Sakura Wars takes place in an alternate historical setting. In the West, most of our alternate historical fiction revolves around the concept of “What if Hitler had won World War II?”, so we can dwell on the drama inherent in a world worse than our own, but Sakura Wars takes place in a better version of history that theorizes what the world would be like if Japan took a global approach to making the world a safer, friendlier place. This includes the formation of theatrical troupes in Tokyo, Paris, and New York City that double as mech pilot teams trained to fight giant demonic invaders.
This is a far sight better than the real-life situation of nationalistic delusion that fostered unspeakable atrocities in China and Southeast Asia which strain Japan’s diplomatic relations to this very day. At first, I found myself shaking my head at this revision of history, but there’s something so sweet and sad about our young hero (a graduate of the Imperial Naval Academy) actually working to foster friendship and peace, that I could not help but buy in to the artistic vision of Sakura Wars.
So Long My Love is the fifth Sakura Wars game in Japan, but the first to see official release in America. The format is so unique that it warrants some discussion. Much of the game is based on character interaction. You work with a team of mech pilots and actors; you talk with them, they ask you questions, and you react to them according to the situation. How you respond to your teammates can either earn you points that increase the amount of trust between you, or cost you points which will stifle your relationship.
For instance, Saburo is an intellectual who likes a straightforward manner, Cherry likes flirtation and flattery, and I have no idea what Gemini likes because I bungled every interaction I had with her. Now, this isn’t as straightforward as it sounds, because a meter starts to count down as soon as a response is expected. As in real life, you need to be quick with your responses or people will assume you’re a slow-witted buffoon. However, not giving a response is also a viable option: sometimes if you just let the response meter time out, a hard look or a pregnant silence will speak volumes on your behalf.
So there’s a lot of character interaction. The character interaction doesn’t occur in-between moments of real gameplay – the character interaction IS the main game itself. While I was annoyed at first, mostly because everyone despises or looks down on the hero at the beginning of the game, it is fun to win everyone over. The characters and their relationships came to mean so much to me that I was nearly weepy and blubbery by the game’s end.
Sakura Wars has been described as a “dating sim”, but this is a bit of a misnomer, as you can only go on one actual date near the end of the game, if you choose to do so. It’s more of a “girl interaction sim” than a “dating sim”. In between the long stretches of gameplay that simulate what it might be like to talk to an actual girl, there are tactical battles in which you maneuver giant mechs through the city and battle against other giant mechs. At first these battles feel a little tacked-on, but eventually your abilities grow, and your team fills out, such that these battles become pretty epic. Strong relationships among teammates result in more powerful group attacks.
There are plenty of aspects for armchair generals to mull over: whether the leader should make the call for the team to focus on offense, defense, or a balanced stance, or how to divide up the team between areas in the larger stages, whether a character should blow through their volatile spirit points or focus on healing and defense, and so on. That’s not to say that the tactical options are as deep as, say, Final Fantasy Tactics, but they are not meant to be. The battles in Sakura Wars are quick, they are varied throughout each chapter, and they help to punctuate long sections of gentle character interaction with a little spice of violence.
The graphics are bright, cheery anime fare. Outside of a few nicely animated sequences, character interaction usually means you’ll be looking at a non-animated two-dimensional figure that changes periodically. This is apparently the norm in “dating sim” type games, which we don’t often see in America. While the character designs are interesting, the overall look does have a very “budget” feel to it. In fact, sometimes the camera pans across a wide shot of a building or street, but without any animation in the shot whatsoever, in a way that I’ve never seen outside of anime that has… well, a lot of tentacles and an “adults only” sticker on the cover, if you catch my drift. It’s not really something that’s done in quality animation.
Still, this format is not nearly as boring as it sounds. If anything, it’s great to interact with a game that feels like it comes from a new genre. I always found myself looking forward to each new chapter, or the familiar scenery of New York City’s various haunts, or the completely likeable characters either warming up to me or becoming incredibly enraged at my knee-jerk perverse responses to every situation. (Note: none of your teammates like it when you act like a pervert.)
