It's showtime! Sakura Taisen is finally back with a brand new installment. Great visuals, more freedom of movement and even more strategy battles complement the traditionally top-notch direction, entertaining story, excellent soundtrack, and outstanding voice acting. Despite the new characters and setting this game cannot be mistaken for anything other than Sakura Taisen, and quite possibly the technologically best entry in the series yet, but... This "but" is connected to the sentimental feeling that is called nostalgia, and in particular, in the early stages of the game, made me think back to the good old days when you were still in charge of the Ichirou Oogami and the Teito Kagekidan.
First, Sakura Taisen has never looked better. While visuals have never been the most important aspect of the series, as with any game, beautiful visuals don't hurt either. The animation sequences look as solid as ever, but the development team has also put a lot of effort into re-creating New York City on your PlayStation 2. Instead of being limited to the theater, players now can move freely through the city by selecting various areas, such as Midtown, the Bay Area, or Harlem on a map. Upon entering those areas, players can move around in three-dimensional environments and then enter various locations such as 5th Avenue or Central Park. Design-wise, Kousuke Fujishima has returned to create a new cast of heroes, villains and NPCs. And while the characters may be new, the designs are still as colorful and vibrant as ever, thereby offering a welcoming sense of continuity. Ground-based and airborne battles look as good as the rest of the game. The mech models are quite detailed and the environments larger than in previous installments.
Sakura Taisen would not be Sakura Taisen without the upbeat themes composed by Kouhei Tanaka. Hence, series mastermind Ouji Hiroi surprised nobody by bringing back the series veteran as composer of Sakura Taisen V. Tanaka's music still fits the atmosphere of the respective scene as well as ever. The upbeat themes during the adventure portion of the game become gloomy and threatening pieces once one of the villains appears on the screen. This time around the music occasionally sounds jazz-inspired. The previous opening theme "Geki! Teito Kagekidan" has been replaced by a song titled "Chijou no Senshi". While this new main theme is solid (just like the soundtrack overall), it is not as great as the timeless masterpiece that is Sakura Taisen 2's.
Voice acting has always been one of the series' highlights and Sakura Taisen V is no exception to that rule. Ouji Hiroi has once again demonstrated his skill in picking voice actors and actresses whose voices match perfectly with the personalities of their virtual alter egos. Despite bringing in an entirely new cast of voice actors, Sakura Taisen remains the gold standard when it comes to voice acting. That being said, while Iris' voice managed to get on my nerves occasionally in the previous installments, her part has been taken over by Diana Caprice.
As previously mentioned, Ouji Hiroi has taken the bold step of putting players in charge of an entirely new crew in a new setting. However, when we first meet the new protagonist, 19-year-old Shinjirou Taiga, he finds himself in a familiar environment. In Tokyo's Ueno park he meets series heroine Sakura Shinguuji who accompanies young Shinjirou to the Imperial Theater where he meets his uncle Oogami. To his surprise, Oogami tells the young lad he won't serve under his command in Tokyo, but rather will be dispatched to New York to reinforce the recently established New York Kagekidan Hoshigumi. Then it is farewell to the familiar cast and setting of Tokyo, as Shinjirou heads for his new home on the other side of the Pacific. Upon arriving, the young lad is not only amazed by the City That Never Sleeps, but also shocked to find out he is anything but wanted. The heads of the Hoshigumi, Sunnyside and Ratchet Altair had requested the help of none other than Ichirou Oogami himself, and not his young, inexperienced nephew. After offering him a ticket to return home to Japan, Sunnyside and Rachtet end up impressed by Shinjirou's determination to prove he is able and willing to be a member of the elite fighting group.
While it is probably a rather senseless exercise to complain about realism or the lack thereof in a game which features a villain raising Azuchi Castle in New York City, the sudden change of heart of Sunnyside and Rachtet feels a bit rushed. However, it brings us to a key feature of Sakura Taisen V's story and conception. In various interviews Ouji Hiroi emphasized the growth of Shinjirou and the girls surrounding him. And the contrast to the previous installments in this aspect is indeed striking. While Oogami from the very beginning of the series has always been portrayed as a determined elite soldier without any obvious weaknesses, Shinjirou slowly but surely grows into his role of unit commander. And indeed the girls around him, their characters, and their affection towards him are affected by his growth. So it is Shinjirou who basically manages to turn Diane and Rika into reliable members of the Hoshigumi.
