The Sakura Taisen franchise is a bit of an oddity. For a long time, it was one of Sega's most popular franchises, but it was also exclusive to Japan. This is most likely because the content was fairly unusual, and Sega understandably didn't think it would sell in English-speaking countries. Fans in the U.S. got a few translations of Sakura Taisen anime and manga, but none of the games. When the last Sakura Taisen game, Sakura Taisen V: Saraba Itoshiki Hito Yo came out in 2005 without the slightest sign of translation, many gamers assumed it would never happen. This theory was bolstered by the fact that the franchise went into pseudo-retirement afterward. It's somewhat of a surprise that, many years later, English-speaking gamers are finally getting their first taste of the Sakura Taisen games, thanks to NIS America. Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love is the long-awaited translation of Sakura Taisen V, and while it may be a bit late, it is something that fans have been demanding for a long time.
Sakura Wars takes place on a world that is very similar to our own, except it has magical steam-based technology. As a result, most countries have special defense forces that use steam-driven robots, which are powered by magical spiritual energy to protect them from the forces of evil. For reasons too complex to explain here, when they're not defending the country, these combat forces disguise themselves as actors and actresses and pretend to be the stars of musicals. Sakura Wars opens up in the 1920s in America, where a young Japanese boy named Shinjiro Taiga is assigned to the New York Combat Troupe by his uncle. Unwelcome by the other members, Shinjiro must struggle to prove himself, a task made all the more difficult by the constant attacks on New York by a mysterious band of demons. When the troupe's leader is injured in combat, Shinjiro is placed in command of the all-female squad and must protect New York from the forces of evil.
The majority of your time in Sakura Wars is going to be spent helping the various members of your team with problems. Each of the early chapters is dedicated to the story of one of the girls on your team. Since their spiritual energy is directly connected to their emotional and physical well-being, you must make sure that they are fighting fit when the enemies attack. This is generally done in the style of a visual novel. You control Shinjiro as he travels to various places in New York City and triggers events that influence his relationship with the other troupe members. These events, which mostly consist of dialogue choices, will change how the other characters feel about you. The correct choices will make them like Shinjiro more, and in turn, be more willing to fight alongside him. The wrong choices can make them angry or upset, and this impacts their combat ability. It is up to the player to determine each girl's unique likes and dislikes in order to make the right choices in every situation.
The major difference between Sakura Wars and another role-playing game like, say, Persona 3 is that your dialogue choices in Sakura Wars are far more interactive. With a few exceptions, you're given a time limit to pick between dialogue options, and depending on the severity of the situation, this time limit can vary. For example, choosing how to compliment one girl's cooking has a fairly lenient timer, but choosing to dodge a sword attack requires you to pick quickly. Failing to pick the option in time causes you to say or do nothing, which is effectively a fourth choice you can make. Failing to do anything isn't always bad thing, though; sometimes you need to know that keeping your mouth shut is what will make someone happy. There are also certain dialogue choices that alter depending on what you've done in the game and how characters feel about you. Visiting a certain location may open up a new dialogue choice later in the game, or a character make react angrily to flirting if she dislikes Shinjiro but positively if she already fond of him. Your choices have a tremendous impact on how the game plays out and can even alter the outcome of some events. Unsurprisingly, these choices will also determine which of the game's many endings you'll get.
In addition to the dialogue choices, you will occasionally play special mini-games. One scenario tasks you with a mock swordfight with Gemini, and in order to fight her, you have to move your analog sticks in the directions mentioned on-screen. The faster you are, the better you'll do, and your character is graded based on how well he succeeds at these mini-games. Doing well at mini-games usually benefits you, but there are times when you may upset your partner by showing her up. Much like the dialogue choices, sometimes failure is the best option. Other mini-games task you with taking pictures of the characters, trying to solve a timed puzzle, or various other chores. Talking to the various characters in the game requires a lot more interaction and input than gamers may expect from a text-heavy RPG. Sakura Wars is the first RPG I've played where picking a dialogue choice requires fast button-pressing skills, and it takes a bit of getting used to.
Once in a while, enemy forces will attack New York, forcing your team to launch in its steam-driven STAR mecha. The combat sequences play out like a turn-based strategy game in that every action your units can take in combat is governed by their movement meter. You can move freely around the battlefield, but every time you move a certain distance from your starting point, you'll use up some of your movement bar, which is also used to govern the sort of attacks you can use. Anytime you attack the enemy, you'll use up a segment of your bar, up to five at once. The more consecutive times you attack, the more bar you use up and the more powerful the attack will be. If you spend too much of your bar moving your character into position, though, you'll be unable to mount an effective offense. You can also spend part of your bar to put your characters into a defending mode, which reduces the damage they take.
Each character also has a Spirit bar, which measures the available amount of magical energy, or SP, that she has. SP is regenerated naturally when an enemy damages your characters, but you can also regenerate some SP by spending part of your movement bar. Keeping your SP high is crucial to defeating the powerful boss foes, as regular attacks just don't cut it against these heavily armored behemoths. Everyone begins a level with a full Spirit bar, but you can spend that energy on different attacks. Every troupe member has a unique special move that she can use for roughly 75 percent of her Spirit bar. This move is insanely powerful and can do unfathomable amounts of damage but can't be used often. Fortunately, you also have access to co-op attacks, which involve two troupe members who are reasonably close to one another. The two characters will project a blue aura between them, and any enemies who are caught in that aura will take a lot of damage. Compared to the special attacks, these cooperative attacks don't require a lot of SP, but they drain it from both characters. They're also harder to pull off in a pinch, as both characters need to be positioned precisely. Finally, characters can also spend SP to heal themselves. One of the characters, Diana, has the ability to heal other units with her special move, but every other character can heal himself by spending SP.