As for sound, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that the soundtrack is very hit-or-miss. A handful of good tracks are weighed down by the fact that many combat scenes are framed by goofball music. When giant mechs go to war against demonic invaders, we shouldn’t be listening to something out of Grampa’s dusty “dance mix” record collection. Only the last few combat scenes are given appropriately dramatic music. However, these recurring moments of musical incompetence only stand out because of the many fine tracks, and great voice work, also available in Sakura Wars. There’s a recurring theme that plays whenever the team cleans up their act and makes a stand against evil, and this theme hits hard emotionally, especially as you grow closer to your team and begin to care about their psychological issues.
The voice work shines. Sakura Wars would be nearly unplayable if it did not because most of the game is about interacting with your team. Not every interaction is voiced; there’s a lot of text, which means a lot of reading, which means you need to be able to care about what you’re reading rather than just blast through the text in order to get to the “real game”, so anyone looking for the next God of War button-masher needs to put Sakura Wars down and run in the opposite direction. But interactions are often voiced, and they are voiced by talents perfect for each role. Mysterious Subaru sounds sometimes like an emotionally distant genius with occasional flashes of fanaticism; Cheiron is equal parts aggressive and overbearingly friendly; little Rosita is so cute and nonsensical that I had to assume she was brain damaged.
In short, once the characters grew on me, I couldn’t get enough of them. (I especially miss hearing little Rosita, who was obsessed with food due to being starved before joining the team, announce at the beginning of her special attack, “STEAK! POTATOES! BURGERS!!!”) Ironically enough, we are occasionally given glimpses of the team giving theatrical performances to packed houses, and these performances are laughably bad. Fortunately, it only happens often enough to be humorous rather than annoying!
Some gamers might take issue with the lip synching, or lack thereof, during character interaction. Sakura Wars does not have bad lip synching… it has no lip synching. Basically, when characters are voiced, their lips move completely at random. This is less a fault and more a creative choice on the part of the developers. This will be off-putting to anime purists who insist on listening only to Japanese audio tracks (but who do not necessarily speak Japanese themselves), which might be a problem because, let’s face it, someone who doesn’t like anime in the first place isn’t going to see Sakura Wars on a store shelf and think, “This is the game for me.”
Sakura Wars was brought to America with the hardcore otaku in mind. But, in terms of the lack of lip synching, believe me, you’ll scoff for the first five minutes and then you won’t even notice it at all. I promise: the lack of lip synching was a sound creative choice that helped bring Sakura Wars to America that much quicker, rather than adding another year of development spent fixing something that can’t be described as broken in the first place.
And really, none of Sakura Wars’ shortcomings are glaring flaws. I may have spent the first hour of gameplay twitching in my chair because of some of the more goofball moments, but the game won me over, and won me over completely. In fact, the worst part about So Long My Love is that awful feeling when you realize that there are at least four other Sakura Wars games that have never come to America. I desperately need to return to the warm and happy world of Sakura, but the best I can hope for is a second (or third) playthrough that takes advantage of Sakura’s branching storyline.
If only there was a way to have the other Sakura Wars games brought to America…
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.9 Graphics
Standard anime fare. Character designs are nice, if a little plain. 4.0 Control
Combat controls are a little overwhelming at first. Fighting the camera can be the greatest challenge; the inability to switch the x or y axis controls seems like a strange throwback to a time when gamers and game makers were not on a first-name basis. Otherwise the controls are forgiving and accommodating. 4.4 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Many combat scenes are hampered by goofy tracks that undermine the seriousness of the situation. Voice work is superb and really makes connecting with the characters that much easier. 4.6 Play Value
Thirty hours of gameplay is padded out considerably by a branching storyline and added combat features that open in a second playthrough. 4.6 Overall Rating – Must Buy
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.