"I seriously asked if I could give this game an anime/100 score. This is the closest I've ever felt to playing an anime, aside from games based on an existing anime."
Note: A day-one patch will fix gameplay and control issues I had during my playthrough. My gameplay and control scores represent my post-patch prediction. Pre-patch gameplay and control scores are 75% and 70% respectively.
In 2016, SEGA put out a poll asking which of their franchises fans would like to see rebooted. The top franchise in the poll was Sakura Wars, a series that has been dormant since the PS2 era with a port of the most recent game on Wii in 2010 in the West only. While niche here in the West, Sakura Wars has a big following in Japan. In 2018 during SEGA FES, SEGA announced that they were working on a new Sakura Wars game, with a follow-up announcement saying it would be a soft reboot of the franchise. I've always been interested in the Sakura Wars series but haven't played any due to the scarcity of copies here in the West. I was pretty excited to dive into this one and get my introduction to the series. The artistic and voice acting talent SEGA brought in from across the Japanese anime, manga, and light novel industries was staggering to say the least, but could they coalesce to create a game that lives up to the franchise's legacy?
The game takes place twelve years after the original Sakura Wars and two years after the most recent Sakura Wars game, So Long, My Love. The previous Imperial Combat Revue members were caught up in a massive battle in Tokyo and disappeared during the battle, along with the demon threat. Currently, Imperial Japanese Navy officer, Seijuro Kamiyama, is heading to the Grand Imperial Theater in Tokyo for his new assignment as captain of the Imperial Combat Revue Flower Division. The Imperial Combat Revue lost its former glory and is on the verge of being disbanded. They aren't even able to defend Tokyo from occasional demon attacks, relying on Shanghai's Combat Revue in their stead. Inheriting this situation, he is commanded by the leader of the entire Revue, Sumire Kanzaki (a character from the original Sakura Wars games), to prepare a team for the biennial Combat Revue World Games, which will be hosted in Tokyo. He's joined by his earnest childhood friend Sakura Amamiya, the hot-headed Hatsuho Shinonome, the gentle Luxembourgian noblewoman Claris Snowflake, ninja prodigy Azami Mochizuki, and the Greek superstar Anastasia Palma.
As a reviewer, I've played a lot of anime-influenced games — even games based on existing anime. But I don't know if I've played a game that represents what it means to be shounen as much as Sakura Wars. Everything about Sakura Wars screams it: the "never give up" monologues, the power of friendship moments, the plot armour, the inspirational yelling and so on. The game has a number of opportunities to barge in on the girls' bath (which obviously will result in negative points with them) for some fanservice that anime is infamously known for. Not even five hours into the game, it presents a scene where I have to cheer up Sakura. After mentioning how it's admirable she has someone to look up to, the skills she's acquired over the years, the game basically says, "Now, kiss her!" There was no way for me to back out of the scene. The game in essence directed the player to make this sudden advance on her before the scene would end. I was in hysterics after this scene, since it's like every romance anime where they tease you with the kiss. Just to make the game feel even more like an anime, there's intermissions (I like to call them commercial breaks) with the appropriate eyecatches, ending each chapter on a cliffhanger, and previews after finishing a chapter. I seriously asked if I could give this game an anime/100 score. This is the closest I've ever felt to playing an anime, aside from games based on an existing anime.
Now, I didn't hate all of this wackiness, but it made the story predictable. I could predict with about 90% accuracy everything that would happen in a given scene, since these setups have been used so many times before. For anyone that hates anime tropes and cliches, I would recommend going into it accepting this, or to stay 6 feet away from Sakura Wars at all times. The tropes are there, they're high in number, and they're not going anywhere. Despite all of this, the final two chapters left me an emotional wreck as the story broke me on a few occasions. I did one of the battles fighting back tears. It's quite the emotional finish to a game that was relatively light in tone up to that point.
I knew early on that the story was likely going to need help from its cast of characters, and they delivered. Sakura Wars legitimately excels with character interactions, building up each character over time. Whether it's learning more about their past, their motivations, or what members outside of the Imperial Combat Revue are like in general, the entire cast of characters gets their fair share of screentime. By the end of the game, every major and minor character feels like someone you know and can trust as a friend, which is an incredible feat. A lot of games struggle to really dive into their minor cast, but Sakura Wars handles it with aplomb.
