Sakura Wars is ostensibly an attempt on Sega’s part to introduce a long-running IP to a new Western audience. Despite the series spanning over two decades before this latest release, only one previous title had been translated for Western countries. This has left an understandable gap in knowledge about the mecha-warrior/dating sim hybrid games that have amassed a niche but passionate following across the globe.
A gap that Sega seems largely unconcerned with.
Sakura Wars does very little to establish its world and lore before dropping you into a story packed with demons, alternate technologies, far too much heterosexual nonsense and a genuinely baffling take on the Olympics.
Sakura Wars Review
Sakura Wars takes place a decade after the last Great Demon War. This harrowing clash with demonic forces cost the world its greatest heroes who fought in steam-powered mecha units as part of their respective global Revue squads. There is a confusing combination of hushed reverence for past events of the series paired with shallow exposition that makes the opening of the game feel muddled to a newcomer. These events are crucial to the plot and the characters involved yet the game does little to imbue them with any genuine gravitas, content to just assume you buy in immediately.
And there is a lot to buy into.
The global Revues serve two functions for humanity; the first is to be the military defence against the demon invasions plaguing the globe, and the second is to placate and keep the masses in good spirits through the arts and social services. For some, it’s nationalism and inspiration, for others a restaurant, but for the Flower Division it’s the running of, and performing at, the Grand Imperial Theatre.
You play as Seijuro Kamiyama, the newly appointed captain of the Flower Division. Kamiyama is a man fleeing from his own past mistakes during the war and runs headlong into the saviour role for the floundering Flower Division. It is on its way out of favour with the public and global Revue forces. With no war to fight in and audiences who have largely stopped showing up for their theatre performances, the women of the Flower Division are at their wits end when Kamiyama shows up.
As the captain, you’ll be leading military strikes against the demons, as well as making very limited choices about the performances taking place at the theatre. On top of these responsibilities, however, is an endless parade of romantic options as Sakura Wars trips over itself to remind you how badly each member wants to date their captain. These objectives form the bulk of the gameplay, with a majority story focus featuring dialogue trees and relationship building, as well as sporadic, real-time combat sequences.
Sakura Wars marks a change for the series as it moves away from the turn-based combat of earlier titles in favour of a lite-hack n slash experience. You have access to a basic array of light and heavy attacks, as well as a dodge, dash and special move that is powered up over time during combat. Each mecha suit (during combat you are able to switch between characters to access unique suits) looks gorgeous gliding around the battlefield but the visual flare soon wavers as the lacklustre loop of combat becomes a grind.
No individual element of combat undoes the experience entirely but taken as a whole, over many encounters, the issues are unavoidable. No matter how flashy attacks look they lack meaningful impact as each strike fails to satisfy on a visceral level. The genre standard parry requires the ability to see the glowing red light on an enemy’s chest which can quickly become lost amid the countless gaudy visual effects popping off at any moment. The camera is its own foe as no lock on mechanics leads to a disorientating inability to focus your attacks. Your selection of attacks will never change either, with nothing to upgrade or customise.
These frustrations mount over time as Sakura Wars recycles combat scenarios and enemies liberally. You’ll be fighting the same robotic demons, in the same linear combat arenas, repeatedly throughout the game, even in situations where the plot would make you think otherwise. Recycled assets aren’t inherently an issue, especially given that Sakura Wars’ art direction is consistently enjoyable, but paired with unsatisfying core mechanics, the combat portions of the game quickly become a chore.
There was a narrative conceit to break up this repetition but the highly anticipated Combat Revue World Games fail to deliver on the promise. The World Games are a major plot point, in which Revue squads would need to face each other in combat to avoid disbandment, but matches consist of fighting waves of the same enemies only this time in uninspired sports fields. Even when you do finally get to face down with other Revue squads the matches are strangely easy, putting up less of a fight than your standard array of cannon fodder demons.
I haven’t played any past Sakura Wars titles so I’m hesitant to cast judgement on the shift to this more action-orientated style. But the growing pains of such a shift are painfully evident throughout Sakura Wars and the end result is a generic, underbaked experience that makes me more curious for the past titles than any future sequels.
