Maybe not what you’re expecting, but in a good way.
Over the years there have been plenty of attempts at replicating the framing and sensibilities of an anime series in video games, but not many successes. There are standouts for sure, I’m a huge proponent of the Cyberconnect2 Naruto games, but for each of those there’s a dozen flunks like Jump Force or that One Punch Man game- simulacrums that fail to recreate the feeling of watching that show in game form. With the series’ first new entry in a decade, SEGA has made Sakura Wars the perfect pastiche of a lost 90’s mecha anime, with all the good and bad that entails.
Sakura Wars got its start on the Sega Saturn, where it was pitched as a “Drama Adventure,” an ambitious cross between a tactical RPG and a dating sim or visual novel. SEGA didn’t localize any entries in the long running series, save So Long, My Love in 2008, which was met with such universal critical disdain that it actually shuttered the franchise until this newest release. However since then the Fire Emblem series, and visual novels at large, have burst into the public consciousness and finally asserted the genre as a core pillar of western gaming, so it’s only natural that SEGA would bring the series that inspired so many others back into the forefront.
This new Sakura Wars takes place in a fantasized steampunk version of 1940’s Tokyo, where demons are always on the attack and Mech-based combat is kind of a big deal. You play as Seijurou Kamiyama, a military officer who’s been put in charge of the failing Flower Division, a brigade of stage actors/mecha pilots. As the new captain, it’s Seijurou’s job to get to know his crew, figure out what sort of problems each member is facing, and how they can overcome them while trying to make the world a better place. This is generally done through a standard visual-novel layout, with the occasional action sequence breaking things up every so often.
Though the older games used a traditional turn-based combat system, the newest entry features a spectacle based hack-and-slash approach reminiscent of the Dynasty Warriors series. There’s nothing too deep going on, and you can largely button mash your way through any encounter with relative ease. In most games I would look to this as a critical failure, and if you’re a Fire Emblem fan looking for a quick hit you might as well, but Sakura Wars actually manages to utilize these sequences for narrative consequences. Battles are a sentiment rather than a playground. Fights are never just happening for the sake of it, and the aesthetics and delivery of everything help make it feel more like you’re piloting an entire fight scene in an anime rather than just doing a simple set of quick time events.
Presentation in general is Sakura Wars’ biggest strength. Anime-style eyecatches act as both save points and a means to check on how your relationships with various characters are progressing, breaking up the game into “right after the commercial” style cliffhangers. Each chapter ends with a “Coming Up Next” teaser for the next arc of the game, which are perfectly cut like a television anime’s sneak peek for next week. These small flourishes really help the new Sakura Wars connect to its roots, replicating the sensibilities of an era we remember in our minds, but has long since past. I’ve never been one big on nostalgia, but Sakura Wars’ delivery really had me pining for the days of watching whatever mecha series happened to be on the TV in my childhood.
The characters of Sakura Wars are equally charming. Though a large majority of the cast are women (this is a dating sim after all), each character is vibrant and distinct from one another. The main five heroines are the titular samurai Sakura, the bookish Claris, the rowdy Hatsuho, the mysterious actress Anastasia, and Azami who’s pretty much just a ninja. Bleach mangaka Tite Kubo was in charge of designing these five, and his specific style is a welcome change of pace in a genre that feels like it’s only ever given an option between two aesthetics. The rest of the cast was designed by a slew of guest artists as well, and the differences in all of their designs really help make the world pop. My favorite was Sakura’s sparring teacher- a cool knight woman named Hakushu who was designed by Persona character designer Shigenori Soejima- who alternates between suave sincerity and weird rants about omurice.
As someone who regularly chides the artistic sensibilities of steampunk, the world of Sakura Wars surprised me quite a bit. This is no gritty and dark Bioshock. Not another foggy and brown London imitation. This iteration on 1940’s Tokyo is vibrant and low-tech, with cherry blossoms and greenery all around. You’re afforded a pretty limited look at the world for sure, a few select areas that serve as hubs for the various story events and conversations that make up the core game, but each location is charming and simple in a way I could only be impressed by. The theater most of the game takes place around in particular is pleasant to look at, but not so ostentatious that it becomes difficult to explore the ins and outs as regularly as you end up doing.
The visual novel sequences of the game are delivered through the Live Interactive Picture System (or LIPS for short), which limits the time you have to make your dialogue choice to a few seconds. Normally this sort of system would frustrate me, but I actually found the time limit encouraging me to go with my gut in a lot of ways that made my playthrough feel less formulaic and guided. There are also several dialogue options that require you to set the level of intensity Seijurou is going to speak their lines at, which can either feel really cool or really silly depending on how high or low you go for any given line. One of my favorite missteps was near the climax of the game where I had Seijurou deliver a grand speech about the power of friendship and bonds, all in a sheepish and embarrassed whisper.