Obviously, the most developed characters are going to be the members of the Flower Division. Each character gets their own dedicated chapter where they go through some kind of dilemma and you have to help them out with their troubles. Claris is worried about the harm her magic has caused in the past, Azami struggles with her ninja identity, and so on. However, the most well-developed character is the game's heroine: Sakura Amamiya. She is one of the few characters I've encountered in my years of playing RPGs where I grew from liking her, to loving her, to being in awe across the playthrough. Her development is one of the most satisfying character progressions I've experienced in a very long time.
Part of the reason for my fixation on Sakura stems from the performance of her voice actress, Ayane Sakura. I've been a fan of Ayane Sakura for years, but this may be her best performance yet. The range of emotions she handled over the course of the game was astounding. There were points where I couldn't take my eyes off the screen when Sakura was speaking, since her voice was commanding my full attention. The last time I checked the game's trophy list, over 35% of players had achieved Sakura's ending, with the other characters in single digit completion percentages. You can add me to that list of players who went for the ending with Sakura, since it was too compelling to miss.
While previous games in the series were tactical RPGs, this iteration of Sakura Wars is an action RPG. The series still retains its signature steam-powered mechs, though, which I'm sure will please aficionados of mecha combat. Basic attacks are mapped to the Circle and Triangle buttons, with specials on the Square button. Each character has their own special attack. Seijuro has multiple powerful slashes best suited to wiping out one powerful enemy, Sakura will send a shockwave through the battlefield to take out weaker enemies in one go, Azami will fire shuriken 360 degrees around her, etc. You can also dash, dodge, and jump to give yourself more mobility. Dodging an incoming attack perfectly rewards you with invulnerability and five seconds of slowdown to land multiple attacks on your enemies. I found this part to be the most satisfying element of the combat later on in the game. Dodging the attack and getting those five seconds to lay waste to multiple enemies at once, then watching the bodies fall over after the game returned to normal speed gave me that giddy feeling inside that I usually get from playing Musou games.
Each mission has Seijuro team up with at least one other member of the Flower Division, and getting a good score during missions increases the amount of Trust you earn with that teammate. Higher Trust levels increase Morale at the start of the battle, which has an effect on your attack and defense. You can get good scores by finishing quickly, dealing lots of damage, ending on a high morale level, and defeating lots of enemies. One other thing that really boosts Morale is Team Attacks, which grants a massive Attack and Defense boost for about 10 seconds when used. Team Attacks are available if the Trust between Seijuro and the other combatant is high. I used Team Attacks to annihilate the game's bosses, as Seijuro will deal massive damage with his special. Team Attacks also have some pretty fun anime cutscenes, where Seijuro joins one of the girls in their favourite hobby. It doesn't actually happen, and I assume it's a dream that the girls have with Seijuro. Nevertheless, I had a good laugh since a couple of them were pretty ridiculous, but others were touching as the two shared an intimate moment with each other.
Each member of the Flower Division has their own distinct fighting style: Seijuro is good all-around (which he needs to be since he's involved in every battle), Sakura focuses on swift and powerful blows, Hatsuho relies on heavy blows to do her damage, Claris is a mage with powerful Triangle button attacks, Azami focuses on aerial combos, and Anastasia has a powerful gun capable of long-range destruction. I found myself using Sakura and Anastasia the most when I could, especially Sakura once the story reached a certain point. Since the game rewards you for wiping enemies quickly, Sakura's emphasis on power and speed rewarded you for mastering the combat and not getting hit. There's never any real danger of getting knocked out during combat, since most enemies don't hit that hard and there are plenty of HP drops from enemies and the environment. However, sometimes I got hit and got annoyed that the characters didn't react the way I wanted them to. Combat can sometimes feel stiff, and some actions I did felt completely unintentional.
