Note: The full review of Sakura Wars can be found here. This is a pre-release preview.
It’s time to raise the curtains on the newest instalment of Sakura Wars for PlayStation 4 – otherwise known as Project Sakura Wars or Shin Sakura Taisen. It’s a dramatic 3D action-adventure series that has you take command of an all-female musical theater troupe who also happen to double as the city’s defence against the demon invasion. A rather unique concept and one that works surprisingly well considering that this franchise is popular enough to consist of several forms of media from anime to games and even musicals.
Now, to set your expectations a bit, this is merely a Preview. The full review will be released later on. SEGA have kindly granted me access to Sakura Wars well in advance. So, do expect this to only cover the events up to Chapter 3. Late April will be the release of the full review. If you don’t want to miss it, make sure to hit that notification bell, subscribe to our e-mails or follow on Twitter. As I write this, I’ve just finished Chapter 3.
As already mentioned, Sakura Wars dubs itself a dramatic 3D action-adventure game. Those familiar with the older titles in the franchise will recall them as visual novels with dating simulator and strategic RPG elements. This iteration share some elements, but is a completely different beast.
I view this as a JRPG with visual novel and dating simulator elements, along with the occasional hack and slash sections. Your main focus with Sakura Wars is moving through the story set in an alternate steampunk version of 1940’s Tokyo. You achieve this by following quest beacons and it will usually involve speaking to various people, and perhaps fetching something or delivering a message. While there is combat, these sections are much rarer than in most RPG style games. I’ve been playing for approximately six hours and there have only been three major battles, with a handful of short fights in-between.
The vast majority of your time is spent talking to characters in the theater and in the surrounding area. While there are quests to guide you, I find that I spent more time running around and interacting with the characters whether as part of the main story, side quests or just going up to a NPC and speaking to them.
One of the dating simulator elements in this is your relationship level with the others. While this can be improved in a number of ways, these interactions will help. By spending time talking to others, you can trigger cut scenes which sometimes lead to opportunities. These aren’t always indicated by the game, so taking it slowly and exploring is encouraged. Certain events may not even trigger unless you have the required trust level.
Some cut scenes will give you choices. One thing I found interesting was that unlike most visual novels, these are often timed to add a bit of pressure. There are alternate types as well, with how much emotion is placed behind a response being a common choice. This can lead to a scene either being romantic or having you shout in someone’s face – not quite so romantic!
There are a few rarer scenes where you can interact more directly with someone too. As of chapter 3, I’ve only come across two of these so far. It allows you to select things around the environment or parts of the character to look at or interact with. Whether you take the route of looking at their beautiful eyes or their busty figure, it may just lead to different outcomes.
The battles themselves are similar to hack and slash (Musou) games. You jump into your steam-based mecha and fight through small hordes of enemies. In many cases, this involves clearing areas before being able to move onto the next part of the stage.
Fighting is moderately slow-paced, with benefits for dodging at the last minute and working together with your teammates who fight alongside you. You’ll sometimes be able to switch between characters mid-battle too. Each character has their own gauge to charge a special attack. So, if you were to charge both completely while switching characters, this’ll be quite effective in taking down boss enemies by unleashing both at an appropriate time.
I feel that the battle system does have some issues. Dodging is great when fighting one on one, but it can be hit or miss when in the middle of a crowd of enemies. You can’t always see when to dodge clearly. Sometimes you may just get lucky because so many enemies are attacking at the same time that a dodge happens to be timed correctly. The camera needs to be manually turned too which doesn’t help, but there is a patch coming to address this. This may be ready in time for the full review.
While there haven’t been a high number of battles so far, after a certain point, you can replay them. This can be done either as they were originally, or with alternate characters. Again, this can be used to raise the trust level, as well as unlock extras. Personally, I was just glad for more chances to fight, as I do enjoy the battle system, despite its flaws.
Outside of the main gameplay, there’s also a mini-game called Koi-Koi Wars. This lets you play a matching card game against other characters. I can’t comment much on this, as I only have two of twenty-one matches unlocked at this point, but it’s a nice extra. You can also collect photos of both the former and current cast. These can be found hidden around the world, as well as elsewhere.
The story starts in an alternate steampunk version of 1940s Tokyo. The world is at peace, except for the occasional demon attack. This is taken care of by Combat Revues. They use steam-based mechas to fight against the invasion.
We learn that most of the members from the former Tokyo, Paris and New York Combat Revues disappeared when fighting against the demons years ago. These would be the characters from previous entries in this franchise.
This latest Sakura Wars title is not exactly a sequel to any of the previous titles, though it does feel like it in some ways. It’s described as a soft reboot that focuses on a brand new cast. That said, while newcomers to the series will be absolutely fine, expect characters and references from the previous titles to appear. As a fan of the Sakura Wars franchise, I enjoyed seeing all the little references dotted around. I never found it took away from this entry either. I still felt like the focus was firmly on the new cast.
