|Developer:||RED Entertainment, Overworks|
|Genre:||Graphic Adventure, Strategy RPG|
It took five years, but after a lot of hassle and fighting, someone has brought Sakura Taisen V to the US. Sure, we never got any of the other games, but it's still a groundbreaking achievement. And who better to localize it than NIS America? Yes, in the back of your minds, you're probably listing a whole host of other companies you wish would have done it. And given NIS America's track record with localization (not exactly perfect), you might be worried. I hope that as you read this review, those worries are put to death. I also hope that if you think this game just "isn't for you" because you don't like the Japanese graphic adventures you've played (say, the Phoenix Wright series), you still give this one a try. A perfect blend of two different genres is found here, and I think its appeal could be surprisingly far-reaching.
Welcome To Little Lip Theater!
Lt. Shinjiro Taiga, nephew of Ichiro Ogami (male protagonist of earlier Sakura Wars titles), finds himself in an odd situation. At 19, he believed he would be serving under his uncle and Sakura Shinjugi (the titular character, as it were). But instead of being a member of the Teikoku Kagekidan (Imperial Floral Assault Force) in Tokyo, or even the Paris division, Shinjiro is sent to New York to "lead" the Star Division. At least, that's what his uncle tells him.
When Taiga-san reaches New York, he quickly learns that the newly-formed Star Division was expecting Ogami himself to help form the organization, and everyone is disappointed that a greenhorn was sent in. Thus, Shinjiro Taiga finds himself in a situation where he must prove himself or head home a defeated man.
If you don't know the basic premise of Sakura Wars, let me spell it out for you. It's the 1920s (specifically, 1928 in the fifth game) and "steam technology" has made great progress. Certain gifted individuals have even built giant steam-powered robots. These robots are piloted by individuals with high levels of "Pneuma" (that's the Greek word for "spirit" or "breath"). There is a form of Pneuma, known as Dark Pneuma, that has the power to open gates to the demon world. The goal of the Teikoku Kagekidan and the newly-formed divisions in Paris and New York is to suppress Dark Pneuma in major urban centers and keep the peace. They do this in two ways.
First, they perform in a musical theater. Yes, seriously. Not only does singing and dancing help promote Pneuma growth, agility, and skill in battle for the performers, but it also brings peace and happiness to the citizens of the region. Second, when giant evil creatures (be they organic or robotic) appear in the city, they pilot giant robots ("STARS" robots in Sakura Wars ~So Long, My Love~) and take out the threat. Going into the fifth game in the series without foreknowledge of the events of the previous game might have been a deal-breaker. Fortunately, all of this is explained to Shinjiro Taiga, as he himself is new; as a result, the new player coming to the series is in a good position to jump in, and that accounts for pretty much any American playing this localized title.
Bang! To The Rooftops!
Sakura Wars is a strange but addictive blend of Strategy RPG and Graphic Adventure. The game is broken into eight chapters, and each chapter functions in a way very similar to an episode of Power Rangers. Let me explain.
During the first half of the chapter, there is some sort of scenario and/or conflict that requires Shinjiro to explore New York, talk to people, and build relationships. The number of interactions is limited based on a clock. You're usually given one hour, and every interaction takes 5 minutes. You choose whom you want to talk to, and sometimes it lands you in mini-games or other special events. After that hour, the "main event" will take place. In chapter 2, for instance, it's a mock trial wherein the earlier hour is used to build evidence for your case. In later chapters, this pattern continues across multiple days. Eventually, though, the action is interrupted by a mysterious force of Dark Pneuma-based robots. First the Star Division–made up of Shinjiro Taiga and however many of the girls are in the group by that point in the game–fight standard enemies (like the "puddies" from Power Rangers). Then the boss reveals himself, and you fight the boss. Your STARS robots also have the ability to transform into fighter jets and go aerial. However, never will your robots combine into one mega-bot. So the Power Rangers parallel ends here.