Outside of combat, there's the visual novel part of the game. You can wander around the Grand Imperial Theater as well as the surrounding town to talk to your teammates, town residents, and members from other Combat Revues. The Sakura Wars series' Live & Picture Interaction System (LIPS) returns, and along with it, the pressure of thinking and acting quickly. LIPS only gives you roughly ten seconds or less to make your dialogue choice, so you have to weigh the options and think if that's what you really want to choose. You can also choose to not respond, but you will rarely want to keep your silence as that won't lead to gaining any Trust points with whoever you're talking to. Raising Trust with the members of the Flower Division will reward you with more dialogue scenes with that squadmate, as well as other messages throughout the game where they thank you for your support in their endeavours.
Anime and manga fans will recognize a lot of the names attached to Sakura Wars. Primary character design is attributed to Tite Kubo, known for his work on the popular series Bleach. Other big name animators and artists brought on for this game include BUNBUN (light novel artist for Sword Art Online) who did the designs for the London Combat Revue, Ken Sugimori (Pokémon) who did the Imperial Combat Revue's mascot Peanut, and Shigenori Soejima (character designer for the Persona games) who designed Hakushu.
Aside from the great character designs, the game itself looks stunning, at least when it comes to the city itself. The dungeons are generally all designed the same way: purple corridors in a volcanic backdrop with some machinery mixed in. I got tired of it after the second dungeon. There's anime cutscenes mixed in the game from the anime studio Sanzigen, who previously did the cutscenes for Fire Emblem Three Houses. Their work on Sakura Wars is an improvement from Fire Emblem Three Houses, which I was critical of in my review.
Sakura Wars is Japanese dub only, which is a shame, but SEGA managed to put together an all-star Japanese voice acting cast. There's an absurd number of big name talents; just under half of them have a Seiyu Award — an annual award for voice acting in Japan — and the talent is spread out among both the main cast and the supporting cast. They range from modern day superstars like the aforementioned Ayane Sakura, Saori Hayami (Claris), Maaya Uchida (Hatsuho), and Tomokazu Sugita (Reiji), to older star talent like Michie Tomizawa, who has reprised her role as Sumire Kanzaki despite the fact she had formally "retired" from voicing the character. Five out of the six named members of the other Combat Revues have a Seiyu Award winning voice actor attached to them. Anime fans will recognize countless names from the cast list
I don't think I would go so far as to listen to Sakura Wars' soundtrack outside of the game itself, except for the series' signature opening song, but it does work really well in the context of the scenes where it plays. The timing of the music changes is spot-on, always fitting the changing atmosphere of the scenes whenever something happens. It's something I honestly appreciate a lot. Sometimes the music change will be subtle, and sometimes the music will stop to build the tension as the scene plays out, then go into a new theme. When there's just been an event that lowers the team's spirit, Seijuro delivers a speech with the music changing to the series' ever-recognizable theme, which gets you fired up and ready for your comeback. Each character also has their own theme when they're having a conversation with you: the sultry tones of the Mediterranean when talking to Anastasia Palma, the soft flute and piano when spending time with Claris, and traditional Japanese themes with the shrine maiden Hatsuho. The music for this game was composed by Kohei Tanaka, who has composed the music for every Sakura Wars game, as well as other anime like the famous One Piece series.
It should be noted that I played this game prior to the day-one patch, which will fix multiple issues I had with the game. This patch will add manual saves whenever you want. I was only able to manually save during intermissions, with any events that happened between relying on an autosave file. If I messed up on a choice or wanted to redo certain sections, I either had to restart the game immediately before the scene ended so the game wouldn't autosave, or redo everything since the last manual save. A lock-on system will be added, which should help combat out a bit, making your attacks more accurate. In addition, you will be able to remap controls, access a chat log, as well as the ability to replay past events for your viewing pleasure.
There's a reason why shounen anime continues to be popular to this day, despite how formulaic it is. It stirs up emotions like nothing else when you see its characters develop through their moments of growth, their determination to realize their dreams, and their dedication to each other. I honestly wish I could have spent more time with this lovable cast. SEGA clearly put in effort to craft a Sakura Wars game worthy of the franchise's legacy in Japan, and I think they succeeded. I don't see this title winning awards anytime soon, but hell if I didn't have a fantastic time playing this game. I'll leave this review off with the final verses of the opening song, as I realized what they meant for the return of this classic series:
Dreams will be revived (Imperial Combat Revue)
For we are the new Imperial Combat Revue!
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.