In June of 2001, Sega and Red Company - now known as Red Entertainment - surprised everyone by announcing a new installment in Red's flagship series, Sakura Taisen (also known as Sakura Wars). While it was not doubted that a new episode would see the light of day, nobody expected it would be released only a year after Sakura Taisen 3. Moreover, the series was expected to make the move to the PlayStation 2, not be another DC installment (a PS2 port of the series had already been announced, in fact).
Nevertheless, Sakura Taisen 4: Koiseyo Otome was released for the Dreamcast on March 21st, 2002, and promoted as the "Grand Finale," not only on that system, but also for the series itself, as it was hinted that this could be the last Sakura Taisen title.
Sakura Taisen 4: Koiseyo Otome's subtitle finds its origin in a folk song, the Song of Gondola ("Life is short, Maidens, fall in Love..."). The premise of the game has not changed: Marine Lieutenant Oogami is a musical theater's ticket clipper by day and the leader of a secret assault group defending the peace of the Imperial Capital in steam-powered robots by night, and needless to say, all the members of the group are female.
In addition to applying a lot of narrative and structural codes of Japanese animation into a video game, the series was also an innovative mix of strategy RPG and (mainstream) dating sim, a combination labeled a "dramatic adventure" by its creators. Keeping the girls happy by selecting the best answers in MCQs will be one of your goals. The happier they are, the better they fight, and each character has a corresponding ending; depending on whom Oogami chooses, the story will develop slightly differently.
Returning to Japan after being relocated to Paris for 6 months in Sakura Taisen 3, Oogami will have to deal with an enlarged cast of 13 girls (6 from the original cast, the 2 extra characters in 2, and ST3's 5 new girls).
This time around, the Imperial Capital finds itself confronted by a new enemy and a mysterious golden steam that puts machines (including the Koubu) out of control. On the relationship side, the plot will revolve around a big misunderstanding between Oogami and the girls, the latter thinking Oogami is proposing to them when he really is collecting information about marriage for the play (!). The top girl and the second girl will play an important part in this; it's basically the girls chosen in Sakura Taisen 1, 2, and 3, as ST4 once again offers the possibility to combine your save files from the previous games.
The game's focus is definitely the Theater, as everything theater-related has a much more prominent part than in the previous games. Upon director Yoneda's request, Oogami will direct the new play (yes, there is only one in the game), Aa mujou, better known as Les Misérables. Although almost everything is predefined (the choice of the play, the cast...), Oogami will have to make a number of directing choices.
Another aspect which gives the game a 'theater' feel is the fact that the villains are inspired by Noh (one of the classic forms of Japanese theaters), led by Ookubo Nagayasu, a historical character - hence Hiroi Ouji's hinting at villains from 'deep Japanese history'. Additionally, the traditional episodes structure of the game has been replaced by "acts". While this certainly fits the theater theme the game has, I personally missed the episode format, especially the next episode previews.
Here I will talk a little more in-depth about the story, so people who want to avoid spoilers may want to skip this paragraph. As the series' "grand finale", this fourth installment definitely puts an end to an age of the series. However, the series does not come to an end in the way one could have expected. In fact, there might very well be one more game with almost the same setting, and it seems unlikely that Red and Sega will put an end to the franchise after this episode.
Additionally, many of the questions left unanswered in the previous episodes (especially regarding ST3's characters, which had many gray areas) are... well, left unanswered once again. Sumire's announced retirement is not an issue in the game either, contrary to some expectations: although the actress Michie Tomizawa is indeed retiring from the series (after she's done with half a dozen assorted Special Retirement Shows, DVDs and Drama CDs), in terms of story, nothing major in this regard is said in the game.
Graphically, the game has reached a new level of quality with ST4. The movies’ technical progress is visible in the animation, although the game unfortunately contains very few animated sequences. The battle engine is the one used in Sakura Taisen 3 and bears no visible improvement or change. While there isn't really any complaint to make about it, some new options or at least a graphical upgrade could have been nice.
