Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love marks the first game in the popular Japanese series to make its way to Western shores. This is actually the fifth game in the series, and it was ported to the Wii from the PlayStation 2. It isn't entirely clear why it's taken so long for the series to make its way over here, aside from the fact that it's a text-heavy title that'll probably appeal to a limited audience, but if you have a good idea of what you're getting into with Sakura Wars, it's a pretty entertaining game.
You should go into Sakura Wars realizing that it's not quite an action-packed experience. There are some combat options and giant robots, but for the most part, you'll be surprised to see how much of the game relies on text interaction between the various characters who make up the organization known as the New York Combat Revue, also referred to in the game as the Star Division. Established as covert agents in New York City during an alternate version of the 1920s, The Star Division is a group of mostly female agents who pilot giant mechs, known as STAR, which in turn fight against invading enemy mechs. The story is pretty vague throughout the first chapter, but as it progresses, you'll learn more interesting tidbits about the creation of the Star Division and the enemies you're fighting against. It's a very, very anime-like presentation, so depending on how much you can stomach of typical Japanese animation, you'll either really enjoy the story or grow to loathe it quickly.
It's aided by a pretty solid translation and decent voice acting. The overall presentation, from menu design to the traditional 2-D art style, really makes the game a little more palpable, especially considering that so much of it consists of static images with small animation details, such as moving eyes or lips. There's certainly nothing here that I'd consider to be technically impressive, and the most 3-D work you're going to see comes from the battle scenes that typically end a chapter and involve a boss fight or two. If you're going into Sakura Wars with some limited knowledge of the series, this isn't going to be a big surprise to you.
For the rest of you who aren't familiar with the series by this point, let's break it down a little bit. It's a bit of a multimedia franchise that's expanded since its creation in 1996. SEGA has been the primary driving force behind the series, as they were with this particular entry, even though the game was published by Nippon Ichi Software in North America. It's always had some heavy dating simulation mechanics to it, just like this title does, mixed in with some tactical combat situations. For this particular entry, the player will take on the role of protagonist Shinjiro Taiga, referred to by the majority of the cast as Shin. Throughout the story, you'll have different interactions with the large cast, made up of characters like Diana Caprice, Gemini Sunrise, Mr. Sunnyside, Ratchet Altair and Subaru Kujo. Some of these characters take on a supporting role and help the player learn the various gameplay mechanics, while other characters will be teammates who will aid you in battle — and who you can control during fights.
Much of the game is focused on how Shin interacts with his friends, and specific instances will require you to make dialogue choices. There are usually three choices to be made, and your entry is timed, so you can't casually select one to see where it goes. Because of this frantic pace, it keeps the option a little more lively than something you'd see in Bioware titles such Knights of the Old Republic or Dragon Age. There's also no option to take back something you've said, and the way you respond to different characters can have an effect on your friendship with them, either improving or weakening your bond with that character.
The benefit of selecting a good answer comes into play during combat sequences. If you have a strong bond with your teammates, your joint attacks will become more powerful, whereas a weaker bond will yield weaker attacks. Basically, it's a good idea to answer as well as possible according to the individual's personality, but sometimes your dialogue options are so vague that it can be pretty difficult to quickly pinpoint the correct answer. You'll never pick an option that will end the game, though, and half of the fun is seeing the different responses you can get depending on your choices. Along with these instances, you'll sometimes be offered with a task that will require specific motions with the analog stick on the Nunchuk controller and the d-pad on the Wii Remote. This would typically be mapped to the dual analog sticks on the PS2 controller, so mapping analog movements to a d-pad isn't really ideal in this situation. The movements are easy enough to pull off, so that's a pretty minor complaint on my part.
Aside from the text-based options, you'll occasionally be called into battle with your own mech, or STAR unit. Depending on your place in the story and the characters who have joined or left, you'll be in command of various units piloted by your teammates. Each STAR unit takes a turn, and the amount of movements and attacks you can pull off is dictated by the mobility bar that shows up on your head's up display (HUD) at the bottom of the screen. While you move about the playing field, which is generally pretty small, you'll use up some of this bar. When the bar is depleted, you have no more options for movement or attacks, and it's time to end your turn. If you move into range of an enemy unit, you can highlight that enemy by facing it, and tap the A button to pull off a series of basic attacks. How many attacks you can string together depends on how much energy you have left in your mobility bar. If you can string together five attacks, you'll pull off a pretty devastating combo.
Beyond the basic attack options, you've also got healing, joint and super attacks. All three of these are dependent on another meter: your spirit bar. This fills over time, but using any of these three options will deplete it by a varying among. Healing attacks allow you to heal yourself or a nearby teammate, while joint attacks let you combine an attack with a teammate to take on an enemy or sometimes hit multiple enemies with a certain range. Super attacks are pretty self-explanatory and pull off a super-powerful attack, which uses up so little of your mobility bar that you can string together a few more basic attacks right after it, making it pretty effective.
The end goal of each battle is to clear the area of all enemy units or take on the final boss. The bosses are usually large mechs, with multiple weak points and attacks to defend against or take on. You'll often need to take to the air, but this doesn't affect combat other than changing the location. The mobility and spirit options generally remain the same when you're in the air or on the ground, so while the visuals might change, little else does.
Overall, combat is really basic and not particularly challenging, as long as you don't charge into every event headfirst, which will result in most enemies ganging up on your unit. If you fall in battle, the game lets you restart right away, so if you lose a fight, it's not an insurmountable obstacle. However, due to the easy structure of each fight, it also starts to feel really repetitive by the time you enter that final stretch, and combat certainly isn't the best aspect of Sakura Wars' gameplay. I was far more interested in the text adventure stuff than I ever was in the actual fights, and I think that sentiment will hold true for most players.
Despite the lackluster combat options, the overall story and characters of Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love were more than enough to keep my interest over the course of the game. There's some replay value because of all the dialogue choices, and it's fun to go back and see the reactions that the different choices will yield. If you've had some experience with similar games, especially in the RPG genre, then Sakura Wars is going to be worth a look. However, if the idea of wading through text box after text box and listening to typical anime dialogue and voice acting isn't really your idea of a good time, then you should pass on Sakura Wars. It's definitely geared toward a particular audience, and I don't see it having much appeal to anyone outside of the intended group.
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