These individuals find themselves in a dire situation. Not only are they not great at acting, but they don’t have the strength to defend Tokyo. Even their finances are terrible, which is a reoccurring theme throughout the first few chapters. Bringing in money is an issue too, with theater-goers finding most of their enjoyment from watching them mess up on stage. Simply said, ticket sales aren’t great.
The cast’s issues are only compounded when they find out they’ll be disbanded if they don’t win a contest against the other Combat Revues around the world. However, not all is lost – our main character Seijuro is called in to lead the new Imperial Combat Revue. To get them back into shape, and welcome a new member into the troupe – Anastasia!
Unfortunately, further issues start arising. Powerful demons begin attacking the city. Now they don’t just have to contend with competing against other Combat Revues and the possibility of disbandment, but also the demonic plot going on in the background.
…And hold on, but doesn’t that demon look very much like the previous leader of the Imperial Combat Revue?
The first three chapters of Sakura Wars introduces a number of subplots, both character-centric and those that’ll add to the overall core plot. Something’s happening in the background with the world games and the overall leader seems to have an issue with the Imperial Combat Revue. We’ll learn more about the cast members and their backgrounds as we continue. .
Initially, I was a bit concerned about the story, as winning the Combat Revue world games did not seem to be an overly interesting goal. Luckily, I was soon far more engaged with the story as more revealed itself and other aspects came to light.
It’s worth noting that the writing team has some well-regarded names. It involves Jiro Ishii, the writer of 428: Shibuya Scramble, Takaaki Suzuki who worked on Digimon Adventure Tri and Takaharu Terada who directed Valkyria Chronicles. While I’m enjoying the story so far and the atmosphere they’ve built for the world, the characters are really the stars.
Upon coming to Tokyo, Seijuro meets an old friend named Sakura Amamiya. She happens to have joined the Tokyo Combat Revue. Its been her dream ever since being saved from a demon attack by Sakura Shinguji of the original Tokyo Combat Revue. Despite being excitable and childish in many ways, she shows incredible determination. We soon get introduced to Claris, who you can often find reading books. She can be a pessimist and does not seem to have much confidence in either herself or the group. We do get to find out about her dreams and why she lacks self confidence along the way. You also get the chance to share a few intimate moments with her as you explore these. While we spend time with all members of the cast, these two are focused on in the first chapters.
Hatsuho is quite brash, which contrasts with her background as a shrine maiden. She’s quick to anger at times but seems to care deeply about her friends. Azami is a young ninja girl who loves snacks a bit too much and takes the protection of the theater a bit too seriously. Anastasia is a top star and is incredibly serious about her craft. These three members have been introduced, but not focused on yet at this point in the story.
There is a full cast of supporting characters too. Sumire from the original Sakura Wars is back and in charge of the theater. We also meet quite a few reoccurring characters who either add to the story or provide side quests, such as members of the other Combat Revues.
Graphics and Audio
One heavily marketed point with Sakura Wars is that the main characters were designed by manga artist, Tite Kubo. He is well known for his work on the popular manga and anime, Bleach. The character designs do really stand out as unique and the world itself has a brilliant atmosphere, partially due to the design and detail. For an anime game, it’s quite good. Apart from the 3D graphics, occasional anime scenes are sprinkled throughout and all look brilliant.
While the graphics are impressive enough, I find the sound steals the show. Another big name has worked on the music – Kohei Tanaka. Outside of the Sakura Wars series, he has worked on titles such as Dragon Ball and One Piece. The opening song blew me away and the background music is amazing.
The voicing is very well done in the areas it exists, but I did find that there are several scenes without any. These felt a bit off because of the lip movement and gestures were still occurring. This is the downside of having all of these extra interactions and cut scenes – I imagine that the cost of voicing everything would have been astronomical for a niche game such as this. It’s not like there isn’t much voicing though, as you certainly hear them often. It’s more that there are tons of places where it could have been used. The quality certainly isn’t in question either with famous names from anime such as Nana Mizuki and Rie Kugimiya involved.
This is normally where I would note my verdict on the game. As this is a preview, I won’t be giving my final thoughts just yet, but here is my tentative rating:
SAKURA WARS IS (PROBABLY GOING TO BE) RECOMMENDED
While the game does have some issues as mentioned, the majority of my experience has been great. The interactions with the characters particularly stand out. Sakura Wars definitely focuses on this.
Please make sure to check out the full review when it comes out near the end of April. Again, I recommend smashing the notification bell, signing up for e-mails (below), or following us on Twitter to make sure you don’t miss it.
Many thanks to SEGA for the review copy.
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A gamer since the days of Amstrad and DOS and someone who has dabbled in a variety of professions. He enjoys a wide variety of genres, but has been focusing on visual novels and virtual reality in recent years. Head Editor of NookGaming. Follow him and the website on @NookSite.