Half of the main cast (the Tokyo characters) have had a partial face lift with new sets of visuals, however, none of the secondary characters or Paris characters have benefited from that treatment, and most of the character visuals in the game are from ST2 and 3.
Musically, there are very few new themes; most are simply background music from the previous games. There are no new character themes nor any new songs this time, as there's only one general ending song (as I write this review, a vocal collection CD has not been announced, breaking the tradition of the previous games). Kouhei Tanaka's compositions are excellent as always, just not very new this time around. As for the opening song, Oogami's voice actor Suyama Akio is singing a new (and supposedly final!) version of the now famous opening song, Geki! Teikoku kagekidan. He takes an honorable shot at it, and while I prefer the other incursions of the song, it was an interesting version.
One thing that will certainly fulfill everyone's wishes is the game's voice acting. The series had always featured a lot of voice acting, and ST4 accomplishes the amazing feat of reuniting the cast of all the previous games (which is a LOT of voice actors to finance) and making the game almost entirely dubbed. There are very few non-dubbed parts, and the acting continues the series' high standard of quality.
In terms of gameplay, ST4 is basically similar to ST3. The theater's general view is now in 3D, as in ST3, the analog LIPS and double LIPS are also present (although there aren't many occasions to use them).
The major gripe one can have about Sakura Taisen 4 will be the game's length. It can be completed in no longer than 7 to 11 hours, depending on the way you play. Consequently, there are very few battles, a limited number of events, no "summer episode" like there has been in the previous games.
And sadly, this length problem downgrades a lot of the game's good points; for instance, the villains' plot starts interestingly but hardly do you get to find out about the new villains that the game's finished. The shortness of the game ruined the argument of the plot, to the point I wonder if Red shouldn't have dropped the idea of introducing a new batch of villains altogether.
Similarly, the promised Oogami Kagekidan only affects the last battle (although with the game's length, the last battle itself represents maybe one fifth of the total playing time). The Oogami Kagekidan was one of the first things announced about the game: the possibility to form Oogami's own Assault group picking 5 out of the 13 characters. This was an interesting concept, but the game ends too soon to let you enjoy it.
Not only is the game short, but it feels in many ways 'rushed'. There's massive recycling of graphics, music, and many elements from the previous games; practically nothing is really new. There's only one mini-game: Sakura Taisen Jong, a simplified version of Mahjong (although the usual quizzes and post-completion extras are there). And there are only 5 FMVs throughout the entire game, opening and ending included...
The character development also suffers a lot from the length. It seems hard to understand and care for the characters without having played the previous games. Having so many characters at the same time is somewhat confusing, and there is also some kind of favoritism towards the Tokyo cast over the Paris cast (as it is, after all, the return to Tokyo). Unless one of the top girls is one of the Paris girls, we hardly get to see the Paris cast, which is only appearing in the latter part of the game (and under a very arguable pretext).
However, the game has a very high replay value. It offers (at least) 14 different endings, and since it takes less than 10 hours to beat, it's easy to replay through the game to see more endings.
It's short, it's not very innovative, and yet it's getting a 90%. Why, you ask? Because it's still Sakura Taisen. It's got the graphics, the humor, the essence and everything that makes the series so lovable, and I know the fans will enjoy it no matter what. The game was made fast, probably too fast, but this is the price to pay to get a new Sakura game in only one year (as opposed to the average 2-3 years the others took). This is clearly a game aimed at the fans; if you're new to the series, I would suggest you start by playing 3 or the DC remake of 1 or 2 (especially since these have been re-released at low prices).
The length and overall quality making ST4 feel like an add-on or epilogue to the series more than a true installment; yet isn't it what it was supposed to be in the first place? It’s a good investment if you played the other games and liked them, though it's good to keep in mind that you shouldn’t expect as much from ST4 as you from ST3.