Here's a neat twist that might get your attention: are you interested in making your characters strong in combat? Sure you are! But there's no traditional "level-grinding" in this game. Attack, defense, and speed bonuses for Shinjiro and the girls in the Star Division are all based on the interactions that took place throughout the chapter. These bonuses can be seen in the "act break" screen that occurs four or five times per chapter. You can see each character's condition (level of motivation, stat bonuses) as well as their friendship gauges. Relationships can be changed for the better or worse in battle as well. Let a character fall and that's a big confidence loss, and with it goes the stat bonuses. But if you use combo attacks, or choose to heal or defend an ally, you build the friendship gauges. This is all-important to consider throughout the entirety of the game. If you put too much emphasis on one character but completely ignore another, that character will have no "level ups" and will likely fall during battle.
I thought I'd only enjoy this game for its adventure aspect, and the Strategy RPG part would be an afterthought. But I was wrong. The battles are challenging; each one has a unique setup and objective. And the boss fights usually have some sort of trick you need to figure out on your own. The number of actions available vary based on one of three "Stratagems" you set yourself to, changeable once per Shinjiro's turn. You can play aggressive (high attack, no healing), flexible (high speed, medium attack and defense), or defensive (high defense, easy to add passive defense traits, no "Super Move" usage). You can also set up to 3 auto-protects on your partners, and once per battle you can automatically teleport one of the girls to Shinjiro's current position. There are a lot of options and a lot of methods for handling battles. And each battle, while sufficiently long, is never so long as to interrupt the action of the plot.
Maidens, Fall In Love
Before getting into the mechanics of the graphic adventure portion, I'd like to introduce you to the main cast of characters. You already know Shinjiro, let's move next to the five Star Division ladies (plus the sixth), as well as the Rainbow Division members and Mr. Sunnyside.
The first girl in the Star Division that you meet is best understood as the female protagonist: Gemini Sunrise. Hailing from Texas, this country girl (alongside her horse, Larry) rode up to New York City. She has a long history of her own, including a prequel PS2 game in Japan (Sakura Taisen V Episode 0). She was trained by a Japanese man and admires Samurai, and as a result she is a "Samurai cowgirl," wielding a long blade but speaking with a thick southern accent. More on her accent later. The special thing about Gemini is that while she is the first girl you meet from the Star Division, she is not a recognized member of the group until chapter 6. She is the last of the girls to join up.
The "temporary" member is the commander before Taiga appears, Ratchet Altair. She's a serious, professional kind of lady who trained alongside Subaro Kujo when she was younger. She participates in the battle at the end of chapter 1, but she bows out of active combat after this fight and takes the role of "vice commander" so that Shinjiro Taiga can work his way to the place Ogami first assigned him. Technically, though no "friendship" or "condition" meters appear for Ratchet, there is a special ending you can get based on your relationship with her.
The two existing members of the Star Division when you arrive in chapter 1 are some of the hardest to please. They are "senior members," so to speak. Cheiron Archer (originally "Sagitta Weinberg," more on this later) is a black woman from Harlem who is both an on-stage performer and a well-trained lawyer. She is brash and confident, and she is in no way impressed by Shinjiro Taiga at first. She has a hard time believing he's even of age and accuses Mr. Sunnyside of breaking child labor laws for hiring a 13-year-old. Subaru Kujo, the only other Japanese team member, keeps "her" identity a mystery. She often says "Subaru is Subaru. No more, no less." She claims to be genderless. Making good friends with her requires Shinjiro to also partake in some gender-bending.
Diana Caprice is a trained veterinarian, but she's also quite sick. When you first meet her in Central Park, you find her in a wheelchair. She's cheerful, but also subdued and at times morose. Her attitude regarding life is that everyone will die someday, and she herself seems resigned to her fate. Though you meet her in chapter 1, she resists joining the Star Division for some time. Can Shinjiro win her affection and bring a boost of revitalizing confidence to her life?
