The original Sakura Taisen was a groundbreaking title of which the likes of where never seen prior to its release for the Saturn. Many import game players considered it to be one of the best games ever constructed, if not the pinnacle of gaming for Sega's now defunct console. From my personal experience with it I agree that it was definitely original. After releasing three decent spinoffs Red finally developed a true sequel. Does this new Sakura Taisen match up to the quality of the original game? In my opinion yes it does match up. In fact it surpasses it in almost every conceivable way.
Sakura Taisen 2 takes place two years after the events that concluded the first storyline. Japan has been virtually free of having to deal with demon related attacks and the imperial capital has been quiet. Until out of nowhere the appearance of a new group of foes with schemes of domination force the Teikoku Kagekidan back into action. Being dragged out of his naval carreer Ohgami Ichirou is once again made the commander of the Teikoku Kagekidan Hanagumi Division. The game still has the original cast of Sakura, Iris, Sumire, Kanna, Maria, and Kouran, with the addition of two new characters to the strike force. The slightly conceited Soletta Orihime and the cold, calm, young genius Leni (whose surname name I couldn't spell for the life of me). Of course the three 'daughters' of the Imperial Theater are still present as well as the sake guzzling Yoneda. Gameplay in this installment follows a similar format to its predecessor with a few new additions. The theater's floor plan is drawn much larger than before and there are new areas to visit. The lips system has been slightly reworked. Now Ohgami can anger or please a character doubly as good or bad as before. These new instances are indicated with certain chimes pitched differently than in the original Sakura Taisen. Timed lips still function as before so you have to think fast, but now on occasion during a timed sequence a new choice may appear suddenly replacing an old choice. This means that the new answer could be better or worse than the previous and that you'll have to read faster to react in time. The lips also have much deeper tangents in this version giving the conversations more variety.
One factor of this is the new personality bar Ohgami has at the bottom of the screen. When you start the game it's balanced with half of it blue, and the rest pink. As you engage in conversations your responses may affect the bar. Flirty or generally light-hearted comments will raise the pink side. While being a polite, serious, gentleman type will raise the blue bar. Depending on which side is higher, conversations may be altered somewhat. Certain lips choices won't even appear if you're way too serious or flirty. It's not necessary to play with a balanced bar or any other extreme to beat the game. More than anything the bar is a way to chart how you like to answer in lips sequences. Still though it is an interesting new addition.
The battles are mostly the same with some small teaks. All the functions from the first game are present. Except now Ohgami can only protect a character up to three times instead of eight. This means that getting a character to like Ohgami now will require better conversational skills than simply always protecting the same girl to raise points with her. Speaking of protecting, if you have many points with a particular character there is a very small chance they will protect Ohgami from harm. This appears to be completely random however, and only tends to occur during the last few episodes in the story. Critical attacks that a character randomly did in the first game when you clicked to do a normal attack have been removed. Instead there is a new dual attack system that requires any two characters who get along with each other to be in range of the same foe. If the conditions are met clicking for a normal attack will sometimes make both characters attack in tandem with their normals, obviously this does more damage than a character hitting an enemy alone. For this simple reason it may be a good strategy to have characters fight in pairs for the potentially greater damage. Another thing that was tweaked was the grid control when you walk to a new location. Sakura Taisen 2 allows you to reach and settle on a square, and if you change your mind click to backtrack and try somewhere else. In the first game once you settled after picking a spot, you were stuck, effectively putting you in some pretty crazy situations. This was annoying because sometimes the range was hard to judge and you'd end up short of hitting an enemy. Now that this little problem is gone there is generally more flexibility.
As good as the gameplay is though, the big difference now is in graphics and presentation. The main artist for all the characters has been changed. This new look to the game will be a hit or miss for fans of the original. Personally I love the way the characters are drawn in Sakura Taisen 2. Everyone is even more expressive, with even bigger sparks to their respective personalities. It is a personal preference though and I'm certain there are those who will prefer the original game's art style better. The cinemas are played in the same letter boxed format as before. Contrary to what I have heard before, the game's FMV is not displayed in the Truemotion format, and still uses the old compression system from the first game. This is not an issue however as the cinemas are so crisp now that any FMV buff will have to be impressed by the increased fluidity. This is far and away the highest framerate I have ever seen on the Saturn. As good as the cinemas in Sakura Taisen looked before, the sequel just blows everything from the original away.
