Theater of Pain – Sakura Wars Review
Platforms: PlayStation 4
Release Date: April 28, 2020
When it comes to revitalizing a defunct franchise, I certainly wasn’t expecting Sega to bring Sakura Wars back. The series’ mixture of visual novel romance simulation and tactical role-playing would very much sit at odds with the publisher’s recent output in more ways than one. Naturally, this means that this new title is more of a soft reboot than anything else, and one that discards a great many of its former characteristics in favor of presenting a more modern title.
Things could have gone very wrong for Sakura Wars on this front, but the game knows its audience. It’s not a game that aims to please action or RPG fans. It instead tries its best to deliver a fully 3D version of what amounts to a visual novel, despite lacking almost every aspect that people might use to identify it as such. Due to this, the game will likely be very enjoyable to anyone looking to chat with anime girls at the expense of not being interesting to anyone else.
Theater of the absurd
Sakura Wars very much has the same setup of past games. The majority of the story takes place at a theater where the resident actors are also part of a secret mecha defense force called the Flower Division. Well, not that secret, as sometimes they just park the mechs directly in front of the building, because, hey, who cares? The story revolves around Seijuro Kamiyama, who is called in to become the new commander of the Flower Division, which is in danger of being shut down due to their plays being bad and their mechs being outdated.
Shortly after the game starts, however, a world-renowned actress decides to start acting at the theater because of reasons and she also joins the mech team because (again) why not? Then, despite not having any money, the whole team of mech pilots gets a bunch of brand new mechs even though the head of the theater tells you how broke the place is shortly before. What I’m getting at is that the plot makes no sense and it’s not going to get any clearer.
Sakura Wars takes place in an alternate 1940s Tokyo where all power is generated via steampunk gadgets. This includes the mechs and the steampunk cellphone the main character has because every modern game needs to have a cellphone in it. Tokyo is also randomly attacked by demons, which is why the Flower Division is standing by. A big part of the plot also focuses on them needing to win a world mech combat championship in order to stay open. Does it still not make sense? Good, we can drop this, then.
Gotta flirt with ’em all
The way that “gameplay” in Sakura Wars plays out is fairly basic. The game is separated into several chapters. Most of them take place at the theater and have you moving Seijuro around as he talks to the other characters. Certain conversations forward the plot, while others are more akin to sidequests. While the previous games in the series would do this stuff purely in visual novel format, this game trades that in for cutscenes. It’s really more like watching a 3D tv show than anything else. The chapters also end with a preview for the very next one too.
Even though the plot itself is nonsensical, the dialogue is well-written and the models and animations for the characters are high quality. All the character designs were done by Tite Kubo, better known as the creator of the hit anime and manga series Bleach. Nearly every character interaction has a cutscene associated with it, although a fair amount of them have no voice acting, which is really weird when taken with the fact that the characters still animate and their mouths move. There are also occasional anime cutscenes (that often use heavily cel-shaded CGI models instead of hand-drawn characters) and sequences where a static drawing is put on screen with text over it, which is the only time the game really resembles a visual novel in terms of aesthetics.
Many of the chapters are dedicated to Seijuro interacting with and subsequently helping one of the girls with some melodramatic problem. For instance, the second girl he helps is Claris, who has a random mental breakdown because she uses her wind magic during an emergency despite the fact that she hates her magic and thinks it’s bad to use. That naturally doesn’t stop her from carrying the magic book that allows her to use said magic literally everywhere she goes. Oh, and her mech, despite being a combat machine, has no weapons. Instead, it just carries a big book around, even though she could just read the one on her. Again, it’s nonsense. It’s worth mentioning that Claris has no issues piloting a multi-ton death machine either.
This brings us to the non-watching cutscenes part of the game – the action stages. At the end of each chapter, you go into a stage and fight enemies in a level. The combat is simple, yet pretty fun. It plays like a weightier, infinitely-prettier version of Dynasty Warriors and I found it to be rather enjoyable. Seijuro and each of the girls are all playable at some point, with each mech having its own moveset. They all have light and strong attacks that can be chained to make even stronger ones, plus a super attack when you fill a bar by collecting energy from smashed crystals or downed enemies.
Additionally, there’s a dodge move that will slow down time if used right before an enemy strike lands. This can also let you get a finisher in. These stages are quite fun, although don’t expect to see them much. You can replay them via Sakura Wars‘ optional combat simulator in the theater, though. There’s also a card minigame you can play against the rest of the game’s cast. The card game isn’t really all that fun, though.
Aside from the stages, there are occasional raids where enemies will attack the streets of Tokyo and you’ll need to rush out and stop them, but these are very brief and only serve to break up the action. Other than that, one of the only other things Sakura Wars offers is romance sections where the camera gets locked in first person and you interact with the girls. The game lets you stroke their hair or touch their faces while they stare at you misty-eyed. It’s weird for me personally, but if you’re into that sort of thing, it might very well be a highlight for you.
One more time
You can actually get multiple playthroughs out of Sakura Wars if you want to see all the epilogues. One of the series’ defining features is that you have a time limit to choose Seijuro’s responses to various things and different responses will increase how much the game’s five girls like him. This leads to unlocking the different epilogues, but most of the game is going to be the same every time, so this is mostly for completionists only.
As I said, how much you enjoy Sakura Wars is going to boil down to how much you like talking to the girls. They’re all archetypes and some of them are much less interesting than others, but they’ve got some of the best character models and animations I’ve seen in any 3D anime game. Plus, there are some wonderful voice actors in the cast, including two of my personal favorites. Also, it is important to note that there’s no English dub. The voice acting is all in Japanese with subtitles.
Sakura Wars is an entertaining game with really strong visuals and a massive amount of cutscenes. The combat is fun but very uncommon, and the story itself is nonsensical, but anyone looking to just sit back and interact with its cast of characters will likely have a pretty good time. But I still don’t understand why Claris even has those books if she hates them so much. Just don’t carry them with you. They’re the only way you can use magic.
This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.