In the fall of 1999, RED Company announced a special project involving its most acclaimed series yet, Sakura Taisen. The project, dubbed Sakura Project 2000, became the launch pad for a year full of Sakura Taisen mania. In 2000, RED Company released two new fan discs, Hanagumi Columns 2 and Beni Tokage (which were scheduled to be released), while ports of the first two games in the series were being bundled up for a trip to the Dreamcast. But the best news for Sakura Taisen fans came in the form of an announcement that Sakura Taisen 3 was in development for the Dreamcast and would hit store shelves in the Land of the Rising Sun sometime that fall. Unfortunately, Sakura Taisen 3 was bumped back to Spring 2001, but most will agree that it was well worth the wait.
As in the first two games, you assume the role of Ichiro Ogami, a 2nd Lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese Navy who, when fresh out of his academy, was thrust into a position with the new top-secret branch of the Japanese Navy: the Teikoku Kagekidan Hanagumi which is, essentially, a group comprised mainly of young and beautiful girls each with unique psychic talents who pilot giant steam-powered mechs, while maintaining the illusion that their headquarters is an Opera House.
Sakura Taisen 3 picks up where its predecessor left off, with Ogami being reassigned to a new posting in Paris, France. Upon arriving in the City of Lights, the Japanese consulate takes you to the cabaret located in the heart of the city, but things are not as they seem. Much like the Imperial Theater in Tokyo, the cabaret is a front for the Pariskagekidan; girls who fight in cool, steam-powered mechs called koubus. Not much of a surprise for a seasoned Sakura Taisen player. And to add to the nostalgia, Ogami meets a young nun in training whose clumsiness is frighteningly similar to Sakura's.
While the plot may smell like the earlier Sakura Taisen games, this more recent addition to the family is making waves game play-wise. Gone is the tile-based strategy system of the earlier installments. Instead, you can now move your mecha freely over the playing field. You're still somewhat limited though, as you can only perform as many actions as your little bar at the bottom of the screen allows. The fuller your bar, the more you can do, from a quick hit or retreat, to five-hit combos and special combination moves with the other characters. And if by chance your comrades love you enough, you may have the chemistry needed to perform the secret combos.
Graphically, however the game looks like a gussied up version of the Saturn games. The game has the same familiar look and feel to it, with just a touch more depth and realism. The biggest change probably comes during the conversation sequences. In the past, due to memory constraints, you were limited to just one little area. Now, luckily, you're free to wander the entire city of Paris. Kosuke Fujishima returns as character designer, revamping his old creations and blessing us with a few new ones, all of which fit their personas like a glove. For every personality trait you find in this game, be assured there's the perfect face to match.
The Sakura Taisen series has always been famous for its sound and music. Fans who play Sakura Taisen 3 are treated to a simply delicious new theme song. Yes, delicious. It's "ear candy" to tweak the similar term applied to stunning graphics. But, if by chance you're not overly fond of the snazzy new theme song just wait until you get to disc two, because then you'll get to hear a rearranged medley of it then. And aside from the themes, the game is awash in beautiful melodies and catchy beats that keep you humming all day.
Voice-overs also play a significant role in the mosaic of sound in this game. RED Company recruited the best of the best, including the lovely and talented Inoue Kikuko who Lunar fans might recognize as Luna. This time, Kikuko assumes a very diverse role- that of hard-edged Lobelia.
Sakura Taisen 3 and its predecessors are a unique breed of games. With elements plucked from strategy games, dating sims, RPGs and conversation games, they've taken what they hope are the best elements of these genres and melded them into one glorious series. Sakura Taisen has a truly epic feel to it which hasn't diminished over time.
The only real "problem" with Sakura Taisen 3 is that it relies to heavily upon the loving nostalgia of the player. The story, as mentioned previously, is very similar to the original game for the Sega Saturn. It's in a different city, with a different name for the organization, but it's still a game about a lovable but commitment-phobic guy trying to settle into a new life in a new city, defeat the evil organization threatening the populace, and all the while fending off his hormones as he works alongside beautiful and single young women.
All in all, this is still a great game, and if the word "import" doesn't mean much to you, then this is definitely a game worth looking into.
-- Name Withheld