Ever since the Super Nintendo console, Nintendo has been an innovative and creative company when it comes to the development of games. For instance, I recall playing the game Aerobiz where you have to manage a fledgling airline to become profitable and map out new flight routes. While other game systems had the usual fare of action and destruction, Nintendo always had a few games that were surprisingly fun on the fringe of public notice. Therefore, upon hearing that a game like Sakura Wars – So Long, My Love was going to end up on the Wii, I knew that it was the perfect type of game for the system. However like Aerobiz, just because a game is unique does not mean that it will necessarily be any good.
Originally released in Japan five years ago, Sakura Wars – So Long, My Love (which I will refer to as Sakura Wars for brevity) is essentially a story-driven RPG with hints of action. You play as Lieutenant Shinjiro Taiga, a young man recently hired to lead the Star Squadron of New York against the evil dark forces that have shown up there. This may sound like another Final Fantasy premise, but behold, you are also a member of a theater group! That's right, as the cutesy theme song for the game elatedly describes, you are a part of a super group that also performs musical theater as the New York Combat Revue. The description on the back of the game even says that you will "use the power of the theater to maintain general order". Riiiiight.
The first hour or so of the game introduces you to each of the main characters that you will be interacting with for most of your Sakura Wars experience. Unlike other RPGs, Sakura Wars avoids the typical level building and instead focuses on building relationships with your group members. I like this alternative way of developing a character, though one does miss some of the more exciting elements of level building like new equipment, abilities, and the like. In this game there is none of that, so it takes a little getting used to.
Relationship levels are determined by your interaction in the conversations that you have with characters. Conversations are very common place in Sakura Wars, so much so that one begins to get an itch for doing something other than clicking buttons to read more text. The dialogue is not all that clever and sometimes borders on juvenile, so one gets to thinking that this game would be good for the teen crowd. However, minor vulgarities show up in some of the conversations and you wonder what happened to the translation editing.
Nevertheless, the point behind these conversations is to say the right thing at the right time. At first one has to go with gut instinct as to how to respond, which usually means in most games that you reply as cheesily as possible to ensure a "nice guy" status. This, however, does not always work and you can just as easily offend someone with your tepid response. As the game progresses you will need to get a feel of each character so that, when response choices are provided, you'll know to which response the character will respond the best. Unless you are very adept at video game character personality analysis, you will likely score 50% correct responses on your first run through. This is where the developer’s hope for replay value occurs.
For an average mission chapter, you will be spending 75% of your time on conversations. Another 5% is spent on a street level where you run back and forth between buildings to engage in yet more conversations. One would think that there is something more to it than what I describe, but no … that’s about it. During this street level time there is no way to interact with people in the street and there is not much to explore, so it is more of a small break between conversations.
After about one to one and a half hours of clicking and responding, you finally get to an actual battle. This event is always preceded by an animated action sequence of characters jumping into their STAR robo-machine, which definitely reminds me of something out of a Power Rangers episode. In any case, you're thrown into a turn-based combat scenario in which the objective is always to destroy all enemy units. You can attack individually or use special joint attack moves to utilize the other members in their squad. I highly recommend joint attacking as much as possible, for it seems to give the most damage. The amount of damage depends on, of course, the strength of the relationship you have with another character. Indeed, the time you spend complimenting characters on what they're wearing, or how they perform in a bizarre ancient Egyptian musical, makes all the difference in defeating enemy robots.
Each battle lasts about twenty or so minutes before a concluding series of discussions ensue. The chapter in the story ends, only to begin a new chapter and much more text reading before another battle occurs. Unless you truly enjoy the storyline or any of the character development, you will likely find this long wait for battle tedious. One will also need to suspend a little belief for some of the story, for it seems unlikely that there are public mock trials being held in Harlem as well as eleven-year-old bounty hunters single-handedly stopping bank robbers. Perhaps younger gamers than I would be fine with this, but it hardly makes those with a more cynical opinion want to slog through hours of nonsense.
As for the graphics and sound of the game, it is telling that Sakura Wars was also released for the PlayStation 2. There is little in the graphics that suggest that you need a strong system to accommodate it. The characters are nicely drawn and the cityscapes are pretty, but the latter is not varied enough when certain story situations arise. For example, when a bank robbery occurs, the game displays a random backdrop of Times Square. The sound is nothing special, if not repetitive, and I am pretty sure that of the many characters in the game there are only two or three voice actors. The times when speech occurs also seems to be random, for your character only speaks during cut scenes whereas other characters will speak periodically during epic conversations. It seems that this feature of speech was thrown together in a hurry.
The overall idea behind Sakura Wars is that it provides a new kind of gaming experience. All RPGs have a story, but it is usually spread out in snippets between stretches of action. Sakura Wars instead goes heavy on the story element and gives you a taste of traditional action only when necessary. Battles occur so infrequently, however, that you may be lead to believe that the game designers would have been fine in leaving it out. Nevertheless, I think Sakura Wars is a very good idea for a game and hope that other games like it get developed for the Nintendo Wii.
However, this particular game has a few major faults that need to be addressed before subsequent releases are made. First and foremost, there needs to be more to do. The conversation element is great, but it just goes on for way too long of a time. The little bits of street action are a waste of time, and though the battles are entertaining they are not particularly difficult. If the conversations could be broken up with some sort of challenging quest or mini-game it would make all the difference.
I think that this series can be successful in the United States with its simple yet innovative idea, but it will only truly take off in popularity if NIS America incorporates more diversity in gameplay. As it stands, this game will be a marvel for some teenagers but will likely bore most after hours of reading text. Despite the fact that this game has fallen just short of being called a good all around game, I eagerly anticipate the next installment of Sakura Wars.
Sakura Wars – So Long, My Love is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Fantasy Violence, Language, and Sexual Themes. This game can also be found on: PS2