Finally, there's Rosarita "Rosita" Aries (originally Rikarita or "Rika" for short in the Japanese version). With each of these girls, the special ending you get based on who has the strongest relationship with Shinjiro has a romantic twist to it. But not with Rosita. You see, Rosita's still a kid. For those of you who know Sakura Taisen 1 & 2, this is the equivalent character to Iris, except she's Mexican. She's a sharpshooter, wielding gold and silver pistols. She is a perfectionist, a people-pleaser, and a wild girl all in one. It's a dangerous emotional combination, as she's always worried she's letting people down (and, sometimes, she certainly is). Developing a relationship with her is like a big brother or father-figure one.
Outside the main Star Division, there are other supporting characters. You can make them happy or piss them off as well. The two girls in the Rainbow Division, Cherry and Anri, serve specialty roles. At the Little Lip Theater (where you perform musicals, or in Shinjiro's case, where you're an usher) the two girls run shops. Anri, shy and awkward around boys, runs the gift shop, which includes glamour photos of the Star Division. Cherry is the polar opposite of Anri... I dare say she's slutty, though she does seem to want just one special man. Anyway, she runs the snack bar, and she also allows Shinjiro to find good background photos for the Star Division members in each chapter. Together, Cherry and Anri also work behind-the-scenes during battles to transform the Little Lip Theater into a battle station to launch the Ahab, an airship that launches via a giant slingshot, and prepare the Star Division to pilot their mechs.
And then there's Sunnyside. Talk about a strange bird. This guy owns and operates the Little Lip Theater and is, for all intents and purposes, the financial and administrative head of the New York Combat Revue. He's got a "unique" sense of humor, and a fascination with Japanese culture. He's like a 1920s gaijin otaku. However, there are times where you may feel like he's the villain, or he's in league with the villains, based on his words and actions. He's also Diana Caprice's caretaker, and he lives in the middle of Central Park in a fancy house with outdoor koi ponds!
Now, about making friends (or enemies) with the young ladies of the Star Division. Every single decision you make, every phrase you say, and every quick time event you complete somehow affects your standing with at least one primary character. In most instances, it's a matter of selecting one of either two or three statements within a time limit. A small portrait of Shinjiro's face helps you take in the full meaning and sentiment of the words before you say them, which helps cut down on confusion. Sometimes in games like these, you read the words and take them to have one meaning, when in fact the developers meant for it to come off an entirely different way. The facial expressions, again, definitely help you out here. Sometimes, you're in a catch-22 where lots of people are in the room, and what you say will by default put you at odds with some of the girls while increasing your standing with others. Yikes! Also, sometimes the dialogue options are dependent on whether or not you completed a certain dialogue or quick-time event earlier in the game. These "hidden" dialogue options are often helpful, but they can act as traps that end up harming your relationships as well.
Other things that may make the ladies happy, or unhappy? There are plenty of quick-time events in the game. They involve you, the player, inputting button combinations using the dual analog sticks on the PS2. These are actually a lot of fun, and they happen in all kinds of unique situations. Basically, they're a test of your awareness and focus. If you dedicate yourself to the task, you will be rewarded. Also, sometimes you'll be in a situation where you're just standing with the girl, and you can select certain parts of the on-screen image like a point-and-click adventure. Selecting the mouth (with a microphone icon) allows you to talk to them. You can also admire their hair, outfit, even their breasts! Little icons appear next to the cursor to give you an idea of what you're about to do. Sometimes a hand icon can even appear. This generally gets you into a world of trouble. I wouldn't recommend it, even if it is funny.
Finally, there are times where you're set to say one particular phrase or perform one particular action, the intensity of which is determined by a vertical bar. If you let the (usually quick) timer run out, you won't do anything at all. Occasionally this is the right thing to do, but that's the exception. Otherwise, you have to move the bar up or down to determine the intensity with which you say or do something. For example, in one scene during chapter 7 you toast with a champagne glass. I thought I'd give a hearty toast so I took the bar pretty high. Unfortunately, that also meant that I clinked my glass too hard against another one and ended up breaking my own glass. That didn't win over the affection of anybody in the room. In another situation, you call out to someone while in a library. Shout too loud and you'll be lectured by your colleagues about how you ought to know not to speak so loud in a library. But if you say it at the absolute softest level, the person you're trying to talk to won't even hear you. So this intensity meter for actions is an interesting gameplay element as well.