Similarly striking is the development of the heroine, Gemini Sunrise. Unlike Sakura, the new series poster girl, who debuted as the protagonist in Sakura Taisen V Episode 0, is not the star of the Hoshigumi, but rather a cleaning lady who does not join the Hoshigumi until late in the game.
One of Sakura Taisen's strong points has always been its memorable characters, and here we come to my nostalgia issue again, which I will touch on in just a bit. Let's first take a look at the heroines Shinjirou is dealing with: Gemini is a Texan cowgirl who has come to New York to realize her dream of becoming a musical star. The hot-headed Sagiitta Weinberg is an African American lawyer from Harlem. Along with the genius, yet mysterious Subaru Kujou, Sagiitta has been a member of the Hoshigumi from the very beginning. The 11-year old Rikaritta Aries is a very energetic Mexican girl wielding two guns. Diana Caprice is an apprentice doctor who loves watching the birds in Central Park and reading books. She is physically weak, but always cares about others. Ratchet Altair is the head of the Hoshigumi, and right hand of Sunnyside. She originally was a member of the Hanagumi and served under Oogami. Afterwards, she was transferred to Europe, and there she headed the European Hoshigumi in a position superior to Orihime, Leni and Subaru.
Prior to the events of Sakura Taisen V, Ratchet and Subaru were dispatched to New York as founding members of the New York Kagekidan Hoshigumi. Just as with the Tokyo and Paris girls, whether you like this new cast better than the previous two groups is obviously a matter of taste. While the characters did grow on me during the course of the game, in particular during the first two chapters I seriously thought this game was missing Oogami, Sakura, Orihime and Co. Maybe this is because I have gotten used to these characters over the course of three games or because I genuinely like the old cast better than this one is hard to tell. But the nostalgic feeling that already showed its head at the end of Sakura Taisen 4 reappeared in Sakura Taisen V.
On the villain side, players will again face off against a character based on a figure taken from Japanese history. In the end, Shinjirou will face none other than Oda Nobunaga himself. However, this time Ouji Hiroi and his team seem to have adopted the Final Fantasy approach, as players will first have to deal with five minor enemies before taking on the biggest bad guy himself. This is not to say that the group of minor minions does not have its entertaining moments. In particular, Dokubo Bou is a very amusing fellow. This hulking enemy who wears a white mask and has a sword pierced straight through his head, is not exactly the fastest and intelligent foe around. But apart from his appearance, it is his oddball Japanese that makes his entire appearance hilarious and entertaining at the same time.
System-wise, Sakura Taisen still offers the same combination of love adventure elements and mech-based strategy battles that has made the series so popular in Japan. Sakura Taisen V features eight chapters, each of them encompassing an adventure portion followed by a battle segment. One of the main points of criticism leveled against Sakura Taisen 4 - Koi seyo Otome was its length, or rather the lack thereof. Hence, those who felt Sakura Taisen 4 was too short of an affair, will be glad to hear that you will get more hours for your yen with Sakura Taisen V. Playing through the game takes roughly 20 hours, compared to less than 10 hours in the case of Sakura Taisen 4.
By series tradition, each chapter focuses on one heroine. The exceptions to that rule are the first one (which serves as an introduction of Shinjirou and the setting) and the last ones, which center on the final battle and the heroine of your choice. The replay value has also been enhanced, as players will now take the stats from their previous playthrough with them. This means battles will become easier and shorter from one playthrough to the next, giving players the chance to get to see more endings without being distracted too much on the way by the sometimes very long battle segments.
