Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
In March 2002 Sakura Taisen 4 Koi Seyo Otome marked the last hurrah on a Sega console for one of company’s most popular series. Less than one year later, a new Sakura Taisen title has been released. Sakura Taisen Atsuki Chishio Ni, a PlayStation 2 remake of the original game released for the Sega Saturn in 1998. By bringing PS2 users a remake of the original, producer Ouji Hiroi wanted to whet their appetite for the real thing: Sakura Taisen 5 and four other, original titles.
A Hilarious Prelude
Similar to last year’s Sakura Taisen 4, the subtitle of this remake, Atsuki Chishio Ni is again taken from the Song of Gondola dating back to 1915. We are writing the 12th year since the ascendance of Yoshihito, posthumously known as the Taisho Emperor to the Chrysanthemum Throne (1923): Ichirou Oogami, graduate of the Imperial Navy’s Officers’ School is ordered to move to Tokyo, where he will lead the Teikoku Kagekidan (the Imperial Navy’s assault group) Hanagumi. On a calm spring day with the cherry blossoms in full bloom (a sign for love) in Tokyo’s Ueno Koen, he meets the first member of the Hanagumi, Sakura Shinguji. Upon arriving at the group’s headquarters, the Imperial Theatre on the Ginza the affection to Sakura gives way to confusion. First he learns that ten year old Iris in company of her teddy bear Jean Paul is also a member of the supposed elite unit, his superior Ikki Yoneda, turns out to be a drunken theatre director and instead of fighting Teito’s enemies, Oogami is demoted to ticket clipping. Only later does he learn that all this is an excellent disguise created to cover what lies beneath the theather building: A hangar hosting the Teito Kakgekidan’s weapon of choice: Steam-powered mechs, referred to as Koubu. But it’s not only the building that provides the necessary cover, but also one of the countless homonyms existing in Japanese: The string Kagekidan in Japanese can mean both, assault group as well as stage performance group. While the kanji strings used for the two terms differ, they sound entirely identical.
An Officer and Gentleman
Just like previous installments, Atsuki Chishio Ni offers an entertaining mix of dating simulation and strategy battle elements. During the former, Oogami engages in conversations with the six group members (Sakura, Sumire, Maria, Kanna, Kouran and Iris), chief Yoneda, his assistant Ayame and the three theater staffers Tsubaki, Kasumi and Yuri. Almost comedy-like conversations have always been one of Sakura Taisen’s most outstanding features. Thanks to Oogami being unfamiliar with everyone and hence stumbling from one embarrassing situation into the next, Atsuki Chishio Ni however exceeds all other installments in terms of hilarity. More than once the player will laugh at yet another hilarious conversation, while at the same time feeling pity for the confused and irritated protagonist, who just doesn’t seem to get it. The ultimate target however has remained the same: To win over your favorite girl, while playing it nice with the remaining bunch in order to boast their performance in battle. But the verbal in-fighting soon gives way to a far greater challenge: The Kuronosukai, an evil bunch headed by Tenkai is causing chaos in Teito. While progressing through the ten episodes you will eventually find out that your biggest foe isn’t Tenkai, but rather a familiar face, at least to those who have played Sakura Taisen 2, Aoi Satan.
Even more explicitly than in the three sequels, the underlying theme of this conflict is expressed by Tenkai in episode 7: Teito representing a westernized Japan following the Meiji Restoration of 1868 shall be destroyed and give way to a revived Edo, the city upon which modern Tokyo was built and which had been the capital of the Tokugawa Shogunate for more than 250 years until 1868, representing a traditional Japan isolated from the world and for the most part free of western thought. This Japanese version of the Clash of Civilizations has been one of the dominant themes of the early 20th century. The contrast between Tenkai’s talk about reviving Edo and the Hanagumi performing Saiyuuki (A Journey to the West) couldn’t be more extreme. Eventually the game takes the conflict between tradition and westernization beyond the idea of a Japan free of western thoughts. Instead it reaches its culmination point in an epic battle for the survival of the entire world. It is telling that in the end the Hanagumi manage to defeat the Kuronosukai and Satan, thereby saving Teito.
Show Me Your Updates
Visually, Sakura Taisen has received a complete upgrade and now looks as polished as Sakura Taisen 4. The more dynamic battle system, which was introduced with Sakura Taisen 3, has replaced its comparatively static predecessor. The user interface also received a minor, yet nonetheless welcome, facelift. Furthermore, one new feature has replaced several mini games: Instead of playing these original mini-games, players now have to press a sequence of buttons correctly. Last but not least, the CLICK Lips introduced in Sakura Taisen 3 also have found their way into Atsuki Chishio Ni.
Great Music and Superb Voice Acting
Kouhei Tanaka’s score still perfectly fits the game. Light-hearted, upbeat tunes accompany the player throughout the game’s often hilarious dating simulation portion, while the musical background to battle sequences and appearances of the Kuronosukai is darker and gloomier. The unrivaled voice acting is, as usual, well beyond any criticism.
Teito Kagekidan, Sanjou!
Just as mentioned above, strategy battles are fought inside Koubu, the kagekidan’s mechs. Players have complete control over the up to seven Koubu units during the round-based enemy encounters. Once one unit’s turn has come, players can choose from the following options: attack (combo), special attack, defend, charge, heal or move. Each of these commands will reduce the bar on the bottom of the screen by a certain number of slots. Charging for instance requires the use of three slots. Not unlike most RPGs, there are only two relevant statistics in battle: Your mech’s health and charge meter. Once the latter is full, it is possible to unleash a powerful special attack.
All said and done, Sakura Taisen Atsuki Chishio is a well-polished remake of the origin of one of the greatest videogame series. Charming and witty as ever, far more light-hearted than most RPGs with their epic storylines, yet at least equally entertaining, Overworks’ newest project can only be wholeheartedly recommended. This game is probably the final chance for fans to experience the glorious first era of a unique series whose character will dramatically change with its fifth installment: In several interviews, Ouji Hiroi and his team have made it clear that Sakura Taisen 5 will mark a new start for the entire series. A new setting (New York), a new cast (the Hoshi-gumi), a new system and new visuals.