with them important to your success. As the game progresses, you’ll find yourself switching between different areas in battle and switching from ground to aerial combat, where the mechanics are basically similar but the combat zone layout is substantially different, which helps to keep the battle mechanics feeling fresh. The strategy mechanics are very streamlined, as you won’t be spending any time equipping characters or acquiring items, but they’re engaging enough to make them exciting and the battles are spread out enough to keep the game from turning into a grinding fest.

The game can be completed once in about twenty to twenty five hours, depending on how much time you spend wandering around in free-roaming sections and how long it takes you to plow through the battles. Once you’ve completed the game for the first time, it allows you to carry over your teammate’s relationship levels, which means team members will start out thinking you’re awesome. This will allow you to play through the game multiple times with your powered-up attacks, as well as unlock all of the endings (six, as far as I know) with each of the female team members. For those who don’t know if they want to sit through hours and hours of the same dialogue, no worries, the game allows you to skip cinematics and dialogue on subsequent playthroughs if you wish, which can significantly cut down on play time for second and third plays. Completing the game one or more times also opens up more of “Free and Easy Day in New York” mode, allowing you to look over the various cutscenes and CG images you’ve seen, as well as take pictures of the various girls in different locations, among other things. The game keeps track of all of the events you see throughout the game, which allows you to unlock everything if you play through multiple times, so if you’re a fan of the story and the characters, the ability to go back and revisit your accomplishments in the game is pretty great, and if you’re a completionist, you’ve got something to strive for.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t note that the PS2 version of Sakura Wars V comes with three additional pieces of content that are absent from the Wii release. The first is a wall poster of obvious female main character Gemini Sunrise, which is a cute addition if you like wall posters. The second is a small art book that explains the personalities of the characters and the shows presented by the Littlelip Theater, which is pretty cool all in all. The third, and arguably the most awesome, is a disc containing the Japanese dialogue with English subtitles, meaning you have the choice between the English dub and Japanese dub, for fans who prefer one over the other. The gameplay is functionally unchanged between the two versions, mind you, so this is strictly a matter of personal preference, and you unfortunately can’t use the same game saves from one game to the other, so you can’t swap based on dialogue preference at different points, nor can you beat the game in one dialogue and then beat it again with the same data file. Still, it’s a great addition that not a lot of developers include, and these three bonus items together make the PS2 version of the game the far superior version overall.

Sakura Wars V, for all of its many positives, is flawed in one key area: appeal. Dating simulators haven’t been particularly well received in the US, and while many games have begun implementing elements of these sorts of games into their own products, such as most Bioware games, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Persona 4, those elements were side attractions, not the main show. As a turn-based strategy game with dating simulation elements, Sakura Wars V is essentially part of two niche genres that not a lot of people run out and buy, making it hard to recommend to people who hate one or both of the genres. Further, while the strategy gameplay is simple enough to understand for people who aren’t fans of the genre and paced well enough that less skilled players will get it, the game isn’t especially difficult and won’t provide any sort of challenge to those who love the SRPG genre, nor will it keep their interest if they don’t like the dating simulation aspects. The game is about telling a story first and being a game second, and while it’s a very good story that a lot of people will like, someone looking for more game than dialogue won’t be very impressed with the experience.

Still, when the worst thing you can say about a game is that it might not appeal to everyone, the game is probably pretty good, and that’s the case with Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love. Most everything about the game is fantastic, from the excellent story to the surprisingly solid graphics to the well presented and acted audio and beyond. The dating simulation mechanics are well tailored and designed to keep the game challenging even when talking to people, and the LIPS system is more than up to this task. The strategy elements are surprisingly in-depth and well implemented, and the gameplay is diverse and well paced, enough to keep even the most casual of dating simulation or strategy fans interested. There are multiple endings to see and multiple surprises to unlock, making this a game you can come back to many times without issue, and the additional content included with the PS2 release makes it easily superior to the Wii version in all respects. The game isn’t going to be for everyone, as its dating simulation elements might put off players who aren’t used to hours of talking between short battles (aside from Final Fantasy fans ZING!), and the strategy elements aren’t challenging or in-depth enough to be appealing to anyone who is a huge fan of the genre. Frankly, however, Sakura Wars V is a fun and well designed game in all respects, and it’s easily one of the best games released this year, as well as one of the last great PS2 games ever made. If you’re either interested in or willing to tolerate the dating simulation elements of the game, this is easily a game you’re going to love, and anyone who considers themselves a fan of RPG’s in general should absolutely check it out.

