I've wanted to play a Sakura Taisen game for a long time. From the first time I found out about it, all I heard was praise for the series and lamented in despair from the fact that Sega had not brought it over to North America. Importing one of these games was even a big deciding factor in purchasing my Dreamcast a few months back. Needless to say I had very high expectations of the series.
Now finally, after spending dozens of hours investigating import sites, asking advice from experienced importers for different ways to get my system to be able to play Japanese games, and a hundred bucks later (curse the crappy Canadian dollar), I ordered a copy of Sakura Taisen 3. The two weeks it took for the game to arrive, a mix of anticipation and fear that the Game Shark I shelled out an additional eighty dollars for to enable my DC to play the game might not work, seemed to take forever to go by.
When I finally received my package, I ripped it open as fast as a could and popped the game into my system. After all the work and money it took to be able to play this game, it was worth all of it.
For those of you who don't know anything about the series, Sakura Taisen or Sakura Wars in English is a strategy/dating sim game where you take on the role of Ichiro Oogami, a Japanese navy officer in charge of a squadron of all female steam powered mech pilots. Why is it an all girl unit? Well the steam powered mechs that you fight in, called Koubu F in the case of Sakura Wars 3, require that the pilot has a powerful level of spirit to operate. With the exception of Oogami, a select group of woman are the only ones with spirit levels high enough to use these machines.
In Sakura Wars 3, Oogami is called to Paris to command their unit, the Paris Floral Assault Squadron, against a group of mysterious beastmen intent on destroying the city. The Paris Floral Assault Squadron, is a secret unit, that uses a theatre as their cover, with all the girls in your squadron performing on stage. Not very secretive for a secret squadron, I know, but whatever. If you can get past that, you'll discover a very enjoyable story that is just the right mix of humour and seriousness.
Those of you who are fans of the first two games and were upset that this game features a different floral assault squadron, you'll be glad to know that the Tokyo Floral Assault Squadron does make an appearance. In my opinion they handled this quite well, as I was afraid they'd come in and steal the show, so to speak. Since this is my first Sakura Wars game, I'm a fan of Paris division over the Tokyo one and this is the Paris division's game after all.
The game plays exactly like an interactive anime. The game is divided into chapters, with gameplay involving walking around the theatre and the city trying to build up your relationships with the various women in your squadron and being called off to do battle. The dating-sim aspect of the game takes place on an overhead map where you select a location to visit and talk to any of the main characters that are there. Sakura Taisen 3 uses technology called the LIPS (Live Interactive Picture System) system to synchronize the characters mouth movements with speech and really adds to the whole experience.
Once every chapter you'll be called off to do battle with the enemy and began the strategy part of the game. The battle system is very easy to figure out, even if you have no knowledge of the Japanese language, like myself. I had all the controls figured by the end of the first battle. The controls are fairly simplistic but it works well with the game
Battles usually consist of fighting a wave of enemy robots called Pawns, then moving on to battle the boss. The enemy pawns are not much more than a nuisance, especially in the game's early chapters but they do eventually improve in strength; though they never actually become much of a threat unless several of them are attacking one of your Koubu F's at once. The boss battles are tougher but still mainly just take time to beat rather than much strategy though assigning the correct attack orders will become imperative to the success of a battle near the end of the game.
Even if the battles aren't the most challenging, they're still loads of fun. As an extra there are six mini-games hidden throughout the game, which really add to the replay value and are fun to play by themselves.
The graphics are where this game really shines. Like I said earlier, the game plays exactly like an anime. After finishing a chapter, there is even a preview cutscene for the next one. The graphics are a mix of anime and 3D. Battle sequences are rendered in 3D and have a good amount of detail, though the backgrounds in some levels could use a bit of touching up.
Super attacks look great and I found myself looking forward to using these attacks just to see the animation that goes along with them. As for the dating-sim half of the game, it's all done anime style. Character designs are excellent and all the locations fit in with what you'd expect 1920's Paris to look like. The game is filled with cutscenes, which are all extremely well done and help progress the story. My favourite is the launch cutscenes before each battle. In these all the characters remain in anime where everything else is 3D and are blended together quit well. Very cool stuff. Luckily you can go back and watch all the cutscenes over again all you want.
This game has some of the best music of any game I've ever played. It's rare that I find myself humming tunes from a game, but there are just so many songs I like in this one. Even as I write this review, I'm humming Coquelicot's theme... I love this game.
On top of that, this game has the best voice acting I've heard in a game ever, and it's filled with it. Though not every piece of dialogue has voice acting, a good portion does. That and the fact that each character's lips move in accordance to speech really add to the enjoyment, even if you're like me and have no idea what they're saying except for a few key words.
My only complaints are that it can be difficult to find people to converse with in the dating-sim aspect of the game. The map is fairly big and you only have a certain amount of time to wander around, so you'll waste valuable time checking empty areas. Also, some of the timed LIPS sequences give you so little time to complete, that if I could read Japanese, there would be no way I'd be able to read what is going on and still finish, which usually has very bad results. Anyway, these are just minor problems and still don't deter from the fact that this is a great game.
Sakura Taisen 3 is now my favourite Dreamcast game, and all I can say is I'm extremely happy I purchased this game (even if it cost me close to $200 Canadian just to play it). There's a reason why just about everyone who imports Sega games has at least one of the Sakura Wars games. It's a crime that Sega has never brought the series to North America because we're sure missing out. If you're a fan of anime, strategy or just like great games I'd definitely recommend picking this one up. Just make sure you do your research to ensure that you'll be able to play it on your system.