Hands-on with Sakura Wars (PS4) – First Impressions

Sakura Wars is an odd beast. One part mecha hack ’n’ slash, one part dating sim, the game hits Playstation 4 exclusively on April 28 and is looking to capture the hearts of a new Western audience. Sakura Wars is a Sega owned and developed series that has been pumping out games and spin-off material since the late nineties.

The IP has had steady popularity with Japanese audiences but Sega has often not opted for localisation. The series has been mostly dormant since 2008 but in the wake of the popularity of games such as Persona 5, Sega is localising the latest soft reboot entry.

The game is set in early 20th century Japan, about ten years after the end of the last Great Demon War. The demons, who have been waging war on humanity for many years, were defeated by steam-powered mecha-suits piloted by a colourful cast of young pilots under the employ of global Revue combat divisions. With the war behind them, the various Revue groups operate civilian businesses and participate in the game’s equivalent of the Olympics in between fending off random demon attacks.

Sakura Wars

Suffice to say there is a fair bit to unpack and the opening hours of Sakura Wars does very little to ease you in. The game revels in anime tropes, especially those of the 90s-00s, so there is a weird degree of familiarity for fans of the genre blended with a dizzying lack of context. You assume the role of Seijuro Kamiyama, freshly appointed captain of the down on its luck Imperial Combat Revue’s Flower Division.

The Flower Division’s contribution to society outside of demon-slaying is the operation and performances in the Grand Imperial Theatre. As captain, it’s your job to get the place back to its former glory and help the women of Flower Division realise their potential. 

You’ll do this by working with the team, along with a fairly decent supporting cast of characters, through relationship sim mechanics and eventual combat. Many of the conversations you partake in will prompt dialogue choices that can impact the flow of the moment and how your team members feel about you as a leader, and a man.

Some of these options are on a timer, with no input also being a valid response, and others will ask you to choose the level of intensity you put into your words.

These options typically range from serious to goofy and occasionally outright flirtatious as Sakura Wars leans heavily into its dating sim roots. Flower Division’s team is a unique collection of women all of whom tackle their own individual narratives throughout the game’s “episodes.” Another detail anime fans are sure to enjoy is Sakura Wars’ charming presentation, breaking up segments of the game into stylised episodes including “Next Time on” montages and title music sting.

It’s one of the many little flourishes found in the game that speaks to the care put into its presentation. 

For the purposes of this preview, I’ll only briefly touch on the first couple of episodes but Sakura Wars opens with a solid, if a little uninspiring, few hours. There is a jarring lack of context or set up given that this entry in the series is meant to draw in new players who ostensibly have no clue what happened in the lore thus far. Regardless, you’ll soon find yourself inundated with people to talk to and…not much else. Paradoxically this early portion of dialogue-heavy but worldbuilding lite, instead opting to focus more on the women of Flower Division.  

There is the titular Sakura, a childhood friend of Kamiyama and the primary focus of the early narrative beats, along with several other members of the team. Each of these characters fulfils the kind of archetype you’d expect to find here – the shy one, the bookish one, the confident one etc. They’re not poorly written as such, just very safe depictions of characters you’ve likely seen before. It wasn’t until a few hours in that the game made me genuinely interested in the story being told through these women.

Meanwhile, the game’s demon-slaying combat is largely inoffensive as seen in the first couple of episodes. Once inside the suits, Flower Division will tackle hordes of demons in the streets of Japan and fight their way through demonic pocket universes to defeat boss demons. You’ve got your standard light and heavy attacks, a dope looking dodge and a double jump to zip around the battlefield with.

Combos are available, as well as special moves activated by collecting enemy drops, but by and large the combat is too easy and floaty to truly sink your teeth into. 

It’s not a bad first few hours but it struggles to truly find its feet amid rushed world-building and lacklustre, infrequent combat. There is a subtle charm to Sakura Wars that has kept me intrigued and even eager to learn more about its strangely optimistic steam-punk world, but as a newcomer, the game isn’t making this interest easy to satisfy. 

We’ll have our full review of Sakura Wars available on April 28.

Sakura Wars was previewed using a digital copy provided by the publisher.

James Wood
James Wood
James literally cannot recall a time in which video games weren’t a part of his life. A childhood hobby turned adult fascination, gaming has been one of the few constants.

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