Game Info:

Sakura Wars
Developed By: SEGA CS2 R&D
Published By: SEGA
Released: April 28, 2020
Available On: PlayStation 4
Genre: Action Role-Playing, Visual Novel, Dating Sim
ESRB Rating: T for Teen: Blood, Violence, Language, Partial Nudity, Sexual Themes
Number of Players: Single-player
Price: $59.99
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Thank you, SEGA, for sending us a review code!

Sega tends to have a whole host of intellectual properties that many players have never heard of before—Sakura Wars being one of the dozens out of Sega’s list. Even though for most people outside of Japan (including me), Sakura Wars 2020 will be their introduction to the franchise, this is actually a long-running series that started back in 1996. This soft reboot is a revival of sorts to a dormant franchise that hasn’t had a mainline entry since 2005. The sixth mainline entry is actually the second of the series to be released worldwide, with the first one being Sakura Wars V: So Long, My Love released for the PS2 and Wii.

Sakura Wars is what you would call a cross-genre series. It takes two or more genres and combines them. In this case, it is the storytelling and narrative structure of visual novels, the romantic nature of dating simulators, and the clashing of steel expected of action games. Sakura Wars takes place in a steampunk version of 1940s Tokyo, where a task force utilizing steam (and spirit) powered combat armor protect the city from demons that threaten humanity. During moments of peace, the task force will go about in their day-to-day activities. In this case, you’ll be following the Reveue’s Flower Division who protects Toyko while performing theater on the side. Unfortunately, the Flower Division is not only really bad at defending their city— to the point where the Shanghai Combat Revue has to pick up the slack for them (and the Shanghai group will gladly let them know of that), but their theater performances are commonly seen as the laughing stock of the area. The group is in the red and barely makes enough money to pay their employees.

The manager and commander of the Great Imperial Theater and Flower Division, Sumire Kanzaki, takes it upon herself to hire Seijurou Kamiyama (who happens to be one of the few male characters in the female-majority cast) to act as the captain of the Flower Division in hopes of training the group in combat prowess so that they can compete in the Combat Revue World Games. They also must win the event against overwhelming odds to avoid being shut down. Besides Kamiyama, the Flower Division consists of Sakura Amamiya, Hatsuho Shinonome, Clarissa “Claris” Snowflake, Azami Mochizuki, and Anastasia Palma, who is specifically brought in to refine the team’s acting as she is a world-class actress.

One of the defining features of Sakura Wars is its LIPS system. Standing for Live & Interactive Picture System, they are the various choices (a max of three) that Kamiyama will make throughout the numerous cutscenes. What makes these kinds of dialogue choices different from others in visual novels are that the choices are set on a timer. If you don’t choose before the clock runs out, Kamiyama will say nothing. Sometimes, saying nothing is the best course of action so it’s not always a bad thing to let the timer run out. Pay attention, as nearly every cutscene in the game prompts LIPS. It’s best to observe the people Kamiyama is talking to and their personalities to choose the best (or worst) answer. Answers can range from positive, neutral, and negative, and some choices can be outlandish in nature. However, the outlandish choice can be the correct one. The LIPS system adds a nice layer of interactivity and choosing goofy answers can lead to hilarious moments. The narrative does have a tendency to nudge your choices towards Sakura as she is the most fleshed-out character of the cast (to the point where she even hijacks another character's chapter) and has the most plot relevance. It does slightly annoy me when a developer gives you choice, but makes it feel like that any other choice you decide on is "wrong."

Sakura Wars

Strong Points: Adorable, humorous, and heartwarming moments between characters; great character, mecha, and scenery design; lovely music that matches the tone of every scene; LIPS system and multiple dialogue choices are well thought out
Weak Points: Some scenes lack voices and it can be fairly inconsistent; combat is simplistic to a fault 
Moral Warnings: Most violent moments are mecha-to-mecha action, but there are a few moments of human-on-human violence and one particular bloody moment where a character gets slashed across her chest; language ranging from “h*ll”, “d*mn”, “a*s”, and stronger language such as “b*st*rd”, “b*tch”, and “sh*t”; numerous bathhouse scenes where the main cast are naked with the bath steam, water or camera angle covering their more sensitive areas; dialogue choices can get quite perverted in nature if chosen like Kamiyama gazing at the female’s body parts with an accompanying zoom in by the camera, although some are unavoidable such as Reiji wanting to install hidden cameras in the combat armor, while Kamiyama objects, or another scene where Hatsuho orders chest wraps as she is running low on them, and Kamiyama ponders if she is currently wearing them on their mission; there is a brief kiss between two female characters, although in the context of a play; a character utilizes magic via grimoires and tomes

Navigating through Tokyo takes place in a 3D space where Kamiyama can walk around the area and interact with the various side characters and other non-player characters. Controlling Kamiyama in the overworld can feel a bit stiff at first, but takes little time to get used to. Scattered throughout are bromides (pictures) of the main and side characters, as well as characters that were featured through the previous entries. The main area is the Great Imperial Theater where you can access side content through characters marked with a blue exclamation point to build up trust, while the green exclamation point is to continue with the story. The LIPS system intertwines with the trust system as the more good choices you make, the higher trust level you gain with the characters, which is represented by a cute animation on the intermission screens. As for the five main heroines, if their trust is high enough, you can unlock scenes that are marked with a heart to see special moments between Kamiyama and the selected heroine. Most of these scenes are the dating sim elements where Kamiyama gets to know each heroine on a deeper level. All of these scenes are sweet like candy and make you appreciate the girls even more.

