Sakura Wars (PS4) – Game Review

A Tonally Confused Medley Of Ideas

Acting as a soft-reboot for the Sakura Wars series of games, this PS4 title essentially plays out as an interactive novelization of an anime. It’s a game that feels like a half baked medley of ideas, swinging between a slice-of-life dating simulator, a simple hack’n’slash arena fighter and a visual novel. The result is something that’s disjointed and feels like three games awkwardly squeezed into one 20-hour title. With an archetypal anime story full of the usual tropes you’d expect holding everything together, a couple of stand-out moments in its narrative just aren’t enough to elevate this above disappointing mediocrity.

The story itself begins simply enough, as you play the role of a recently discharged Naval Captain called Seijuro Kamiyama. You arrive at the Imperial Combat Revue (currently disguised as a theater) and given instructions by your boss to take the reigns of the floundering Flower Division and build them up to become a formidable force. With the theater on the verge of financial ruin and the only patrons arriving those who laugh at the girls’ lacklustre performances, it’s up to you to change their fortunes for the better.

Between simple dialogue sections that advance the plot, you spend most of your time running from room to room, engaging with the different characters before each of the seven chapters end with a tacked-on slice of combat as the girls take to their Revue Mech-suits and fight off the demons that plight the land.

It’s here the plot takes a slight detour from the slice of life drama it presents itself as early on, with a thin apocalyptic storyline revolving around the fabled Arch-Demon potentially returning and a spy in your ranks working for the enemy. As a member of the Flower Division, you’re tasked with protecting Tokyo from demons that cross over from Hell and banishing them whence they came. All of this builds up to a suitably epic climax with a couple of stand-out story beats along the way that tie in nicely to the opening cut-scene. There are multiple endings here too, depending on your relationship status with the various girls in Flower Division, but whether you’ll return to this one in a hurry when you’re done with it is another matter.

Aesthetically, the game swings between 2D and 3D animation that doesn’t always mesh well together and ironically only shows how outdated the graphics and design of the game actually are. The bulk of the in-game action takes place with simple 3D figures wandering about that adopt the usual anime traits. Expect big eyes, exaggerated body proportions and all the usual simple colour coordination used to distinguish each character. For example, Sakura predominantly wears pink, Claris usually wears green while Hatsuho adopts red. This also ties into their personality traits too which strictly adhere to tired and outdated tropes with little depth.

The hand-drawn cut-scenes by comparison show so much more detail for each of the characters and the expressive emotions, extreme close-ups and usual stock screens for each character only reinforce the feeling that perhaps this game may have served better by trying to adopt more of these hand-drawn elements into the game, or at least bridge the gap between the two. If something like Ni No Kuni or even Dragon Ball Z can do it during this generation then there’s no reason why Sega and Sakura Wars can’t follow suit.

The problem is these CGI figures feel robotic by comparison to the cut-scene counterparts and during dialogue exchanges it’s very noticeable. It’s not helped by some questionable and outright creepy romantic options on offer here (more on that later).

Most of the game takes place across a handful of simple, small areas that are interconnected via a loading screen. The areas outside the palace are generally constrained to a single pathway or a location bereft of exploration so don’t expect much adventuring here. This is very much a linear narrative and the bulk of the missions see you talking to the different girls, building up your morale level and affiliation with each of them before pushing the narrative forward and hitting a combat section to signify the end of that story beat. These combat sections are incredibly basic and feel more suited to something you’d see in an old Playstation 1 game, doing little other than reinforce how archaic the entire game feels.

These combat exchanges see you don your mech-suit and battle it out either on the streets of Tokyo or in a hellish, industrialized area that combines awkward platforming with very simple fighting. There’s a two button combo, one button for dodging and another for dashing around the battlefield. Pressing circle repeatedly offers your standard “light” attack while triangle is your “heavy” attack. Most enemies can be defeated without much trouble and as the game progresses, the numbers swell on-screen and include extra enemy types including robotic Gatekeepers, towering Hellfiends and bulky Morningstars.

