If you're not a fan of Japanese anime cartoons, you're probably not aware that the genre is divided into a huge number of subgenres. One of the more prolific is dubbed the "harem" anime, which tends to star an average schmuck who finds himself surrounded by a large cast of female characters, each of whom functions as a potential romantic love interest. Shows like "Tenchi Muyo" or "Ranma ½" have popularized this genre and have even been aired in the U.S. on Cartoon Network. Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love is basically a "harem" anime adapted to function as a video game. Players are put in the role of the unlucky schmuck and have to decide which of the female characters he wants to date. For better or worse, that basically sums up the game. If the concept doesn't work for you, then Sakura Wars has nothing else to offer you. On the other hand, if you're a fan of the genre or find it unoffensive, then Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love may be right for you.
Sakura Wars opens up in the 1920s in America, where a young Japanese soldier named Shinjiro Taiga is sent to America to become part of a special squad dedicated to fighting the forces of evil. This squad, for difficult-to-explain reasons, is undercover as an all-female Broadway musical troupe. Unfortunately for Shinjiro, they were expecting his uncle, Ohgami, instead of him, and are certainly not happy with the sudden replacement. 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 prove himself to the rest of the New York Combat Revue, while also battling a mysterious group of evil demons who seek to destroy New York for their own nefarious purposes. Unfortunately for Shinjiro, the girls are far from normal, and getting in their good graces is going to involve a little more than showing combat prowess against the forces of evil.
At first glance, Sakura Wars might seem more like a Japanese "date sim" game than an RPG, and in many ways, that is a more accurate way of looking at things. A large bulk of your time is spent traveling to various New York locales and talking to people. Similar to games like Persona or Ar Tonelico, you'll spend most of your time solving problems for people, as opposed to fighting monsters or defending the world. This is mostly done through a simple menu-driven interface, where you travel between various New York locations. While in a locale, you can move Shinjiro around to pick a sub-location to visit. Most of your interactions are timed in some way; the clock counts down when you're given time to roam, so you must make your choices carefully. Visiting a location tends to start a conversation with one of the characters, allowing you to respond to them through a series of dialogue trees, very much like Persona 3.
Sakura Wars doesn't do dialogue choices like most games, though. Your dialogue is usually timed, so you have a brief period of time in which to make your selection, with the time period determined by the action. Answering a friendly question has a very lenient time limit, but grabbing someone who is running past your character must be done instantly. Failing to make a choice in that time limit means you don't act, but not taking an action is also considered a valid choice in many scenarios. Sometimes it is better to do nothing or remain quiet, so if the dialogue choices all look like bad ideas, you may want to keep your mouth shut. Unexpected choices can sometimes lead to positive reactions, though, so the player has to think about the personality of the character with whom he's conversing and respond appropriately.
There are also some dialogue choices that take the form of minigames. Some ask you to determine how much effort you're putting into something by filling a gauge. The player can choose anywhere between zero and 100 percent, and the response changes depending on your choice. Choose zero, and you'll barely whisper your response, whereas you'll shout your answer if you chose 100 percent. Giving a manly shout isn't appropriate if you're trying to get someone's attention in a library, though. Other minigames involve performing Quick Time Events (QTEs) using the two analog sticks on the PS2 controller. Directions pop up, and you must perform them to complete the task, which can be as simple as making ice cream or as complex as winning a swordfight. Doing well at minigames usually benefits you, but there are times when you may upset your partner by showing her up, so much like the dialogue choices, sometimes failure is the best option.
Sakura Wars is divided into a series of chapters, with each chapter revolving around a member of the New York Combat Revue. The bulk of each chapter is spent in adventure-style gameplay, with Shinjiro figuring out how to solve each girl's unique problem. Cherion Archer's story line, for example, involves you defeating her in the court of law. This particular section of the story is reminiscent of Phoenix Wright, as players are encouraged to collect evidence before they confront her in court. Gemini's plot, on the other hand, involves having to figure out the identity of a mysterious masked swordswoman who may hold the key to victory over the forces of evil, while Diana has you trying to figure out how to encourage her to overcome a seemingly fatal illness. There isn't any way to "fail" these plotlines, but your success (or failure) alters how the characters feel about Shinjiro, and this comes into play during the combat sequences.
Your characters in Sakura Wars don't level up through traditional means; their attack power and abilities are determined with their relationship to Shinjiro. The more a character likes Shinjiro, the more powerful damage she will do, and she'll also have much better defense than characters who don't get along with him. This also further boosts the power of joint attacks, which allow you to carve through entire swarms of enemies. Perhaps most dramatic of all, characters who really like Shinjiro will occasionally gain the ability to perform an extra-powerful special attack if they are near him. These attacks can clear the map of enemies, although it seems as if only the character who gets along best with Shinjiro can wield them.
This is what is going to make or break Sakura Wars for gamers: The majority of your time is spent on the "date sim" style gameplay. Even when compared to similar games, like Persona or Ar Tonelico, you'll be spending an excessive amount of time talking to characters and making the occasional dialogue choice, rarely interspersed with an analog stick-based QTE minigame. Your enjoyment of the game is going to come down to how much you like talking to the various cast members. There are only a handful of gameplay missions, and they're all pretty easy, especially if you've been successfully keeping your squad members happy. To the game's credit, the translation is surprisingly solid, and each character is distinct and unique. If you're the kind of gamer who enjoys anime-style stories, you're almost certain to find at least one character to hold your interest, and a few members of the cast are quite likeable. The title is also heavy on the anime tropes, which can be a bit off-putting to those who are unfamiliar with them. The Japanese take on 1920s America occasionally borders on being offensive, although it will be up to individual gamers to decide how they feel about these scenes.