Given the nature of a dating sim, arguably the most important component of Sakura Wars is the writing, and for the most part it delivers. There’s a clear intent to avoid any sort of deeper philosophical quandaries, and a much larger focus on comedic or emotional situations to enamour the player with the game’s cast. When it comes to the main narrative, this is done generally pretty well, albeit with tropes aplenty. Each character is quirky and cute, and their emotional arcs have satisfying conclusions that tie into the main plot in obvious, yet exciting ways.
Though you end up picking one of the five main characters as your love interest for a special ending sequence, the game doesn’t limit you from interacting with any of the other girls in a romantic way. If you’re turned off by harem anime conceits this might be frustrating, but as someone who generally can stand that genre it was nice to be able to actually watch the game develop each individual character without making the player ignore some in favor of others, until another playthrough. This is a real boon to the anime format Sakura Wars is trying to nail, since each character gets their own arc over time, making it feel more like a complete series rather than several stories pushed into one. There’s still incentive to replay the game of course; while the core story doesn’t really change much, a lot of the choices completely change how the scenes will play out in all sorts of ways, so if you end up really liking the game, it can be funny to go through and do a “worst possible choices” run.
Unfortunately the romantic bits with each of the characters is probably one of the weakest points of the game. While the standard dates are cute, and figuring out each girl’s personality to know what answers make sense for them is entertaining, there are several Tête-à-Tête bonding events that just end up feeling sort of embarrassing more than anything. These sequences put you into each of the main girls’ rooms in a first person perspective as you try to figure out how to make them feel better and then…pet their hair or face? The initial conceit of navigating an environment and dialogue choices to try and make a character feel better is compelling, but the turn each event takes at the end where you’re practically instructed to look at the characters’ breasts or ass feels incredibly out of place.
There’s other moments like this that are frustrating as well scattered throughout the game. Sakura Wars has very little in terms of “fanservice,” for lack of a better word, meaning that there’s not really many sequences where you end up seeing some anime titties or something, but it constantly cracks the worst kind of jokes like it actually does. Every chapter has one or two bits where uncharacteristically, and out of nowhere, Seijuro will all of a sudden do something like not knock before going into a dressing room, only to find a fully clothed Sakura who screams for like three minutes about how he’s a pervert freak and needs to die. While I mentioned before that I really appreciated how Sakura Wars feels like a lost 90’s anime, I kind of wish they didn’t feel the need to replicate every single aspect of one.
These scenes are all technically optional, but at a certain level I have to wonder why they even exist at all. I found myself avoiding the downstairs bath entirely for most of the game, only because I knew that everytime an objective marker was put down there, nothing good would come of it. By the end of the game I genuinely found the overreliance on these jokes to be an active thorn in the game’s side- whereas the rest of the game had the characters gradually warm up to you and change how they spoke with time, if you found yourself in the random horny room all of a sudden, that relationship was destroyed for the duration of the cutscene. One of the worst scenes in the game involved Seijurou going to take a bath, only to have three of the girls walk in on him, and call him a pervert and a freak for…taking a bath?
I was just sort of floored at this scene because it really showcased the writers’ inability to fully conceive a woman as anything other than an ultra conservative concept when it comes to sexual topics of any kind. I’ve always found myself frustrated when it comes to the portrayal of women in media, and it’s this sort of mischaracterization that drags the entire game down with it. Though I was able to mostly ignore these bits and still fall in love with all of the girls, the fact that I even had to actively ignore something at all really sucks.
Despite that, Sakura Wars really managed to win me over, mainly because of just how many little things there were that I loved. There was the weird hanafuda game that every big budget VN seems obligated to have, where you can curse every character in the game out for getting a much better hand than you and smugly rubbing it in. Though the soundtrack for the game is pretty limited, the expert delivery of the Sakura Wars theme with its triumphant horns section never failed to get me psyched up, especially once those vocals kicked in. There are dozens of framed anime cels from the original Sakura Wars games lying around that you can collect, and whenever the original series’ Sakura shows up she’s drawn in that art style, which contrasted against Tite Kubo’s women ends up being extremely funny and charming.
Sakura Wars isn’t a particularly deep game, but it never really feels like it’s trying to be. I spend a lot of time playing a lot of games with deeper messages, or long engrossing metanarratives that require me to use a lot of my very frail brain at any given time, so it was nice to actually just fool around with cute anime girls and big cool mech moves for a while. This is a game that tries to serve that childish side of the player, the side that wants to see a drama unfold without thinking too much about it, the side that wants to hear about the power of bonds and friendship and how it can overcome anything. Sakura Wars is sort of like the video game equivalent of a nice dessert: it’s not very filling or substantial, and you know it’s not exactly the best for you, but damn if it isn’t sweet.