Considered by many to be one of the Saturn's finest hours, Sakura Taisen is a clever blend of two genres. It combines strategy elements, for the battle segments, with interesting character interaction reminiscent of a dating sim through the rest of the game.
The player takes control of navy lieutenant Ohgami Ichirou, recently transferred to be the commander of the Teikoku Kagekidan Hanagumi division. Your responsibility as the commander is to lead the Hanagumi to victory while keeping everything at the imperial theater running smoothly. The majority of the game takes place around the imperial theater. Everyone in the Hanagumi is an actress on stage and Ohgami, much to his dismay, is the ticket collector. While Tsubaki handles the gift shop, Kasumi and Yuri take care of the bookeeping at the business office. Your boss is Lt. General Yoneda who is the theater's manager.
By now you may be wondering what a bunch of people running a theater have to do with anything? Very early on you discover that the theater is really a cover up for a specialist strike force, each of whose members has a unique sort of psychic potential, and because of this they can manipulate steam powered mecha known as the Koubu. The flow of the game generally works like this: You wander around the theater dealing with problems that arise with anyone. Trying to resolve them as best you can, the alarm often sounds, indicating the city is under attack, so you drop everything and rush off into your Koubu to meet the enemy. Ok ok, I'll admit I dumbed it down. The game's story is far more complex and the flow isn't nearly that linear, but that is how the chapters seem to work.
Where Sakura Taisen truly shines is in its character interaction. Being the commander of the Hanagumi doesn't only mean he has to be proficient in battles, but also in keeping each of the individual members happy. This aspect of Sakura Taisen alone made the game more interesting for me because you would have to worry about fighting demons and keeping the status quo with the various female characters. Unrealistic? Maybe so, but interesting nonetheless. During your wanderings in the theater's three floors, Ohgami may randomly (or not so randomly if it's directly correlated with the story) encounter another character. When this occurs the view will change to show a window display with a text box at the bottom of the screen, as well as detailed art showing what room you are currently in. The character you are speaking to will also be displayed in the window, with a smaller portrait in the text box. When a conversation begins several choices may pop up of what you may want Ohgami to say. These range from serious to outright ridiculous at times. So it's really your choice if you want a tough guy or wise-ass Ohgami.
This system of communication is referred to in the instructions as the 'lips' system. Picking one lips choice may lead to others, and many of these are timed. So if you stand straight faced and think for too long, time may run out for a response choice to be made, which in turn results in Ohgami saying nothing at all. This may piss the person off depending on the conversation and whom you are speaking to. You spend most of the game in these 'lips' situations and how well you do in them ultimately determines which character's ending will be received. The more the others get along with you the better their statistics are in battle. Eventually the girl you get the most points with becomes your love interest and that's whose ending you will ultimately view. This gives Sakura Taisen incredible replay value as there are six possible endings and the amount of conversations hidden in the game is astounding. You may never get to even see everything if you aren't thorough, or playing through with some type of guideline. Another great aspect of this title was how likable the majority of the cast was. By the end of my first game I felt like I had played several different titles with this cast before. There was so much synergy within their interaction with one another, that it was like watching my favorite anime and having some sort of hand in what was going to happen next.
Then of course there is the other half of Sakura Taisen, the strategic Koubu battles with the enemies. The characters are all controlled via a grid system of movement much like Shining Force 3 or Final Fantasy Tactics. Also like both aforementioned titles, character statistics will determine a Koubu's movement, defense, and attack potential. The missions in battle vary somewhat, but anyone who is used to this style of play won't find it too difficult. Truthfully I found it to be laughable in terms of challenge. Langrisser, this game is not. Each character is capable of blocking incoming attacks to sustain less damage, charging up their power bar, healing themselves, and of course attacking. When attack is chosen two options will succeed it. One is a regular attack, which varies in strength and range for each character. For instance, Kanna can cause massive damage with her Koubu's bare hands but has to be up close and personal with her victim, whereas Maria uses guns, which enable her to hang back a considerable distance while picking off her targets.
However, to compensate for this advantage her attack power is reduced. For this reason you have to make the pilots work as a team so they can negate each other's weaknesses. The other selectable option is the 'sure-kill' attack. Doing this requires a full power gauge and having to be in range to activate it. When accomplished the screen will change to show your character's Koubu preparing for the move and then unleashing it with full force. This attack is devastating to most enemies. Lastly, Ohgami has two extra options only available to him. One of them is being able to protect any chosen Hanagumi member from sustaining damage for up to eight times. The other is the ability to do a dual attack with the Hanagumi pilot who most interests in him. These attacks are preceded by an even longer cinema than the sure-kill techniques, resulting in a huge explosion that does critical damage to any enemies in proximity of the blast. Knowing when to use sure-kills or dual attacks could mean winning or losing in a close battle.
Sakura Taisen graphics are mostly dated in comparison to other titles out today, as well as its own sequel. However they are pretty good considering this game was released in 1996. During the theater segments the map you walk on is meticulously drawn with beautiful detail. The moments when you talk to a person or walk into a room feature equally well drawn locales with small details everywhere. The characters themselves are made anime style, which is a plus. It's easily some of the best artwork I have seen in awhile. Each person also comes with a full set of varying facial expressions. They blink, squint, and have several mouth patterns and movements to convey their emotions. So believe me when I say that you'll know when Sakura is angry at you. The battles feature 2-D pre-rendered characters and backdrops. I tend not to like this lazy style of artwork, but considering everything in the battles is rendered the same way, it works well in Sakura Taisen. There are also the usual FMV sequences sprinkled throughout both discs. Despite these being letterboxed somewhat, the frame rate is excellent as far as the Saturn's video capabilities go.
Musically speaking Sakura Taisen is a mixed bag of sorts. The music tracks sound decent part of the time, while other times I was scratching my head in awe (not the good kind). For the most part, though, I enjoyed the music. Especially the songs sung with full vocals. Too bad many of them don't have vocals like in the soundtrack, but that is for the best anyway because it would probably ruin some moments in the game. Sound effects are standard at best. They come through the speakers clearly, fitting most instances quite well, but rarely give out the impression that what you are hearing is what you actually see. Maybe I'm being picky here, but when Sakura or Ohgami strike a mechanical object with their swords, I expect to hear clanging metal. Instead there is a sound effect that is more reminiscent of those explosion noises from an old Final Fantasy game, or maybe a person throwing a fart.
The voice acting is a completely different tale altogether. I simply ate it up! The majority of the dialouge in Sakura Taisen is spoken in full voice. Thankfully, Red seems to care about who they hired for this aspect of the game. Many of the characters are voiced by well-known seiyuu in Japan, and their reputations were gained for a reason. You won't see any lines read so badly that you turn the sound down in this game. For me it was the exact opposite. I couldn't get enough of the dialouge in the game. Even Iris' unbelievably high pitched, shrill, glass breaking screams were sweet to my ears.
In the end Sakura Taisen is the end all example of how to do a multi-genre title correctly. It never tries to be revolutionary, but the whole in this game is worth so much more than the sum of its parts. I would recommend that anyone who often imports Saturn titles quickly snatch this gem up if you see it. Or perhaps wait until the eventual release of the Dreamcast update. Whatever the decision, Sakura Taisen will be a great experience.