Sometime during each chapter, the forces of evil will launch an assault on New York, forcing your team to deploy in Super Telekinetic Assault Robots, or STARs. When this occurs, the game changes from date sim-style gameplay into a full-fledged strategy RPG. Players control the New York Combat Revue's robots and battle the foes by taking turns moving around the battlefield and attempting to smite each other. Your ability to move is governed by an action bar. The further you move away from your starting position, the more the action bar drains. You can also spend the action bar to perform up to five regular attacks on an opponent. You'll refill your action bar completely at the start of your character's next turn, so there is no reason to end a turn with unspent points.
This seems rather simple, but it grows more complex once you consider the other actions you can take during a character's turn. In addition to regular attacks, characters can also perform special moves and joint attacks. Special moves are character-specific super attacks that can do ridiculous amounts of damage and can often destroy multiple opponents in a fell swoop. The downside to this is that special moves are governed by the character's spiritual energy bar. A special move drains almost the entire bar, so you can't use the attack again until it is refilled. A joint attack is a special move used by two characters; it hits all enemies in a line between the two characters, and it uses substantially less SP than a special move, although it drains SP from both characters. Using these moves often is the key to victory, but keeping your SP filled requires some thought.
All characters have the ability to spend a chunk of their action bar to regenerate their SP and enter into a defensive stance so as to heal or take less damage from the next attack. The amount of action bar that this takes is determined by your character's stratagem. There are three stratagems in the game — Shin, Gi and Tai — which roughly equate to Attack, Speed and Defense, respectively. In attack stratagem, you do more damage with your attacks by default. You also can recover SP for an extremely small amount of your action bar, but defense costs a large amount of your bar and you can't heal at all. Gi allows your characters to move around the battlefield faster but otherwise offers no passive bonuses. Defense and SP regeneration is slightly expensive, but you're not limited in any way so you can heal, attack or defend at will. The Tai strategy is defensive so your character's basic defensive abilities increase, and defending costs an extremely small amount of SP. However, recovering SP is extremely expensive, and you can't perform special moves. The trick to the stratagems is that only Shinjiro can alter them, and only during his turn. If you go into Shin stratagem, your characters will be unable to heal until Shinjiro's next turn. It's up to the player to make the right decision about when to switch.
The Protect and Help Me special abilities allow Shinjiro to turn the tide of battle at a moment's notice. Protect marks a girl for Shinjiro to protect, so if that girl is attacked, he will instantly nullify the damage to her. However, you can only mark a girl to protect on Shinjiro's turn, and you can only protect a certain amount of times during the fight. If you use it on a character unwisely, a bunch of weak enemy attacks will drain all of your protect usages, leaving you without them when fighting a boss. Protecting a girl also naturally increases her affinity with Shinjiro. The Help Me special ability calls any of the girls to Shinjiro's side. It can only be used once per battle, at least for most of the game, but it allows you to instantly teleport a character where you need her. This is extremely useful when combined with the high-affection special move, as it allows Shinjiro and his gal pal to destroy an entire group of foes.
Most of the battles take place on the ground, where your robots walk around in humanoid form. The STARs also have the ability to transform into jets, and this comes into play in two ways. You can use jet form to move to different battlefields. Most fights involve enemies attacking on multiple fronts, so you'll have to split up your units to fight them, and this definitely adds an interesting touch of strategy. Shinjiro's Protect ability works across maps, so you can turn one of your characters into a powerful vanguard. 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. However, characters have different attack animations and special moves while fighting in jet form, which makes the battles feel very different.
The battles in Sakura Wars are pretty straightforward so you won't need to use an ample amount of strategy, although each battle has a unique gimmick. One fight starts with you having to travel across buildings in two groups to destroy cannons that could shoot your jet mode out of the sky. Another has you rescuing the trapped members of your squad before you can launch a full counteroffensive. It's possible to die in Sakura Wars, but only if you act exceedingly foolish in combat or if you've somehow gotten your entire team angry at you before the start of the fight. Even one or two powerful units can utterly dominate the opponents, and if you're capable of making the entire cast fall in love with Shinjiro, you can crush enemy forces with ease. The battles are rather fun, although the game really could have used more of them. They feel appropriate for the plot, but there are a lot of times when it would have been fun to get an extra battle or two between the talking segments.
Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love originally came out in Japan in 2005, and unfortunately, it shows. The character models and animals are unimpressive, even for a PS2 game. To the game's credit, the cinematography is pretty nice. A lot of the animations and attacks are shown through flashy animated cut scenes, which helps to alleviate the low visual quality. The game still looks hopelessly dated, especially for those who are playing on fancy TVs, but the character art is nice, and a lot of the more involved scenes are accompanied by special artwork. The voice acting in our review build was entirely in English, with most characters doing a reasonable job in their roles. Shinjiro's voice is a little too whiny, and it really stands out during some of the animated cut scenes. Hardcore gamers will most certainly want to use the Japanese voices instead, but the English voice acting is perfectly passable, if rather cheesy in places.
Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love is a game with a limited audience. If you're not the kind of person who enjoys Japanese anime, and in particular the "harem anime" subgenre popularized by shows such as "Tenchi Muyo," then Sakura Wars probably isn't for you. There is a fun strategy game hidden within, but it clearly isn't the title's focus, and since your stats are so heavily determined by your ability to chat up the female cast, it isn't a gameplay element that you can really ignore. On the other hand, if you're the kind of gamer who enjoys those things, Sakura Wars should do a lot to hold your interest. The varied cast and ample amount of choices mean that the title has surprising amounts of replay value. You can't alter the overall plot, but there are enough variations in the story to make a second playthrough worthwhile. If you fall within Sakura War's intended audience, you'll probably find the game quite enjoyable. It's simple and easy to play, and it offers a fair amount of value for your dollar.
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