Combat is decidedly not the defining feature of Sakura Wars, however, as the bulk of the game leans more toward adventure game and relationship-sim gameplay. It’s unfortunate then that these mechanics are as perfunctory as the combat, just with less visual pizazz. Dialogue wheels let you choose your responses during conversations, occasionally even letting you decide the intensity of Kamyiama’s words.
But these often feel like the pretence of choice more than actual roleplaying as the options presented funnel you toward a predetermined outcome and stance on a situation.
When you’re not slashing at demons or chatting with the huge supporting cast you’ll be given free rein of several locations to explore. Some instances will see Kamyiama tasked with finding items in these places or piecing together a series of clues, which almost always means just walking up to the glowing dot and pressing X. There is also an odd dissonance between the smooth movement of combat and the awkward shuffling motions you need to do to move around any given locale – again my greatest foe in the game wasn’t the demons, but the controls.
Fortunately, Sakura Wars looks absolutely beautiful from top to bottom. Not only does the “anime but playable” graphical fidelity serve its heightened fantasy world but there is an aesthetic cohesion worthy of high praise too. The steampunk machinery, costume design and even the distractingly showy combat effects, all coalesce into a game that is striking to look at. Sakura Wars also features several outright anime sequences for important story beats and these naturally look stunning too.
Sakura Wars is also structured in the same way as an anime television series, spanning eight episodes. Each episode is bookended by a “Next Time On” trailer and at important intervals, you can save your progress and check your team’s morale during breaks akin to commercial breaks. It’s a charming conceit and one that perfectly captures the spirit of classic anime series which the game revels in drawing upon. There are smatterings of classics like Evangelion found in the game’s DNA that give the production a familiar glow, even when its narrative fails to mine as deeply as its inspirations.
It’s not that Sakura Wars weaves an outright bad tale across its lengthy runtime but rarely does it push the genre beyond tropes and tired cliche. There are flashes of a more engaging narrative throughout; the backend of the game is especially loaded with genuinely fantastic concepts and imagery. In particular, there is an intriguing undercurrent of humanity’s struggle with using black magic to fight the demons, prompting my favourite quote from the game – “The weapon is evil, but the hand is just.”
It’s the kind of string of words that made me long for Sakura Wars to dig a bit deeper with its unique framework. There is a genuine tension between the ideas of the game and a narrative that explored the relationship between the military, social services and the general public could have been fantastic. But glacial pacing and unnecessary padding break the narrative on a structural level, making it difficult to find a rhythm with a tale that should be more arresting than it is.
What damages Sakura Wars’ narrative the most though is the woeful character writing and romance gameplay that plagues it from beginning to end. The women of the Flower Division are purportedly characters but seldom cease being an uncomfortable collection of tropes and sexualised rewards. Each episode pulls focus to one or two of them, allowing time to explore their individual struggles, some of which are actually quite fascinating. But all of which are solved by Kamiyama’s reassurance that they are loved, and of course, beautiful.
There is an inevitable degree of “gamification” involved in the romance sim genre – even heavyweights such as the Mass Effect games fell prey to this a few times. But Sakura Wars revels in the objectification of these women and purposefully tethers combat bonuses to it. The more intimate you can become with any given team member, the better the power boosts in combat meaning that better performance is intimately bound to seeing more of the game’s more suggestive sequences.
The most egregious of which include first-person sections where you can ogle their bodies without their knowledge.
The whole experience is aggressively tied to the male gaze. These women are both overly sexualised by design and written to be naive babes in the woods. Sakura Wars’ mechanics and narrative required them at any given moment to oscillate between function characters and doe-eyed objects. It was profoundly uncomfortable to play as a queer man and the lack of roleplay options meant that simple friendship or team camaraderie wasn’t ever a viable choice. Yamiyama was straight, in command and control, no matter what.
It’s an exigent black mark against an otherwise inoffensive experience. Combat is undeniably lacking but at least makes it look like you’re fighting in an anime. While the adventure game exploration elements are underutilised too, the environment and general world are interesting enough to pull you through.
Sakura Wars is a serviceable entry point for Western audiences but fails to deliver more than a modest take on what could have been a remarkable game.
Sakura Wars was reviewed on Playstation 4 using a digital copy provided by the publisher.
Game Title: Sakura Wars
Game Description: Take on the role of captain of the Flower Division as they fend off demons in mecha suits and struggle to put on the show of a life time at the Grand Imperial Theatre.