Review: Sakura Wars (PS4)


Platforms:

  • PlayStation 4

Platform/Hardware Used:

  • PSN Download
  • PS4 Pro
  • 4K HDR

Extras:

  • DualShock 4 Required (1)
  • Move None
Title: Sakura Wars
Format: Blu-ray Disc / PSN (49.05 GB)
Release Date: April 28, 2020
Publisher: Sega
Developer: Sega
Original MSRP: $59.99 (USD)
ESRB Rating: T
A code for the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

Gameplay:
Sakura Wars is one of those series that never got a huge chance in the west. Starting back in 1996 on the Sega Saturn, the series was a niche success spawning four sequels and a handful of spinoffs up through 2005. It wasn’t until the fifth game in the series that it would finally see a localized release, but due to poor sales in Japan, the series was put on hiatus soon after.

Now, nearly fifteen years after the hiatus in Japan (and almost a decade since the English release), Sakura Wars is seeing a modern revival. Sakura Wars on PS4 is a soft reboot of the series, still tied to the original, but using a new cast and a lot of modern systems. Walking the tightrope of being true to the original series while appealing to a new generation is no easy feat, but it’s a tightrope made all the tougher by that extended hiatus.

Sakura Wars is a “dramatic adventure game” according to the developers; essentially, an interactive novel, but with some more traditional gameplay mechanics worked in. Taking inspiration from Japanese stage plays, and incorporating aspects of anime, steampunk, and historical fiction, Sakura Wars is an interesting and unique blend of a game.

The game follows Seijuro Kamiyama, a naval captain who is reassigned to the Imperial Combat Revue. Based out of a theater in a steampunkified Taishō-era Tokyo, the Combat Revue is on the verge of being closed down. As the new captain, Seijuro must help the team win the upcoming Combat Revue World Games to avoid being shut down, while also turning around the failing theater to fund the Revue’s operations.

Gameplay in Sakura Wars is largely separated into two sections: novel sections and combat sections. Novel sections involve free-roam moving around the theater and Tokyo, extended story sections, and making occasional dialogue choices. Combat sections are pretty traditional third-person action combat, with steampunk mechs.

During dialogue, Seijuro has dialogue choices using the series “Live & Interactive Picture System” (LIPS). Once revolutionary in past entries, dialogue choices aren’t too uncommon these days. However, Sakura Wars does have a time limit on responses and some responses are not a choice of what to say but how intensely to say it.

Of course, dialogue choices play a role in the how the other characters see you, with the five main Revue members being romance-able. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like your dialogue choices have too much effect on the story itself, as “bad options” will be course corrected for by other characters and gaining trust with characters only results in a few small side events and a short epilogue with the chosen romance option.

The story can also be slightly underwhelming due to presentation at times. The game bounces between a few different presentation styles and not all of them include character voices. I’ll talk a bit more about the presentation and audio in their respective sections, but there were definitely times during unvoiced scenes where I found it harder to focus on the story. Even though I couldn’t understand the Japanese voice work, the lack of emotion behind the dialogue detracted from the story itself.

Still, I enjoyed the story overall and the dialogue system. Adding a time limit made me feel more in-character and not tempted to waffle on answers for a long time. The game can even shorten the time limit in tense situations, which helped make me more feel tense. Getting to know the girls, and the rest of the side cast, was also enjoyable. Each character has their own quirks and personality that shine through their responses and story sections.

As you get close to the girls, you can even trigger special “tête-à-tête” events where you can talk one-on-one with them. These allow you to direct the conversation by “clicking” on certain things in the environment. This is a pretty cool feature, though it can be a little embarrassing. If you’re playing this in your family room, maybe save those sections for when no one is home…

The combat gameplay, on the other hand, is a little rote. It’s certainly serviceable; the feel is weighty without being too sluggish, and there is satisfaction in downing big bosses. But it still felt like many of the 3D action games out there: button mash some enemies down, a few simple combos for tougher foes, and save up for a special attack on the boss. I did enjoy being able to get a bullet-time when dodging an attack at the right time, but the combat was overall a little on the easy and generic side.

To add some replayability, there are some collectibles and optional content. A ton of images, called Bromides, can be found around the game or from certain events. All of the battles in the game are added to a ‘simulation’ once completed in the story and can be replayed with any of the other main girls as a partner. There’s also a minigame of playing Koi-koi against other characters.

Visuals:
One common complaint I often have with these mid-budget Japanese games is that the animations are stilted and awkward. Sakura Wars, oddly enough, almost seems to have the opposite problem. Characters overreact when talking to the point where it is sometimes comical. That said, it kind of fits with the stage play aesthetic/theme, as actors in plays are normally required to emote with more than their voice. Once I got used to the style, it felt like more of a quirk than a problem.

Beyond animations, the overall visual style is very good. I especially loved the fusion of Taishō period Japan and steampunk. Somehow, traditional Japanese garb and steam-powered mech suits work together pretty well and feels quintessentially “anime”. It looks even better when the game jumps into pre-rendered cutscenes, a few of which I had trouble telling if they were 3D modeled or 2D drawn.

One surprising fact I found out while researching the game after playing was that Tite Kubo, author/artist of the well-known anime Bleach, was tapped to do the character designs for the game. For someone known for his stylish but modern designs, I was rather surprised to know he had worked on the game. Despite being outside his normal wheelhouse, I think he did a fantastic job on the characters.

Audio:
To get this out of the way, Sakura Wars does not contain English voice work. Only Japanese dub is available and, as noted above, it’s not even included in all scenes. This is a bit unfortunate, as it can detract from some scenes to not have the vocal emotion included. The more emotive animations can help cover for some of it, but there were definitely scenes that still could have used voices.

Another thing I found when researching was that some of the soundtrack was lifted/updated from the older games. This, however, was not too surprising as some of the tracks felt very “90’s anime” to me. Not that it’s a bad thing, in fact I think it kind of adds to the quirky appeal of the game. There are plenty of songs that aren’t “90’s anime” and I enjoyed the music in the game.

Online/Multiplayer:
This game is single-player only with no online component.

Conclusion:
Sakura Wars is a unique and interesting game. I’d say it’s still largely a niche appeal, most well suited to those who enjoy visual novels. The action combat certainly adds some broad-appeal sensibilities but it’s just a bit too generic to be the sole reason to play the game. The story can drag in parts (though I was going completion and seeking out all side conversations to the pace may be better if those were ignored) but is overall a fun tale.

On the whole, I’d say Sakura Wars is a good game even if the appeal is somewhat limited. I’m certainly glad that Sega decided to localize it because I did enjoy it, and I hope the game does well enough to warrant a full revival of the franchise. And if any part of the game sounds interesting, by all means give it a shot. It is “A Taishō-era tale to touch hearts!” as the game’s tagline goes.

Score:

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

Written by Andy Richardson

Andy Richardson

A longtime PlayStation fan who enjoys JRPGs and rhythm games when he’s not tweeting about his parrot.

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