With a series that prominently features mecha and threats that constantly throw the world off balance, Sakura Wars doesn’t focus on combat in the slightest, as you won’t even enter your first battle until after the two-hour mark. With people who have at least a vague familiarity with the series, the biggest change they’ll notice is the swapping of tactical turn-based combat to action combat. On the field, you’ll control Kamiyama and another heroine based on the chapter that you are in. Combat, in most cases, comes at the end of the chapter where you’ll go through areas, fighting hordes of enemies. Light and heavy attacks are executed with the Circle and Triangle button respectively, while a special attack is used by the Square button if your special meter is filled up. If Kamiyama has gained enough trust with the heroine accompanying him in battle, they can execute a team attack (that plays a humorous, yet heartfelt scene) which greatly increases attack power.

I would say the closest Sakura Wars’ combat is similar to is musou-styled (Dynasty Warriors) combat. Musou combat does get a bad reputation in many corners of the action community for being “brainless” but even musou combat can have some inner depth and a huge amount of content behind it. It’s not that Sakura Wars’ combat is bad (and trust me, I’ve played some awful games with dreadful, buggy combat before), it’s that within its core, is a very simplistic system, even for musou standards. There is competency in the mechanics as it rewards you with dealing damage and avoiding damage with a morale system that boosts your attack and defensive capabilities and these features do work—sadly it just never does much with it and the combat barely evolves throughout the game. Most enemies barely pose a challenge and your characters are so powerful that there is a high chance you’ll defeat all the enemies before dialogue is fully exhausted. Even the level design is simplistic. The level aesthetics look great, but navigating through them consists of simple paths or platforming segments that lead to huge arenas with hordes of enemies. You rinse and repeat that until you get to the boss of the mission whom you also easily defeat. Unfortunately, Sakura Wars’ combat is arguably its weakest feature from fear of taking risks with it. On a positive note, it doesn’t overstay its welcome—unless you want to collect all the bromides, that is.

Fortunately, this steampunk rendition of Tokyo is wonderful to look at. The colors of the world pop out fascinatingly and take an interesting spin on the Taishō era of Japan. The aesthetics are just amazing to look at and the steampunk aspects aren't out of place. The architecture of the buildings, streets, and clothing represent that era. There was a ton of care and effort put into the designs to make everything look as authentic as possible while taking some liberties here and there to make the steampunk parts feel like a natural part of that period as well.

Anyone with a basic knowledge of anime and manga can take a look at the main characters and feel that many of them look familiar. That’s because the main character designs were done by Tite Kubo of Bleach fame. I’ve always felt that one of Kubo’s best aspects is the way he designs characters, and he takes this expertise with him to Sakura Wars. Although some of the main cast look just like certain Bleach characters, they are all still magnificently designed. They say a good trait of great character design is that you can tell a part of the character’s personality by the way they look. By looking at each character, you can easily get a good feel as to how they will act within the context of the story. This even extends to the guest designers and their characters. If you're familiar with series such as K-On!, Sword Art Online, and Persona, you'll be able to easily tell who was designed by who. The combat armor takes this to the next level with their stocky and powerful designs, while further representing the pilot that controls them. The humanoid-shaped robots shine with brilliance and look imposing, even though they are only two to three times the size of the person controlling them.

I was warned that the opening of Sakura Wars was quite infectious. To sum it up, the opening theme got stuck in my head for three days when first starting up the game. Although it is played a lot throughout, whether it is a remix, a cover, or used as the climactic moment for a scene, I never got tired of it. With bombastic usage of piano, wind, and string instruments, it’s hard not to like! It, along with most of the soundtrack reminds me of 80s anime music that greatly embodies the tone or character the scene is trying to portray, all along with lyrics that are just as catchy, if not more than the actual music.

Emotions are also portrayed with exceptional execution as all of the voice actors and actresses do a great job whether it is for silly moments, serious moments, and everything in between. (Sorry dub fans, this one is in Japanese only.) Every character has a distinct voice and frankly, there wasn’t even one voice that I disliked. A rather strange choice, however, was that not every scene was voiced so you’ll get that awkward moment or two where the characters are moving about with their animated movements, while nothing is coming out of them. It doesn’t seem there is much rhyme or reason as to what scenes are voiced and what are not. You’ll have a scene that is voiced, with it directly leading into a scene that isn’t, just to go back into a scene that is voiced. The absolute most important scenes are all voiced, but some scenes that could have had a stronger emotional impact were not and do end up feeling slightly awkward.

