The Sakura Wars series has been around since 1996, but it was only with its fifth mainline instalment, 2005’s Sakura Wars V: Farewell, My Lovely, that it found its way to the west. And that took five years to be localised.
Now the series is back, and SEGA is really trying to make it a worldwide name this time. As such, the simply titled Sakura Wars is a soft reboot of the series – though one which retains most its core themes and features.
Taking place in a fictionalised version of the Taishō period, Sakura Wars places you in the shoes of Seijuro Kamiyama. Formerly of the Imperial Japanese Navy, he now finds himself stationed as the captain of the Imperial Combat Revue’s Flower Division, whose base of operations, the Imperial Theater, also serves as the perfect cover. It’s not long after being appointed, however, that he discovers that the Revue isn’t in good shape at all. And if that’s not bad enough, a demonic threat seems to be steadily escalating.
In the first three chapters of Sakura Wars, you’ll be getting to grips with the game’s core systems and settling into your new role. The title of captain my sound rather important, but you often end up being the Revue’s lackey, given menial tasks backed up with the notion that it’ll allow you to get the know people/the theatre/the area better. The truth is, however, is that they do offer some occasional light relief thanks to the escapades of the game’s primarily female cast; a cast that would all like a piece of you if you play your cards right.
You see, that’s another element of Sakura Wars: relationship building. It’s heavily recommended that you go out of your way to talk to each of the girls who make up the rest of the Imperial Combat Revue in your free time, and depending on how you interact with them, their opinion of you might change. Make a good impression and they might even find themselves having feelings for you; not to mention that building strong bonds with all characters is beneficial to your combat operations.
While previous Sakura Wars titles had turn-based battles, here they play out in real-time. When demons attack, an alarm sounds and the Imperial Combat Revue leaps into action, manning chunky mechs that are well-equipped to take down the demon threat. Anyone that’s played a Dynasty Warriors game will find the action familiar; you have access to standard and strong attacks and face off against hordes of weak fodder, with the occasional stronger enemy thrown in for good measure. And as you do battle, it’s important to monitor the morale of your squad; it can make the difference between victory and defeat.
In each battle you can switch between multiple members of the Imperial Combat Revue, each with their own specific moveset and special ‘musou’-like attacks. Seijuro, for example, wields multiple samurai swords, so he’s great for getting in close and causing melee damage, with well-timed dodges slowing down time to capitalise on weaknesses and also slice enemies in two. The meek Claris, on the other hand, fires balls of energy, allowing her to keep a safe distance, while her special allows you take out many weak targets all at once. Switching to the right characters at the right time becomes imperative, especially when facing off against bosses.
The three facets of Sakura Wars – adventure, dating and combat – appear to be balanced rather well judging by the game’s first few chapters. You’re kept on your toes, moving between tasks that unravel the story and deepen your relationship with one or more characters. Then, at any time, a demon attack can occur, providing a quick dose of action that offsets the otherwise laid-back nature of the game. No particular aspect proves to be ground-breaking, or even that impressive on its own – but the sum is definitely better than each of the parts.
In all fairness, it feels kind of hard to overly criticise Sakura Wars at this point, especially when the majority of its issues are set to be quashed by a patch near to launch. At the moment you can’t lock-on to enemies during combat, for example, which isn’t ideal, and you can’t manually save during adventure sections of the game, either. They’re both set to be fixed, and other improvements are also to be made. Other than those issues, my main gripe up to this point is the inconsistent voice acting.
With Japanese dialogue only, Sakura Wars is a game in which you’ll be reading lots of text. While much of the game is voiced, however, there are some scenes where characters go through the motions and the text appears at the bottom of the screen, but there’s no voice acting whatsoever. It doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, but it’s just a bit jarring. The soundless gesticulating and chin-wagging makes the game seem like it’s unfinished at times; like the voice acting is simply missing.
The fact of the matter, though, is that I’m largely enjoying my time with Sakura Wars. After three chapters I’m invested in the plight of the Imperial Combat Revue’s Flower Division. I want their plays to succeed so that they bring in money; I’m enjoying wooing the ladies while also guffawing at some of the ridiculous dialogue options available; and I’m battling through the odd frustration during combat. It very much needs that promised patch, but Sakura Wars deserves to find success in the west. It’s genre-bending, and thanks to its interesting characters and curious mix of scenarios, it seems destined to be a cult hit.
Sakura Wars launches on April 28th on PS4.