The Sakura Wars franchise has long been a Japanese only game series with plenty of fan-boys begging for the title to be released overseas. And, after 14 years, it has finally happened. But the question now is, will people who were begging for the translated dating sims of Japan be disappointed, or will they want more? SEGA is hoping it will be the latter and so packed this copy of their popular Sakura Wars series with a large instruction booklet, a poster of the cover art, and a supplemental manual of characters, images, and layouts of the theatre where your headquarters are hidden beneath.
In Sakura Wars you play as young Lt. Shinjiro Taiga, a 'samurai' in training, who is sent to New York to lead The New York Revue Star Devision which is the team that protects the city. You meet seveal teammates along the way and begin to learn your way around the New York of the game... which is a sort of exaggeration and anime-esque version of the real thing.
When meeting and chatting with characters you will have many automatic responses, but sometimes you may notice that the dialogue box will be split into several different, sometimes quite cheeky, responses as is par for the course in Sakura Wars games. But be careful. Your responses are timed, and your responses are what endears you to your fellow soldiers. Get on their bad side, and they might not fight well beside you. Become dear friends with them, then they become powerful allies when you do enter combat. And don't feel like the middle path is the correct choice. Sometimes you may find that you get on someone's good side by being a little brash or curt with them. Each character reacts differently to specific choices that you make, and it's a very refreshing change to the usual RPGs where you will be sent on a specific path no matter what you say.
And that is one of the most entertaining parts of this RPG/Non-dating game. There's no grinding to raise the levels for your characters, it's all based upon how your relationships with them grow (or fail to, as the case may be). This will all help you when entering battle.
Now when it does comes time to kick some heads in, the combat system is actually quite enjoyable. You take control of one of the iconic steam mecha that is popular to the series and lead the team against enemy mecha. As always, the giant robots are beautifully designed and really bring the feel of the Sakura Wars genre to us. And the combat is fast paced and enjoyable. The controls are not stiff and are quite easy to get used to. There aren't a ton of sub-menus to choose from and so gets you going to the action quickly.
But should combat get a tad long, you can pause in the middle of a battle and save the game from the exact point you left off. Not many games of this genre have done this in the past and it is really refreshing to see someone finally take the lead and think about the players and things that may happen while playing a video game.
Unfortunately there aren't as many battle sequences as you might hope for making the need to forge tighter bonds with the other characters a bit confusing. This is where I actually would wish for it to be an actual dating simulation and not the non-dating simulation that it is. I mean taking out the grinding aspect to have your characters get better in battle seems silly if you don't go into battle that much. I personally would have enjoyed more combat opportunities and see exactly how powerful my relationships could get my crew. I would have to go back to my other Sakura Wars games, but I honestly think that those games had more combat opportunities than this version. But the choice menu does keep you busy by also allowing you to perform actions that will determine your skills in the game as well. Memory is key here as is skill with the controller.
As is usual for this series, it's the story that is the driving feature of the game, and is what will cause you to continue to want to play it. Thankfully, this is one story this is actually entertaining and enjoyable... if you like anime. The dating sims of Japan do not usually do too well here overseas as they are story driven and can get quite silly at times, and this one is no exception.
Now, with the ages of the characters, it is understandable that it is not a dating simulation game as the others of the series were, but just a relationship simulator. After all, the tender age of a few of the characters would be frowned upon should your character want to date them. But I think this was a necessary change to bring this overseas and try out their chops on a North American/European audience.
This is, however, a very good portal into the mindset of the Japanese dating-sim genre and, if you take it as such, you won't be disappointed. But the story, as good as it is, is completely silly and unrealistic. With gangster gunfights going on in the middle of the city and you unable to do anything to prevent it except “watch your own back” this portion of the game may lead to some people having a difficult time suspending their belief and just enjoying the game for what it is.
The voice acting in this title are not the worst I have heard. In fact, they're pretty good by normal standards. It appears to me that the actors are old hat at this and everything sounds good. The women don't go too over the top as is usually heard in these kinds of games and the male actors do fine work as well.
But, should you be a purist like me, then you can easily switch to the second disk that comes with the game and listen to the dialogue spoken in Japanese. Unfortunately you cannot switch between the two disks as you may want to, so make sure you choose your language preference ahead of time, because you're stuck with it for the rest of the game. This really makes no sense and is a problem that could have easily be fixed with a tiny bit of foresight. But the point really becomes mute if you are not the kind of person who likes voice acting and chooses to turn the voices off at the menu command.
Unfortunately you cannot turn off the music which is something I would have desired. The soundtrack is like that of the early Sega Saturn renditions of the game: hokey, embarrassingly short, and endlessly looping. It almost seems like they're using a midi track for most of it and it really brought my experience down a notch. With the disk space of the PS2 I would have thought that the developers would have put as much dedication to the background music of this game as they did for the voice acting, but it really seems like this game would have felt just at home on the Sega Saturn as it would on the PS2. I am all for Staying true to a series, but this game truly deserved much better music.
As always there are plenty of lockable to discover and these are, as is popular in dating sims, images of the characters and new outfits. In fact NIS America gives us the opportunity to unlock a lot of images and costumes from codes provided on their own site. Sure, it might seem to defeat the purpose of unlocking thins yourself, but given that it will take you quite some time to even get to that point, I think it's definitely something people will want to play just to get to that point.
So, what's the final verdict? Well, I would have to say that this is a must-own for any anime fan. The translations were done well and the storyline is something that is interesting not only to a Japanese player, but to those of us overseas as well. The team were very diligent in making sure that the Japanese was translated to the 'T' but this also results in some words that just don't feel natural for the characters to be saying, whatever time period that they might be living in.
Don't feel bad not trying out Sakura Wars out if anime is not your thing. This is, unfortunately a game meant for a pretty specific group of gamers. But if you are a fan of anime, an avid RPG player, or even someone who has a curiosity about the dating-sim genre then this will not disappoint you at all. Chock full of full-motion cut scenes, an enjoyable (if not ) combat system, and a entertaining relationship simulator all make this title a great amount of fun. Previous fans of the Japanese series will not feel slighted at all as it stays true to the other games in the series, but new players may need to give it the old 'college try' before realizing that there are some games out there that are good games not because of the combat system, but for a meaty storyline like this one.