Sakura Wars
Score Breakdown:
Higher is better
(10/10 is perfect)

Game Score - 84%
Gameplay 14/20
Graphics 9/10
Sound 9/10
Stability 5/5
Controls 5/5

Morality Score - 58%
Violence 5.5/10
Language 2.5/10
Sexual Content 6/10
Occult/Supernatural 5/10
Cultural/Moral/Ethical 10/10

Now with Sakura Wars being an anime game that isn’t specifically targeting a child audience, there are many moral concerns to be mindful of. Violence is a given, with the context of the narrative. Most of it is mecha-on-mecha action, with many of the demon enemies being robots and some of them are organic in nature. There is a lack of blood in most violent scenes except for one where a character is slashed across her chest and her blood sprays on the ground—with that particular scene being the most violent Sakura Wars gets. There is mild language uttered throughout by many characters consisting of “h*ll”, “d*mn”, “a*s”, with some stronger language in a lesser frequency like “b*st*rd”, “b*tch”, and “sh*t”. There also is the usage of magic by a couple of characters; one in particular uses grimoires and tomes. There is a brief moment where two female characters kiss, but considering it is done in the context of a play, it’s hard to think of it in a sexual nature.

Many sexually moments and references are sprinkled throughout as well. Of course with the game being a Teen rating, it can only go so far. Kamiyama can have quite a perverted nature and your choices can influence that. Good/positive choices will, of course, go for the more respectful path while negative choices will fully unleash the inner delinquent. Kamiyama will constantly comment on the girls' breasts, legs, butt, and everything in between if given the option to. The camera will even zoom in for some moments. Kamiyama is reprimanded for his lecherous behavior and get what is coming for him for a lot of the scenes. The numerous bath scenes also show off partial nudity whether it is from the girls or Kamiyama himself if he makes the more immoral decision and decides to either peek on them or even join them in the bath. Kamiyama’s friend Reiji is much less reserved about his feelings on girls as he blatantly states his desire to install hidden cameras into the girl’s combat armors, orders pornography magazines through the business, and will shamelessly ogle the girls.

There is another bath scene where Sakura wonders about the superstition that if rubbing “them” (her breasts) will help them grow bigger after thinking about Anastasia. A moment where Hatsuho and Kamiyama stop demons from stalling a shipment as part of the shipment had Hatsuko’s chest wraps as she was running out of them—with Kamiyama wondering if she was even wearing them on that mission. One other moment is where Claris bends over to look for a book, with Kamiyama struggling to not stare at her butt and legs. The character designs can get pretty sexualized, with Anastasia being the worst offender. As she is the most well-endowed maiden, she is also the one that wears a form-fitting dress with her top showing off a lot of side boob. Hatsuho also shows off some cleavage (with many scenes featuring her and Kamiyama pointing this out). If you opt for the DLC costumes whether it is through buying them separately or from the deluxe edition, the conservatively-dressed Sakura and Claris can have more revealing swimsuits—with Anastasia’s swimsuit being more revealing than both of them.

If I had to break down Sakura Wars, I would have to say it is 60% cutscenes and dialogue, 25% world navigation, and 15% combat for everything that is required to beat it. If you are someone who is expecting intense hotblooded robot action, you’ll want to look elsewhere. Sakura Wars mainly focuses on its character interactions and narrative structure with beautiful scenery to accompany it. The gameplay isn’t just robot action, it’s also the interactions with the characters, the choices made, and exploring the world. There are plenty of reasons to come back after finishing the game, such as the minigame Koi-Koi Wars (which is the card game Koi-Koi) and the ability to replay missions to earn higher ranks and builder further trust with the five heroines, as well as their respective endings. It’ll take anywhere between 20 and 25 hours to reach the ending, and more time if you decide to do everything that there is to offer.

What makes Sakura Wars a strong entry is the cast of characters who are sublime. With each interaction, you’ll grow to love and understand them more with every passing moment. For the few who have managed to play the previous entries expecting more of the same may feel some disappointment through how they handle the classic set of characters. Sakura Wars is a story about a group of underdogs that form close bonds with each other, defy all odds set against them, and become the people they knew they could be deep down. There are plenty of touching, hilarious, pleasant, and lighthearted moments to go around. No matter how much they are beaten down, they’ll just bounce right back up with more determination than the last. Sakura Wars is also not ashamed in the slightest of being an interactive anime and proudly wears it on its face, even through its cheesy and somewhat cringy moments. Of course with it being an anime there are plenty of moral concerns to be mindful of if you do decide to take part in this, most of it being sexual in nature. Deep down, what Sakura Wars does is something that most with a flavor for a sincere anime adventure can cherish.


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