Sakura Taisen V's adventure part is as entertaining as ever. The dialogue still tends to feature hilarious comedy elements now and then. This counts in particular for Sunnyside, the wealthy owner of the Little Lip theater and boss of the Hoshigumi, and Oogami's old pal Yuuichi Kayama, who was sent to New York by Oogami to look over protagonist Shinjirou and who runs a store in Midtown. Some purists might complain about the Japanglish (for instance, in the introduction to each new chapter), but from my point of view this issue is negligible.
The good old Live Interactive Picture System (better known under its abbreviated form LIPS) returns with a greater focus being placed on ST and C LIPS this time around. ST LIPS segments require players to use the control pad's two analog sticks to enter commands given by the game as quickly as possible. Since this author has never been a genius when it comes to such ordeals, he found getting a "great" score in a ST LIPS segment quite a challenge. C LIPS lets players click on certain objects. While clicking on a character's mouth will just result in a normal conversation, C LIPS can also be more interactive. For instance, in chapter 5, our hero Shinjirou has to help Diana who has fallen and now needs help in order to get back on her feet.
Of course, at the center of the adventure part's gameplay is still the standard LIPS where players have a limited amount of time to choose from three different answers to give during a conversation. Depending on your answer, the affection and trust the heroines have in Shinjirou will increase. Just like in the case of any other love adventure game, these selections will result in you seeing various special events and an ending sequence featuring the heroine with the highest level of affection towards the protagonist. Gameplay-wise, however, being nice to the girls also affects the way they head into the next battle. Collecting many "nice guy" points during the adventure part will raise the girls' battle stats, therefore making your job in the battle segment easier.
The battle system itself remains pretty much unchanged from previous installments, with the notable exception of the addition of air battles. In your mechs, now known as "Stars," you engage enemies in turn-based strategy battles. Per turn you can use various commands, such as move, defend, attack, special attack, heal, charging and area move. Each of these commands takes away a bit from your action gauge. Furthermore, healing and special attacks require a certain amount of spiritual power. As always, the action gauge can be customized by using different settings (standard, offensive and defensive).
Two new additions to the battle system include the "Help Me!" command and combination attacks. When in trouble Shinjirou can use the former to call upon assistance from one of the heroines. The latter allows two units to team up and perform a combination attack. Depending on the relationship of the two mech's pilots, the efficiency of these attack can vary quite a bit.
While Sakura Taisen has a tradition of featuring relatively long battles, Sakura Taisen V takes this tradition to new lengths. At the end of each chapter, players first have to fight one standard battle before they face a boss. In particular, the standard battles can take more than an hour and require a considerable amount of strategic thinking. This strategic element has been increased by the development team's decision to divide the battlefield into various areas. On certain spots, you can send your units from one area to another. Rushing into battle by sending one of your units to a respective area without support might result in this unit meeting overwhelming resistance. In the best case, you might be able to dispatch support to the respective area or withdraw your unit; in the worst case, you won't have a turn before the enemy has taken the unit out of the battle.
After you have taken care of the minions, the boss awaits, which brings us to the aforementioned air battles (as most boss battles take place above ground). Unlike the Koubu used by the Hanagumi, the Hoshigumi's Stars cannot only be utilized for traditional surface battles, but also aerial combat. With the exception of a greater freedom that comes with flying, air-based battles don't differ from their ground-based counterparts.
Don't get me wrong, this is still Sakura Taisen, and arguably the best installment to date, at least from a technological standpoint. And despite the new cast, setting and slightly updated battle system, this still feels like Sakura Taisen from the first second of the opening sequence to the last second of the ending. The development team definitely has done a commendable job in bringing a new main series installment to PlayStation 2 with Sakura Taisen V. I can definitely recommend this game and can say it is one of the most entertaining games I have put into my PlayStation 2 so far.
That being said, the nostalgia issue remains, for me at least. Newcomers and series veterans who don't mind the new cast probably will have trouble understanding this issue. However, playing games comes down to emotions. And this author clearly prefers the old cast over the new, while nonetheless commending Ouji Hiroi for the bold step he has taken with the new cast and setting. Unlike many other series which are only shadows of their original selves over half a dozen sequels, Sakura Taisen after all remains as entertaining as ever, even with a new cast and setting.