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Review: Sakura Wars

27 Apr 2020

A trip to Japan accompanied by demon-fighting mechanical suits and an all-female theatre revue just became a lot easier for the first time in around ten years thanks to Sakura Wars.

This title, developed and published by SEGA, is a self-described soft reboot of the franchise. For many newcomers to the series, such as myself, this can be helpful while hopping into a Spiricle Striker when the game releases on April 28th, 2020 for PlayStation 4. With so much time for growth on a new title, does this new beginning for Sakura Wars steal the show or will it have you leaving before the final curtain falls?

Stage-Worthy Storytelling

Sakura Wars opens its story with the protagonist Seijuro Kamiyama setting out for Tokyo on the way to his first assignment as captain at the Imperial Combat Revue’s Flower Division. Here Kamiyama meets an all-female theatre production group consisting of a variety of characters as well as their commander, Sumire Kanzaki.

For newcomers to the Sakura Wars series, this soft reboot does a great job of explaining how things work through the lens of Kamiyama. The goal for all Imperial Revue divisions is two-fold: to protect, as well as bring hope to the people. The former is done by warding off demon invasions in mechanical Spiricle Striker suits while the latter is done through theatrical performances put on by the division members. 

What Sakura Wars gets right is telling a trying tale of struggle through the Flower Division’s diminishing power and respect from the people of Tokyo. As you progress through the story you learn what makes each member of the theater revue unique and wonderful while also going through the twists and turns that make this story fantastic. It feels equal parts dramatic and somber at times while making you laugh or smile at others. I found myself pulled in again and again by the main story moments with each character and even some of the side conversations or extra information they shared with me. It felt like these characters were part of a living, breathing game environment, apart from the intense combat moments.

But what I shortly found was that Sakura Wars also has a dark stain on what could have been an otherwise beautiful experience. 

Fighting Demons and Creeping Out Women

Of course, Sakura Wars isn’t all stories and theatre revues, as there are plenty of demons to fight during other parts of the game. This is done in a third-person view that allows many different fighting styles as you control different members of the revue through dungeons and other battles. Fighting in Sakura Wars feels really good and quells my greatest fear coming into this game as someone with a visual disability; I had zero issues with fighting and timing my hits. It felt very approachable for me and my normal limitations I experience in games.

There are also moments where the fighting can fall a little short, such as when the story forces you to fight with certain characters that are really not suited for that specific situation. But overall, the battle mechanics feel good and fighting, in general, could take me away from some of the less-than stellar-elements of the game for long enough. Sometimes it would make me think I was playing another game entirely.

Although it wasn’t long before I was taken right back into the moments that I’ve alluded to earlier in this review, the aforementioned dark stain on the beautiful Sakura Wars. While this game is considered an action-RPG first it is, at least in part, a dating simulator second.

This could be played off well enough if not for the underlying implications this has given a major influence to the background of this game series. See, I’m admittedly brand new to the series, so I wasn’t entirely sure what this experience would look like coming into it and kept an open mind. But one thing I am a bit more familiar with is the very thing Sakura Wars proudly draws influence from: the Takarazuka Revue, an all-female theater company that was founded in 1913 in Japan. To this day, Takarazuka serves as a home to many influential performances and has become a symbol of safe, artful expression for many women in Japan and around the world who enjoy the performances from afar. In fact, the motto of Takarazuka includes the pillar qualities of “purity, honesty, and beauty.”

So why, then, would a game such as Sakura Wars, so heavily influenced by the existence of Takarazuka Revue itself, decide to play vehemently against these principles? This is done through the more “dating simulator” style moments of Sakura Wars where the player, as Kamiyama, sneaks a peek at different girls during what feels like less than consensual moments. Or when the “romance interactions” are available and, instead of having regular interactions with a woman, it gives off more of a “you have no confidence and I’m your boss so listen to what I say,” kind of vibe. Granted, these aren’t always mandatory. But sometimes, you are forced into what feels like a very uncomfortable scene with a woman that maybe doesn’t want to be flirted with or stared at.

I’m not saying I expected “Takarazuka: The Game” nor did I expect each detail of the theater revue to be mentioned. However, if I was looking for a questionable dating simulator experience that makes players like myself feel unwelcome in a game’s playing space, I certainly wouldn’t expect those same games to associate themselves with something that has the history of Takarazuka. Whatever the intention behind the character and story design choices may be, they all lead to one result: the most un-Takarazuka experience I could have imagined from a game claiming to be a tribute to something so important to so many people. In fact, it feels more like an insult on the name than anything else

Novel Beauty

Taking place in 1940 opens the door for a unique art and music style in Sakura Wars. This style blends true-to-era motifs and trends with a steampunk aesthetic that allows for things such as the Spiricle Strikers and Kamiyama’s “phone” to exist. Careful detail has been given to looks and art when it comes to this game and it is made apparent in nearly every scene. I loved seeing the locations around the Flower Division Revue come to life, as well as the mix of in-game and animated scenes. This even flows into a favorite mini-game of mine, the addition of playing the classic card game koi-koi against characters from the story as well as the Flower Division. 

Music and audio were given just as much careful attention in Sakura Wars. From the catchy initial opening track to the idle music playing around the theater, there isn’t a single piece of music that feels out of place for both the time period or the game itself. It honestly has one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard from a game in a while and some of the tracks were reminiscent of the music I’d expect to hear from Takarazuka productions themselves. The music from this game will certainly be something I listen to or have stuck in my head for some time now. 

I was beyond impressed by the careful attention paid to the time period accuracy of some art stylings for locations, NPC fashion, and even some of the musical choices. It felt like a very appropriately-placed piece within its time, forgiving the steampunk additions of course. But it makes one wonder how much better it could have been if some of the interactive characters had been designed with their original inspiration in mind, or at least less of a sexualized romance in mind, given how out of place some of them can feel at times to the world around them.

What Could Have Been

Throughout my time playing Sakura Wars I kept wanting to love this game so badly. In nearly every way, this should have been exactly the game I’d love to play and shout from the rooftops about. As I walked through the theater, joked with some of my favorite characters, or ate some free confectionaries in town, I was reminded time and time again why people love the Sakura Wars franchise so much.

In every corner of these games, in each battle, or even sometimes in the gleam of a bromide on the floor, there is overflowing character and personality. The battles feel good most of the time, the pacing only feels off some of the time, but there is still this sinking and lingering feeling there. No matter how long I played, how much I tried, it wouldn’t go away. And that’s because it’s obvious when a game is only made with a specific need or audience in mind for a major part of its mechanics.

Those who already enjoy the series or this style of action-RPG meets dating simulator will still have a fun experience and find a good game to play here. Despite the faults with pacing or mechanics I may have discovered along the way, it won’t be enough to scare away this existing audience.

But in a more general sense, unfortunately, Sakura Wars fills a need for a part of its player audience that, no matter how I look at it, isn’t something that feels right. Especially when you consider the decades of hard work the women of Takarazuka have put in, only to be attributed to this. It makes me hope that somewhere, someday, there can be a Sakura Wars without so much of those other moments. Maybe it could still be a dating simulator, just a more consensual-feeling one.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Review copy provided by SEGA for Playstation 4. Screenshots captured by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of SEGA.