If you screw up too much, remember that you get to save 4 or 5 times per chapter. I recommend keeping multiple save files just in case. How do you know if you screwed up? There's a simple audio cue to help you figure things out. A happy jingle means +1, an extended happy jingle means +2. The "burr-nurr" music effect means -1, and the elongated version of that means -2. Though you are never shown the true numeric values of where you stand with the ladies, you could probably keep tabs yourself. Near the end of the game, the three girls in the highest rankings are candidates for who you get as your ending partner. You get to pick from those three. Keep going through New Game Plus six times to get all six and you get a "grand" ending. And, to be honest, I enjoyed this game so much and there are so many different dialogue options and miss-able scenarios that I'd like to do this someday.
Come On Singing, Come On Dancing, Night And Day!
It's no secret that I love the music to this game, and to this entire series. Composer Kouhei Tanaka is a master of "pop orchestra." He can blend jazz, rock, and many other styles together, often using a symphonic orchestral palette. Though we lose the ever-popular Teikoku Kagekidan theme song, and most people would agree that "Warriors of the Earth" doesn't make up for it, most of the character and event music themes in this game are awesome. And the end credits vocal track, "Kiss Me Sweet" ... well, I'll not hide my bias. I got married in December of 2005, shortly after the game was released in Japan. Part of the music that played during the minutes leading up to the wedding (all VGM, mind you) included Kiss Me Sweet. So, yes. Bias is there.
Now, if it were just the good music, I couldn't justify giving a 97% score. In fact, I wanted to give a 100%. The extra work NIS America did to ensure gamers could enjoy either the English or Japanese voice acting was amazing. The PS2 version comes as two dual-layered DVDs. Disc one is English, disc two is Japanese. And the English voice acting? Without question, NIS America's best work to date. I think Gemini (pronounced "Jiminy," not "Gem - in - eye") doesn't even sound like a rural hick in any way in the Japanese version. But in English? She's perfect. Cheiron sounds wonderful, Subaru is at the right pitch level to pull off the androgynous thing; everyone sounds great! The only person I could think to complain about is extremely-childish Rosita. But guess what? The Japanese VA sounded just like that too, so at least they were matching the part. And, for what it's worth, my own young children thought Rosita was hilarious and loved listening to her speak.
So with insanely good music and voice acting, what's holding me back from giving the mighty 100% score? Surely I'm obsessed enough, and some would argue biased enough, to do so. However, despite their best efforts, NIS America did let us down in one significant way with this localization. You know those two discs? They're incompatible. The save files, rather, are incompatible. You cannot play through chapter 3 in English, then say "hey I wanna check out the Japanese" and start chapter 4 with the second disc. If you want to hear it in Japanese, your only choice is to start over. This might not sound so bad, unless of course you consider that completionists will play through this game six times (each play taking 15 to 20 hours). Wouldn't it be great to be able to go back and forth per play? But no, the save files are completely incompatible. If you're in this for the long haul, you will probably just have to stick to one or the other. At first, I found all this to be rather irritating, but I was so pleased with the English VA that I was able to let go of my frustration.
NIS America specializes in "East Meets West." They take these quirky JRPGs and somehow make them work in America. Sometimes they do a good job, and sometimes they don't. But they had a huge burden on them when they took on this project. For over a decade now, I've heard Japanese import purists harp on about why Sakura Wars simply cannot exist in English: it wouldn't work. There are too many Japanese puns. There's too much Japanese culture and humor embedded into the games. It would defile the series and the brand. I've heard at least ten people say this in passing, some of which are current and former RPGFan staff.
I am happy to announce that those purists were dead wrong.