Each member of your team fulfills a unique role in combat. The super-genius Subaru is unique because she had a tremendous area of effect on all her attacks. She can't hit from a distance but can do serious damage to enemies who are clustered together. The sickly Diana, on the other hand, lacks combat ability but makes up for it with the ability to heal others. In order to win fights effectively, you have to understand exactly when and where to use each character's regular attacks and special moves. Unlike many strategy games, there are no deployment choices in Sakura Wars. You'll be using every troupe member in every battle, which means that it is in your best interest to learn how to use each one to avoid having one hinder the rest of the team.
In combat, Shinjiro is a bit different from the rest of your characters. He has access to the same basic combat abilities as they do, but he also has a few unique powers, such as altering your team's combat strategy. By default, you use a speed-based style, which is a very balanced combat strategy without any special attributes. Shinjiro can switch from this to an attack- or guard-based stratagem. The attack strategy increases the damage you do and takes less of your movement bar to refill SP, so you can launch special attacks much quicker. The downside is that you sacrifice defensive power, so defense takes up a huge chunk of your movement bar and characters can't heal themselves. The guard strategy is the polar opposite in that a unit's basic defense is increased, and it's extremely cheap to guard against attacks. In exchange, you have to spend a significantly greater amount of your movement bar to recharge SP and you lose the ability to perform special attacks. Shinjiro can switch between these tactics at will — even during his turn. You can switch to attack mode to cheaply refill your SP and then to guard mode to take advantage of defensive options. Shinjiro is the only one who can switch strategies, though, so the rest of the troupe is unable to switch until his next turn, so you must plan your strategy carefully.
In addition to switching combat strategies, Shinjiro has the ability to protect other characters and call for help. When you select the Protect special ability, he will "mark" one of the girls as the one he is guarding. From that point on, any time an enemy attacks that character, Shinjiro will hop in front of the attack, regardless of where he is on the battlefield. This nullifies all the damage taken by the attack for both Shinjiro and the guarded girl, and it also increases the girl's opinion of Shinjiro. However, you can only do this a limited number of times per stage, and you can't switch your protected girl until Shinjiro's next turn. Use this poorly, and you'll waste the nearly essential defensive power on weak enemy attacks, leaving you without it when you most need it. Shinjiro can also call for help a limited number of times in each stage; doing so will summon one of the girls to his side, once again increasing her opinion of him. This is useful to get a slow-moving character to a place where you need her or to bring backup to Shinjiro to help him eliminate a tough foe.
The STAR combat robots actually have two attack forms. By default, they are a humanoid robot, walking along the ground and fighting like a human, but they can also turn into jets. These jet forms allow them to quickly move from combat area to combat area. If you position your STAR in the right place, it can zoom to another area of the battlefield, allowing you to fight foes on multiple fronts at once. Certain battles also require you to fight foes in the air with the STAR's jet mode. Instead of moving along the ground, you alter your altitude and fly around the target, but the basic controls are functionally unchanged. Your STAR units gain slightly different attacks while in the air; melee weapons are exchanged for missiles, and each character has a unique special attack he only uses while in jet form. These attacks are mostly interchangeable with their ground special attacks, but they have different animations and attack names, which is a nice twist and keeps combat fresh.
One of the most interesting aspects of combat in Sakura Wars is that there are no levels, equipment or other methods of powering up your characters. Your character's stats in battle depend on your actions during the dialogue segments. Your relationship to the various girls increases their basic combat abilities, so the more good will they have toward Shinjiro, the more of a boost they'll gain to their combat abilities. In addition, the characters you talk to the most during a chapter will become highly motivated for that chapter's battle, earning them even more bonus abilities. The characters who you like the most will, in turn, be better in combat because of this.
The downside is that the folks you dislike or ignore will fight more poorly. In addition to increasing the overall stats for your characters, a high relationship can also open up special new attacks, which can only be done with girls with whom Shinjiro has a special relationship. This is either the girl with the highest relationship with Shinjiro, or the girl around whom that chapter was based. Either way, if you place this character near Shinjiro and do a special attack, you'll activate an incredibly powerful special move, which features a unique animated cut-in for the attack and is many times more powerful than other available moves. It has a huge attack radius and is capable of wiping out entire swarms of enemies with a single blow. The downside is that it requires all the spirit points from both characters involved in the attack, so it's difficult to use constantly.
Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love is an odd title. Games like Persona 4 or Ar Tonelico have tied dialogue choices to combat effectiveness before, but never quite to this level. In many ways, Sakura Wars is more of a visual novel or adventure game that happens to occasionally delve into real-time strategy, as opposed to a full-on RPG. The mecha-based gameplay is rather interesting, but it serves as the endpoint of all the dialogue choices and character interaction from the rest of the game. Victory in combat is dependent just as much on what your character says or does in the time leading up to the fight as it is on your strategy and tactics. If you're the sort of gamer who just couldn't get enough of Persona 4's Social Links or one who enjoys the story line aspect of RPGs as much as the gameplay, then Sakura Wars is a game to keep a close eye on. Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love is due to hit stores this March for both the PlayStation 2 and Nintendo Wii. Fans of the original Japanese voices will want to get the PS2 Premium Pack version, which includes a second disc with the Japanese voices and a fair amount of other goodies. The Wii version of the game will be dub-only but is offered at the very budget price of $29.99.
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