Sakura Wars review – the most anime video game ever

Sega’s cult favourite mix of dating and giant robots gets a soft reboot and a rare Western release, but what’s it all about?

There used to be big plans for Sakura Wars. It started life on the ill-fated Saturn console, in 1996, when it was intended to be Sega’s answer to the Final Fantasy franchise. Western gamers may scoff at that thought, especially as the game isn’t really a role-player, but it went on to enjoy considerable success in Japan, with spin-off manga, anime, and even a themed café that lasted for a whole decade. Only one of the games was ever released outside of Japan though and there hasn’t been a new mainline entry for over a decade ago, so Sega has decided it’s time for a soft reboot.

Given how much effort Sega puts into ignoring its back catalogue, farming out successful revivals like Sonic Mania and Streets Of Rage 4 to Western developers, it does seem perverse that one of the few games they have deigned to make themselves is something as relatively obscure as Sakura Wars. Although to be fair, Sakura Wars is very Japanese, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else making something so distinctive in the same style – even though series creator Oji Hiroi is barely involved with this new game.

The obvious first question is that if this isn’t a role-playing game, what is it? Well, there are role-playing elements, but the game is primarily a sort of visual novel, mixed with a giant robot combat game and a dating sim. None of those aspects work quite as you might imagine though and nor does the idea that you’re playing the male leader of an all-female group of magical giant robot pilots, that also double as a musical theatre troupe. And yes, we know how that sounds.

Although the game starts rather awkwardly for a supposed reboot, with too little explanation for the game’s setting, the basic concept is fairly straightforward. Sakura Wars is set in a steampunk, alternative history version of 1940s Japan. But rather than war with Germany, the problem here is demonic invasion. That’s not too peculiar by video game plot standards but the game gets increasingly absurd as it goes along, pulling dei ex machina out of its hat with increasingly regularity, until you realise that despite playing everything straight it never had any intention of making sense.

You play as a disgraced Japanese Navy ensign who to his surprise is assigned as captain of the Imperial Combat Revue’s Flower Division, which insists that putting on a good show is just as important as fighting demons – something that the Singapore Division is having to do for them at the moment, as they’re so disorganised. It’s your job to buck everyone’s ideas up and not only fight the demons but take part in a worldwide tournament between all the different mech divisions across the globe.

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The game is named not only after the Japanese word for cherry blossom but also the character Sakura Shinguji, who is one of the members of the troupe and an old childhood friend. Although the series started off very much as a visual novel, with relatively few moving graphics outside of the cut scenes, this reboot immediately feels more dynamic, with small but nicely detailed 3D areas to roam around, in a manner vaguely reminiscent of Yakuza.

But one of the original influences for the series was Nintendo’s Fire Emblem and you can still see that to degree, in the way you manage your relationships with the troupe members.

The connection was also obvious in the original turn-based combat, but that’s now been replaced with a real-time system. Quite why we’re not sure, as turn-based is in at the moment, but the action and graphics struggle to impress. It all feels like something a PlatinumGames intern would put together in their spare time – complete with bullet time dodge effects – before being abandoned as too derivative and lightweight.

Although the combat is important to the story, and how your relationship with the team influences their ability to fight, it’s not really any fun in its own right and that’s a shame. The fact that it’s not a major part of the game means that its problems don’t affect it too negatively but there was no reason to try and add an action element at all if the developers’ hearts weren’t in it.

Rather than combat, the meat of the game is your interaction with the different characters, for which you’re given a choice of dialogue options that have to be deliberated over within a strict time limit. The option to offer up awkward compliments or ask one of the characters on a date is literally one of the first responses you can make, but while you can play the game as a creep the girls will almost always react negatively to your advances and you won’t get anywhere with either them or the game.

Romance is still a key selling point of the series though and if you’re able to establish a healthier relationship (which in itself seems a bad idea, considering not only their age but the fact that you’re supposed to be their commanding officer) they’ll start to open up about their back story and eventually concede to dating. If that all sounds a bit icky to you, it largely depends on how you play it and how you feel about 90s anime, the emulation of which is the whole raison d’être of the franchise.

It’s obvious someone has taken the team aside and explained how all this comes across to Western audiences and it’s clearly trying to modernise its approach, but at the end of the day all the girls are useless until you, the only man, come along. Most are unable to fight, sing, or have any degree of self-confidence without you encouraging them and while there may have been no intention to be demeaning or sexist, it’s not hard to read it that way.

Anime has always had an important influence on Japanese video games, and thereby the industry as a whole, but trying to make an ‘interactive anime’ is fraught with as many perils as an ‘interactive movie’. Anime are not interactive and so a lot of the game involves merely watching cut scenes or otherwise having only minimal influence on events.

But if you find yourself engaged with the story and characters that’s not necessarily a negative, as the graphics are surprisingly good and really do look like a real anime, complete with ad breaks. There’s no English voice-acting, and no voice-acting at all for more minor lines, but the text translation is good and we’re certain we would’ve chosen the Japanese voice track even if it was only an option.

Sakura Wars is very much an acquired taste but even if you take offence at its portrayal of women, and it’d be perfectly understandable if you did, we still find it a difficult game to hate. Perhaps it would be better with improved combat and a more diverse cast but for better or worse Sakura Wars is pretty much exactly what it wants to be.

Sakura Wars review summary

In Short: One of the best attempts at an interactive anime ever, although the nonsensical story, weak combat, and dubious portrayal of female characters will ensure it a limited audience in the West.

Pros: The presentation is 100% anime, with some surprisingly impressive graphics. Decent dialogue system and there’s an undeniable charm to proceedings, despite the game’s many problems.

Cons: The combat is poor and it’s only because there’s not much of it that it doesn’t bring the game down further. The lack of agency given to female characters may offend some. Pointlessly silly story.

Score: 5/10

Formats: PlayStation 4
Price: £49.99
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Sega CS2 R&D
Release Date: 28th April 2020
Age Rating: 16

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