The Scores:
Story: CLASSIC
Graphics: GREAT
Sound: CLASSIC
Control/Gameplay: UNPARALLELED
Replayability: UNPARALLELED
Balance: GOOD
Originality: GREAT
Addictiveness: GREAT
Appeal: MEDIOCRE
Miscellaneous: CLASSIC

FINAL SCORE: INCREDIBLE GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love is probably the last great game the PS2 will ever see, and if this is the note the system is to go out on, well, that’s not so bad at all. The game is a real treat for RPG fans, between its engaging and well written story, its surprisingly pleasing and well designed graphics and its aurally pleasant and fitting audio. Further, the game isn’t quite what you’d expect by the genre, as the dating simulation elements are livened up by the time-sensitive LIPS system and various minigame elements that keep things fresh. Further, the strategy gameplay is easy to learn but often more diverse than some strategy heavy RPG’s, and the balanced pacing between dialogue and combat keeps either from getting boring. There’s a lot to see and do with the game across multiple playthroughs, and the PS2 version of the game comes with some nifty goodies as well that make it well worth picking up for anyone with the system, the interest and the means to do so. The odd genre mixing gameplay may put off players who are uninterested in the dating simulation elements, unfortunately, and anyone who is a huge fan of strategy RPG’s will find the strategy sections of the game to be less than challenging, but these are minor complaints compared to the massive amount of positives in the game. Make no mistake, Sakura Wars V is easily one of the best games released in the US this year, and it’s well worth your money if you’re even a little interested, as it’s something you’ve likely never seen before and may well never see again.

  • Samuraiter

    Considered the weakest game in the series by long-serving fans (myself included), but the formula is still gold, and we are glad to be able to see at least one of these games in the U.S. before the series disappears into permanent obscurity. (Sega has released no new Sakura Taisen since #5 and its immediate spin-off; there is a good chance that the series might be dead, but we will see.)

  • Mark B.

    First, as I don’t speak Japanese and don’t want to follow a translation guide for a game based entirely around conversations, as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter if the other games are better. If Atlus or Sega had decided to stop mocking anyone who asked about porting the games for longer than five seconds and actually done the porting of said games, than I might care, but as far as I’m concerned, this game was good times and NIS is the only company who deserves any money from this endeavor, so I’m basically pretending the earlier games don’t exist.

    Also, I’m of the mindset that it’s very possible the franchise may be on hiatus while RED looks into migrating to other consoles, so it’s possible a PS3 or 360 release wouldn’t be out of the question. If the US release does well enough, it’s entirely possible NIS may continue releasing the PSP and next-gen releases, and hey, if that happens, I’ll be a happy boy.

  • Samuraiter

    If it is any consolation, playing the previous games through a translation guide is very difficult, since the L.I.P.S. questions have to be answered in less than five seconds (typically), hardly enough time to look up the right answer. That, and different versions of the same game (DC versus Saturn, for example) may have the answers in a different order. Pain in the butt, says I.

    And I agree with your assessment. The U.S. fan base for the series has been handled roughly, and NIS America does deserve my money – $39.99 for a special edition upon release is excellent, IMO – for releasing this game. While I will certainly miss the other games and the original cast of characters, I will still play the heck out of this and thank my lucky stars I got it.

    After all, being the weakest game in a series does not mean being a BAD game. :-)

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