Japanese developer Red has long been known for making games as quirky in their gameplay and premise as they are excellent in their execution. Series such as Tengai Makyo and PC Caveman (better known as Bonk in the US) have provided some of the most enjoyable gaming experiences that this reviewer can remember. However, with the release of Sakura Taisen, the development team hints that their best is likely still to come; although the inaugural installment of their newest major series isn't Red's very best effort to date, it hints at the enormous potential of the series.
Taking place in early 20th-century Japan, Sakura Taisen's storyline revolves around Ogami Ichiro, an ensign in Japan's Imperial Navy. As the game begins, Ogami has just been transferred to serve under Vice Admiral Yoneda in the Hanagumi of the secret Imperial Floral Assault Group. Although the unit's moniker perhaps should have tipped Ogami off otherwise, he enters his new assignment expecting to lead enthusiastic soldiers like himself.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise how crushingly disappointed Ogami is when he arrives at the Hanagumi headquarters and discovers that it's merely a playhouse. To make matters worse, all of the other Hanagumi members (Yoneda excepted) are seemingly nothing more than actresses in the performances held at the playhouse.
However, when the battle siren inevitably sounds, Ogami discovers that the Hanagumi is not what it appears to be. In reality, the members of his unit are responsible for piloting koubu, revolutionary steam- powered mech units that are top-secret weapons in Japan's military. The main purpose of the Hanagumi is to combat a powerful terrorist group known as the Hive of Darkness, and it doesn't take long for Ogami to be introduced to the team's nefarious nemesis.
Sakura Taisen's storyline turns out to be quite strong. On one hand, the event-based portions of the plot are admittedly nondescript for a relatively current RPG; even though the scope of the storyline expands to large proportions, the events of the game never rivet you to your Saturn. However, the characters do an excellent job of keeping players roped in. Nearly all of the major characters in the game exhibit incredible depth in their personalities, and the character interaction is among the best ever seen in an RPG.
Sakura Taisen also introduces an innovative style of play, making it the first high-profile dating sim/strategy RPG hybrid to hit the market. The game is divided into 10 separate anime-style episodes, and each episode is divided into adventure/dating sim phases and strategy RPG phases. The bulk of most of the episodes is spent in the adventure/dating sim phases, with Ogami wandering from point to point in the Imperial playhouse (in accordance with the game's storyline, of course). Along the way, Ogami encounters the other Hanagumi members; when this happens, he converses with the character(s) involved in the encounter.
During these conversations, Ogami is often asked to answer a question. Players are then presented with up to 3 choices for Ogami's answer, and they must choose one of the options within a certain time limit. Not answering within the allotted time limit is a distinct choice, too, and, in some cases, it's the correct one. Your choices affect the other characters' opinions of Ogami; the better they like you, the better they fight in the strategy RPG phases. In addition, because Sakura Taisen is in large part a dating sim, your choices determine which girl in the game Ogami ends up with.
The execution of the adventure/dating sim phases leaves very little to be desired. Like most dating sim and adventure games, the gameplay is extremely limited in scope, but it's enjoyable because it's executed well. Some additional complexity wouldn't have hurt these phases, though.
The strategy RPG phases are also done pretty well, though they do have a few more flaws than the adventure/dating sim phases. The battles are turn-based, and the koubu actually have an impressive slew of options at their disposal. They can move and attack like in any game of the genre, but they can also perform special attacks (if the relevant koubu's force meter is full), heal themselves, and charge up their force meter. In addition, Ogami can combine his special attack with that of an adjacent party member for a more powerful combined attack. Each unit can perform 1 movement, 1 attack, and one other action during each one of its turns.
Last, but not least, Ogami can protect other party members for up to 8 hits total per battle. While behind Ogami's defense, the protected unit doesn't sustain any damage if it is attacked, and Ogami scores points with its pilot every time the unit is attacked.
Fortunately, the flaws contained within Sakura Taisen's strategy RPG phases don't detract too greatly from its enjoyability, but they do help preclude it from ranking in the true elite of strategy RPGs, at least in this reviewer's opinion. First of all, the strategy RPG phases are way too easy; they require almost no strategy to complete. The AI of enemies is pretty atrocious, and the balance of strength is heavily on the side of the player. In addition, players can't cancel their movements after they make them, which is annoying, because it means that they have to study the attack ranges of each unit in detail before making any moves, slowing down the gameplay needlessly.
Control in Sakura Taisen consists mainly of moving a cursor around the screen and pointing it at the correct target. The cursor moves in 8 directions, and it can be speeded up with the depression of a button. The cursor control is responsive, especially in the strategy RPG battles, and the few menus that do exist in the game are well organized and easy to navigate.
Where Sakura Taisen is lacking in control is its battle camera. The battles are viewed from an isometric angle, and there is no manual camera movement here. This proves to be extremely annoying, because other units often obscure the tiles that players want to move a particular unit to. Without some sort of mobile camera, mistakes are going to be made in the placement of units when the map gets crowded, which wastes time. This problem is amplified by the fact that the game doesn't allow you to cancel movements; more costly strategy errors can result from the combination of these two flaws.
Graphically, Sakura Taisen looks good, featuring the artwork of Kosuke Fujishima of Oh! My Goddess! fame. Most of the graphics are par for the course as far as dating sim/adventure games go; the bulk of the screens for those phases of the game are 2D stills. They look nice, too, though the backgrounds could have used a few more colors. The battles feature sprites on 2D backgrounds; the koubu units are well drawn, but the backgrounds are a bit drab here, too. Spell effects aren't spectacular, but their design is imaginative.
Sakura Taisen tells some of its story through the use of anime movies, and despite a lot of graininess, these look solid, too, animating smoothly and consistently. More colors in these anime sequences as well would have helped, though. There are also a few CG movies in the game, and they are well designed and look good in spite of their graininess.
Fujishima's character art is extremely appealing, as always, but I found his designs in Sakura Taisen to be overtly stereotypical. Fortunately, the characters do end up displaying enough depth in their personalities to break up the impression that they are one-dimensional, but their appearance sure doesn't help establish them as individuals.
Perhaps the strongest individual facet of Sakura Taisen is its sound. The sound effects as a whole are nothing special, but the clank of the mech units walking around does help draw the player into the game. The strongest part of the sound department, however, is the incredible voice acting that accompanies the dialogue in key points in the storyline. Sakura Taisen features a talented cast that includes seiyuu stars Chisa Yokoyama and Michie Tomizawa, and they all give performances worthy of their reputations. The voice acting is expressive and dramatic, and the spoken dialogue flows smoothly.
Musically, Sakura Taisen does a good job of presenting a soundtrack that is pleasant to listen to. However, most of the tracks in the Kohei Tanaka-composed score don't really stand out from the many other solid RPG soundtracks around. There are exceptions, though, like the main theme of the game and the primary battle theme, which are extremely catchy and memorable. The sound programming for the music is reasonably strong in quality.
Overall, Sakura Taisen is an innovative and enjoyable game that fuses 2 important genres together for one entertaining experience. Fans of dating sims, strategy RPGs, and anime are all encouraged to check it out.
A US release has not been announced and will not happen, at least not on the Saturn.