Well, maybe I should back up a bit. They might have been right, back then. Maybe Sakura Wars 1 & 2 are simply too Japanese-y to work in America. That could be the case. Maybe even 3 & 4 held too much to cultural norms that American gamers wouldn't understand. I wouldn't know because I haven't played them. But Sakura Wars V (So Long, My Love) takes place in New York. It forces the hyper-Japanese culture exploited by RED Entertainment to match up to American cultural norms. What happens after that is anybody's guess. And hey, maybe that's why this isn't the most celebrated game in the series. I can understand that. But there's no question that NIS America found a way to localize a game that is extremely difficult to make work for an English-language audience.
There are some changes that I simply don't understand. For example changing Sagitta Weinberg to Cheiron Archer... why is this? In some of the promotional materials, such as the artbook that comes with the PS2 version of the game, they call her out as Sagitta. But she's "Cheiron Archer" in-game. I think NIS America had a hard time trying to decide whether to appeal to hardcore purists or a fresh audience. Did they just think Sagitta sounded too weird? The other girls all have star constellations within their names: Gemini, Subaru, Aries, Diana. Sagitta was clearly "Sagittarius" shortened. In Greek mythology, "Cheiron" was a well-known centaur, and her Harlem gang "The Centaurs" helps fit the name. But come on! The whole constellation naming convention is ruined now. It should be noted that if you play the Japanese disc of the PS2 version, they retain "Sagitta Weinberg" and "Rika" instead of "Rosita" in the text.
While the game does have the English voicing option, they kept all the Japanese vocals intact. Had this been Working Designs trying to localize a Sakura Wars a decade ago, do you think they'd have recorded English-language version of the song? You bet your sweet behind they would! And frankly, I wasn't interested in hearing that. We know the game comes from Japan, and more importantly, we also know that most of the characters have some connection to, or fascination with, Japan. So when you hear their character themes during their special ending scene, it makes sense to me to hear what I'm hearing.
On a textual level, the game has only a few typos that I could spot. That's a major improvement for this small American publisher. I'd say it has no more typos than a big-budget game like Final Fantasy XIII. Nothing stood out as lazy translation to me either. A lot of love was put into the script, and it shows.
Beauty With Age?
Though the age range of the Star Division goes from pre-pubescent up to late 20s, there's no question that this merely five-year-old game shows its age. I mean that in a bad way.
Probably the only true flaw to the game is that, regardless of version (PS2 or Wii), you're getting a 480i display. I wasn't expecting 1080p, but some upscaled images would've been awesome. It doesn't really affect the 2D character portraits: they still look great. But the background images are compressed and blocky. And during the parts of the game that are in 3D (exploration, combat)? Forget it. It didn't even look that great in 2005, so it's certainly not getting any love in 2010.
Fortunately, it's the character portraits and the anime FMVs that really stand out. If they looked bad too, that would be a major problem. Fortunately, they are clear and crisp. If you can get over the compressed 2D backgrounds and don't care about the primitive 3D stuff, you'll not have a problem with the game's visuals.
Like Love, Bittersweet
I've lavished this game with well-deserved praise, and I believe I've pointed out its flaws dutifully. But now comes the real bad news. Though I am not an avid importer myself, I have enough friends and acquaintances out there to be able to talk about the Sakura Wars/Taisen series as a whole. Among the friends I've polled, no one points to Sakura Taisen V as their favorite, and some have said that of the five games in the series, it is their least favorite.
Stop and think about that. There are four games prior to this one that have a stronger cast of characters and a more interesting scenario in general. As exciting as it is that this series has finally broken into North America, it's worth noting that it took five years between its Japanese release and now for NISA to get this game to us. Other companies have tried, and failed, to bring other games in the series to us. The likelihood that NISA would attempt to port, say, Sakura Taisen 1&2 for PSP still remains depressingly low. There's not a lot of hope for me right now that English versions of other games in this wonderful series will ever exist.
So I would urge you, dear reader, to enjoy what you can get. And this is what we get. Sakura Wars ~So Long, My Love~ is a great game in its own right. It sports NISA's best localization to date and has truckloads of replay value to boot. I would even argue that a company like BioWare, with its strong emphasis on dialogue trees and "choice," could learn a thing or two from Sakura Wars.