Unfortunately I think that Red used too much memory in the presentation because the battles have suffered a bit in overall appearance. Pre-rendered scenes and mechs are still the order of the day, but now the colorful touch the first game held seems to be missing entirely. What is left is a game that has a darker, almost shabby look to it, colored in drab and monotonous tones. The seamless animation for the Koubu seems to be hacked down too, which was more than a bit disappointing. The characters aren't choppy but no way are they as fluid as the first game. In general the battles all now have a slower, less exciting feel to them much of the time. Doing a sure-kill attack in this game for instance has a noticeable load time. Eventually my patience was severely tested. Waiting ten seconds for every sure-kill I tried, to only then see paltry damage done on the enemy more often than not was extremely agitating.
On the upside these are even more beautiful now. Each sure-kill technique is preceded by a beautiful cinematic that easily blows away anything from Sakura Taisen. They showcase excellent artwork and feature polygonal renditions of the Koubu mixed with rendered shots of the mechs, instead of the first Sakura Taisen's style of using the same in game sprites. If that wasn't enough there are three different sure-kill attacks you will have throughtout the game when you upgrade your mechs, and each cinema for these just gets better as the story rolls on. As for those dual attacks with Ohgami and his favorite, there are two for each character he teams up with. The first set is obtained during the regular course of the chapters like before. Eventually though when it comes time to pick your love interest out of the girls with the highest interest in you, the scene will change. Even though the outcome is still a big explosion, the preceding scene will be much more romantic, sometimes it almost felt embarrassing executing one of these (Keep in mind that I'm playing the game with my speakers cranked up loud). Lastly when any two characters do a normal dual attack on an enemy they show drawings of their faces in the cockpits screaming out while they strike, much like in several thousand animes that have done this before. Overall I wasn't disappointed with the presentation and only the battle graphics were a let down.
Sound is slightly improved over the prequel. All the seiyuu from the first game reprise their roles, and thankfully haven't lost their touch since the first Sakura Taisen. The two new characters are voiced well too. Orihime is has my favorite voice at the moment. Mainly because of how bad her Japanese accent is. It makes sense though since she wasn't originally from Japan but all the other non-Japanese characters in the game seem to nearly speak like natives, so this was a refreshing touch. Sound effects are better than before. Mainly because they are slightly louder and have more of a noticeable presence. Unfortunately the sounds sometimes get cut off or lagged if you are playing through battles too fast. Also a downer was the return of Ohgami's and Sakura's 'sword fart'. I'm sorry, but with the sound chip the Saturn has inside it, I expect something with much more realism to it. Music is often recycled from the first game in jazzy new remixes, although there is some new stuff to listen to. All the main characters still have their own themes. For the returning Hanagumi members the themes are all new now. I didn't really like them any better, but they weren't bad either.
Sakura Taisen 2's storyline is set up in episode form like before. Everything is essentially the same here in terms of how things are presented, but the story has better twists in this one. It also gets a lot more emotional towards the end, and basically has a serious tone to it at times. Each episode itself is also much longer than the first game. I would say one chapter here is almost as long as two in Sakura Taisen. This is not a game anyone will beat overnight the first time. Even when I rushed through in replaying it, Sakura Taisen 2 still took me a long time to reach the end again.
Basically Sakura Taisen 2 is everything I think a sequel should be. Fun to play with new elements that improve on its predecessor, while still retaining the feel of the original. It is easily a must have Saturn game for those who can understand it and except for my quips with the battle graphics and sounds, the game is virtually as good as it gets. With Sakura Taisen 3 heading over to the Dreamcast in the future, it looks like Ohgami and co. aren't leaving anytime soon. So if you haven't tried either of the first two titles yet, I suggest you look into them, as they are easily among the upper echelon of Saturn software.