Sakura Wars: So Long my Love is the first game in the series to be released outside of Japan, it’s also the FIFTH game in the series. Sega originally started the Sakura Taisen, or Sakura Wars, as it’s known in the US, series back on the Sega Saturn. It was a new kind of RPG, not one seen before on a console and quickly became one of the most popular franchises in Japan. The series moved forward and hit other consoles such as the Sega Dreamcast and PS2, but was never released outside of its home territory.
Sakura Wars So Long My Love released on the PS2 in 2005, and has FINALLY made it’s way to the US thanks to our friends at NISA…in 2010. Yes, this is a five-year-old game being released on a console that is literally in its last year of life. So the question is, does Sakura Wars hold up despite its age? Is it something worth checking out, or is it simply too old for anyone to care about anymore? Let’s take a look at the HOTs and NOTs of Sakura Wars: So Long My Love.
First game in the US
As strange as it might sound, one of the best aspects of the game is the fact that it even EXISTS outside Japan. As I said in the introduction, the Sakura Wars series has been around since the mid 90s, but only now in 2010 is it seeing the light of day in other markets. Sega, for whatever reason, simply refused to release any of the games in the western markets. It’s a mystery as to why because the anime series and movie were all dubbed and released in the US years ago. Fans have been forced to import and either learn Japanese or read online guides just to play these games. Hopefully this will start a trend, and from here on the US and EU markets will see Sakura Wars games.
The voice acting is pretty damn good, something that rarely happens with Japanese games. NISA can be very hit or miss with its choices for characters voices, and save for a few put on accents here and there, I have to say the voices in this game exceeded my expectations. Now of course the hardcore purists out there will complain because they are so used to the Japanese voices, but even still I have to say the voice acting works well.
Thankfully the good voice acting wasn’t wasted on bad characters. The characters here are all fun, and offer their own personal blend to the game. Most of the characters you interact with are female, but each has her own distinct personality, so they don’t just become caricatures. Gemini isn’t just the redhead; she actually does have a personality and is easily distinguishable not just by her looks. Anyone who plays will surely have a favorite; my personal favorite is Gemini Sunrise.
The story is also surprisingly good. JRPGs are often criticized for their bland storylines, but this game actually tries something different. Now granted, there is a group of supernatural bad guys out to take over the world, but the setting, the tone, everything is so vastly different from the typical fantasy RPG fare. The game takes place in an alternate version of New York City in the late 1920s. Humans use steam technology, and because of this have much more advanced machinery, mainly mechs. Shinjiro Taiga has been sent from Japan to help the Star Force, but is not accepted upon his arrival. Shinjiro must prove himself to the others and become the best leader he can be.
The story won’t be winning any awards, but it’s miles ahead of what most JRPGs are giving us these days, even the newer ones.
This is where Sakura Wars separates itself from other RPGs. Most RPGs involve walking around a world map or a dungeon, fighting off random monsters, collecting items, and gaining experience points to level up. Sakura Wars takes a different approach. Each chapter plays out more like an episode of a TV series, with interludes thrown in here and there allowing the player to save their game. As you progress through each episode, you talk with people, go on dates, and build relationships. The more a girl likes you, the higher your trust meter rises. The higher the trust meter, the better you work together in battle.
This is how you raise your “level” in the game. There is no walking around aimlessly, getting into random battles, and level grinding. You raise your power by working on your relationships with the girls. I like this, it offers something different and doesn’t rely on mindless level grinding to keep the player engaged, but instead puts an emphasis on its characters and story. It might not appeal to everyone, but for me this system was the best thing about Sakura Wars.
Of course the battle system works well too. All the battles take place in your mech, usually consisting of two parts, one part taking place on the ground and the other in the air. The battles are fast-paced turn based. Each character has an action meter. This meter determines just how much they can do in a single turn. Moving, attacking, healing, everything is connected to your action meter. You really have to use your brain, especially in the later levels, because just blindly running up and attacking is a quick way to get you killed. A nice dose of strategy with a good amount of action help make this a fun battle system. It’s very similar to Valkyria Chronicles, which is odd to say because this game came out first.
This is the fifth game in the series, so it’d be a bit of a problem if the series followed a straight continuity from one game to the next. Now don’t get me wrong, there is an overlaying continuity that connects each game together, but thankfully each game (from my understanding anyway) is self-contained. You don’t have to have played Sakura Taisen 4 to enjoy this game. There are a few references here and there to past games, but this one can be played and enjoyed by itself.
I know it’s taboo to speak about graphics, especially when talking about a JRPG, but I won’t deny that the graphics here leave a bit to be desired. They are by no means bad, but most of the graphics are just character portraits in front of a background. Yes, this game suffers from floating head syndrome a bit. Again, I want to emphasize that I don’t consider these graphics bad, I just want to point out that I’ve seen better from JRPGs on PS2.
The voice acting is great, and the sound effects are pretty cool, but the music is where the game sort of falls flat. Again, it’s not horrible because I’ve heard much worse, but the problem is there isn’t ENOUGH. You’ll hear a lot of the same tracks being repeated over and over again, and I’m not just talking about character themes. The opening theme is pretty cool, and very fitting for the game, but some of the in-game music in my opinion left a bit to be desired.
Surprisingly, its strongest point is also its weakest. Sakura Wars takes a different approach to the RPG, and for that I applaud it. As an anime fan, I appreciate this style of gameplay and really enjoyed the character interaction, as well as characterization and storytelling. I like being able to walk around and interact with the characters and world, rather than walking around and just fighting while going from town to town to progress the plot. However, I can see a lot of people being turned off by this. Each episode lasts roughly an hour or so, with lots of dialogue and a few mini-games and QTE (Quick Time Events) thrown in sporadically. For some people this may sound awesome, for others it might sound like the most boring thing in the world. I caution those going into this game, don’t expect a ton of action. Expect to fight a battle once every hour or so until you reach then later points in the game.
This may sound unfair, but again I have to address it. This game is old, very old. Five years isn’t a long time, but in terms of video games it’s very long. Now I can’t speak for the Wii version since my review copy was for PS2, but I can only imagine the game is very similar, making it feel even more dated on Wii than on PS2. I’m happy NISA brought Sakura Wars to the western world, but I have to ask why Sega didn’t do this long ago. The game is great and the series has been very successful since its creation. If Sega thought it was a good idea to release SHADOW THE HEDGEHOG, then why not release Sakura Wars. This isn’t much of a knock against the game as much against the original developer.
Overall, Sakura Wars: So Long My Love is a fun little RPG that many people will unfortunately probably miss. It’s old, it’s the fifth game in a series that has never been released in the US, and it’s on an old console and a console mainly used for casual games. It’s too bad because this was a lot of fun to play. It offers something different in terms of its style and gameplay, and is a fun and rewarding experience. Still, I will say it’s not for everyone, and I can see a lot of people being turned off by its dialogue heavy gameplay. Still, Sakura Wars is one that shouldn’t be missed if you still have a PS2 or a Wii.
[Editor’s Note: Sakura Wars: So Long My Love was reviewed on a PlayStation 2-debug platform. The game was provided to us by the publisher]