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Please Rate This Review: Sakura Wars-- So Long My Love
How to Make Friends and Kill Ancient Deities-- A "Sakura Wars: So Long My Love" Review
HIGH Pulling off a Triple Joint Attack when things get hairy.
LOW An epic and climatic final boss fight... followed immediately afterwards by a loooong "real" final boss fight.
WTF Prepare to get the theme song stuck in your head-- because you'll only hear it about fifty bajillion times.
I should hate this.
There were several factors contributing to my ultimate decision to review "Sakura Wars," neatly summed up with:
A) I was fully prepared for it to be a straight-up harem game, and if there's one thing I learned from "Love Hina" it's that the harem subgenre makes me want to slam my forehead into a wall and I am nothing if not a shameless masochist;
B) I've been trying to find something that I haven't played to fill in the time between now and the pre-holiday glut starting in October;
C) first-party Wii games so far this year have been either 'new, improved' versions of older games or just offensively bad;
and D) I knew this was made by Overworks, the monsters responsible for the living hell that is "Valkyria Chronicles," and I wanted an easy target for petty revenge on a game that totally in no way humiliated and shamed me.
So why the hell do I like it?
"Sakura Wars: So Long My Love" is the first US release of a long-running Japanese SRPG series based on an anime of the same name, set in an AU version of the 1920's in which everything is steampunk (which really, considering how far that justification gets stretched, they'd probably just be better off being honest and calling it 'magic,' but whatever) and wherein you play That Guy who's starred in Every Anime Ever Created Ever and try to fight Power Rangers villains with the mechas from "Robotech."
Along the way you'll accrue a team of ladies appealing to different fetishes; there's the stoic androgynous one, the sweet frail one, the sassy older woman, a lolicon bounty hunter hailing from the Serbian part of Mexico judging by her VA, and Jessie from "Toy Story" if she was written by David Lynch. At some point, after playing your cards right, you can date one of them (except for the Mexiloli. Seriously thank God for that) for true love and possibly also a stats boost.
While the game itself technically precedes alot of them, Western gamers will see plenty of echoes of more recent games in "Sakura Wars"-- it's probably best described as "Persona" minus the tedium meets "Valkyria Chronicles" with the difficulty dialed back to something averaging out to 'reasonable,' plus "Mass Effect" if the male avatar was capable of expressing a modicum of something like actual human emotion.
Like "Persona," the game is focused on building character relationships, with positive ones outside of combat translating to gameplay benefits in combat, but with plenty of the excess grinding removed. Even "Persona 4," which did a great deal to tighten the series up, couldn't help feeling like an incredibly slow trek at times, often roadblocking your progress with a certain character until you reached an arbitrary point in the game.
But "Sakura Wars" both streamlines this process and makes it more immediately rewarding; while some instances of time/place are required, it's easy enough to build positive karma with any given character in all of the game's 8 chapters, and how well they like you translates not into moves that you may get to do if you fulfill certain conditions but instead to vital combat stats, including the Mobility bar that fuels both movement and attacks (an important advantage in turn-based strategy games).
Speaking of which, this is probably the best set-up for an SRPG I've seen in a while. Combat feels fast and immediate in a way I'd normally only associate with action games, and it's challenging but doesn't resort to changing the rules on you without warning, as well as allowing a fair bit of recovery if you happen to make a tactical error (unlike certain other Overworks games). It's actually not only remarkably easy to pick up, but it's also quite fun to boot, and the Flight Mode portions that usually characterize the boss fights and some of the multi-part stages feel like a glimpse of what "Star Fox Assault" could have been, if the development team hadn't been wholly dedicated to making it horrible.
The downside of this is that as excellent as the combat system is, there's just not much of it. It's more the tasty dessert for being good and negotiating all the dialogue/relationship-building that makes up the overwhelming majority of each chapter. And while normally I'd be groaning in anguish "MGS4"-style, wondering when the hell I was going to get back to the game itself, I realized something a little after the 6-7 hour-hump.
I was enjoying it.
Yes, the voicework ranges from 'decent' to 'Oh-God-my-ears,' and yes I caught more than a few logical inconsistencies, and yes, there were plenty of times when I wanted to reach through the screen and punch characters in the face. However, none of that was enough to bring the game down because it's so genuine and overwhelmingly charming that even a hardened cynic like me got invested in it.
It's like the video-game equivalent of "It's a Wonderful Life," except with giant robots and the occasional bit of partial nudity and considerably more levity throughout.
And even though the characters aren't really anything new, the game has put so much effort into giving them a little range and depth that they actually feel like an important part of your team, rather than just being accessories to your eventual success as in most TBS-games. You wouldn't think anything about losing an anonymous footsoldier or two in something like "Advance Wars," but you might hesitate a little more about putting someone here in a dangerous position.
Still, while the more social aspect of the game is involving and enjoyable on its own, it does stumble here and there-- like in "Mass Effect," there are points at which you're required to choose The Most Appropriate Answer, but these are on "Alpha Protocol"-style timers. And like that game, "Sakura Wars" will hint at the general dialogue/tone of each response but sometimes just a hint's not enough to go on if you're on shaky ground with a certain character, and it does throw off the roleplaying a bit by relegating decisions to 'buzzer tests,' though I suppose that's in the effort of keeping the conversation flow going, so fair enough.
The game may prove a bit too easy for people who thrive on SRPGs as well; I myself am pretty awful with them but beat almost all the levels the first time through, only a couple of them really requiring heavy strategizing. And then there's the ending, which involves a huge multi-part boss fight that has a middle-point Epic Climax that for all intents and purposes should be the end of the game... and then it whisks you off to another final boss fight, followed up by a bit that I won't spoil but I'll just say that if the final shot had been everyone applauding and saying 'congratulations' I wouldn't exactly have been surprised.
However, these are all really just minor complaints in what is otherwise a very, very good game and still warrants a recommendation, especially if you've been looking for a good Wii RPG or even just one that isn't incredibly pretentious or trying to preach you to death.
Hell, if you've ever watched an anime and found yourself screaming and pounding your fists at the screen, yelling at the main character to 'no, do that instead' or 'get with her dumbass,' then there's no reason for you NOT to at least give it a shot.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via purchase at Best Buy and reviewed on the Nintendo Wii. Approximately 22 hours of play were devoted to single-player (completed once).
Parents: There is violence involving robots that evaporate when they are defeated (in a style similar to monsters in Zelda games like "Twilight Princess" or "Wind Waker"), along with occasional secondary character death (none of which involve blood/gore). The later chapters of the game (particularly Chapters 7-8) involve some darker themes, including racially-charged violence directed towards two of the primary characters, and large-scale death/destruction (hinted at but never visualized). The majority of the game is lighthearted throughout, though due to "Sakura Wars'" nature as a pseudo-dating sim, there are some suggestive dialogue options/mild language/brief images that pop up throughout. Gender ambiguity, along with vague but perceivable yaoi (gay) and yuri (lesbian) subtext is present as well for those concerned about such things.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing: Text is displayed in English, and while there is spoken dialogue, large sections of the game are conveyed through text. There are occasional brief animated cutscenes that are voice-acted but have no subtitle option. There is a rapidly-increasing tone that indicates when response time for dialogue options will run out, but this is accompanied by a decreasing timer bar for visual reference.