Collecting blue orbs in these sections – earned by destroying glowing crates or downing enemies – allows you to build up a special attack that can be activated with Square. Toward the end of the game you also have Special Team Attacks that give a buff bonus to your strength stats but only at opportune times by building team morale up both in-combat and during the aforementioned dialogue exchanges. Combat is largely a tiresome affair despite these inclusions though and given how much time you spend just talking to these characters and pushing the story forward by reading text, the moments of combat range from anywhere to 10 and 25 minutes to complete and probably make up about 20% of what you do in this game.

The slice-of-life elements though feel very half-baked and if you’re new to the franchise you’d be forgiven for thinking early on that a lot of the game will be you gaining trust with the girls and training them up step by step to turn the fortunes of the theater around. The early chapters certainly give off that impression but as the game progresses, this is sidelined in favour of the demon-threat and various subplots involving each of the different girls that pad out the game. This poses its own set of problems in terms of pacing, with chapters clearly designed to build affiliation up and solidify your relationships with these girls but quickly turning into a dating free-for-all as the different women become infatuated with you.

This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if there were actually consequences for your actions but given you can effectively woo all five girls across the game and not see any backlash for what you’re doing is a bit of a shame. Early on you become pretty close to Claris and she genuinely opens up to you about her love of reading and dreams for the future. There’s an entire story-arc here about you taking her on a date and her finally opening up and embracing emotions she hasn’t done before, all thanks to you. It’s a touching and genuinely sweet moment that’s immediately undone in the next chapter when she barely mentions it again.

Even worse, you then you move onto solving a different girl’s problem and the cycle repeats again. While some may like this mechanic, especially the dreamy close-up sections that see you try to woo each of the women and say and do the right thing to seal the deal, it also paints females in a pretty unflattering light too. All of these women are quite happy for you to flirt with them and try it on and there’s no repercussions aside from a slight hit on the morale. Even worse, the final chapter of the game gives you an option to take a girl on a proper date before the final fight…but you can actually go on back-to-back dates with all the women and see absolutely no consequences for doing so, which is a shame.

Sakura Wars also has a problem with its sound design too and while for some it won’t be a problem, for others it will absolutely be a deal breaker. The jazzy theme song is excellent the first few times you hear it and helps to set the tone and mood of the piece but this crops up repeatedly throughout the 20 hours and it does become tiresome after a while. Some of the in-game music fares a little better and there’s definitely some serious Kingdom Hearts vibes here, with one melody in particular feeling eerily similar to the theme from Traverse Town.

The voice acting is all completely in Japanese as well so expect a lot of reading, especially given there’s no dubbing option here. Outside combat that’s fine and helps to add to the authenticity of the game but inside combat exchanges, a lot of the Japanese falls on deaf ears given you’re unlikely to be reading this while zipping around the battlefield hammering your attack button. Even worse, some of the scenes are animated as if someone hit the mute button and these fade-in/fade-out scenes for dialogue are frequently distracting throughout the game.

It’s not all bad though and the story is certainly engaging enough to see this through to the conclusion. Some of the girls have some nice sub-plot arcs and the overarching narrative has some lovely nods toward the end that round out the narrative nicely. A couple of the chapters feature some nice twists and turns along the way and fans of anime games will absolutely have a blast with this one.

For everyone else though, Sakura Wars feels like a game stuck in the wrong era and adopting all the worst tropes from games of old. The combat is simplistic and borderline mundane, the aesthetic jars badly between the 3D and 2D anime scenes and the lack of consequences for your actions is a serious blow to the slice-of-life mechanics. It’s not a bad game per-se, but it’s not a particularly good one either. If you’re a fan of the series then you’ll likely love this but for anyone new to Sakura Wars, there just isn’t enough here to make this worth picking up.

 

 

Published: 02 June 2020 at 8:12pm on TheReviewGeek.com 


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