Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love is not a new game, but one that has been in Japan for about five years. Of the Sakura series, this is the first to get localized and released in North America. With any luck, RPG fans will have more from this series to look forward to by the folks at NIS America. Released for the PS2 and Wii, Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love isn't for everyone -- but if you're looking for a decidedly Japanese strategy RPG with plenty of dialogue and even dating sim mixed in, you've come to the right place.
It's kind of ironic, even a bit funny, that the protagonist in Sakura Wars is coming to America for the first time. Enter Japanese Navy Lieutenant Shinjiro Taiga, nephew to a local commander (Ogami) of a special Imperial military task force. Shinjiro is only 19, but on this day in the opening cutscene, he is expecting to be accepted into this force and help defend his country. His uncle has other plans for him though, and wants Shinjoro to go to New York to take a leadership role with a new task force there. Known as the New York Combat Revue, Star Division, Shinjoro must lead a group of females into combat -- all the while using a Broadway stage act as a cover.
The concept is a little 'different,' sure, but it works. The story and characters, especially, are what drive most RPGs and that's the case with Sakura Wars, too. Gameplay is split up into Adventure and Combat modes, with the latter normally found at the end of each chapter (in between which you can save your progress). Battles take place on land in the air and feature mechs. The game uses a turn based strategy flow that keeps you on your toes. Players will need to take into account the environment in combat and deal with multi-part boss battles.
Unlike normal SRPG games, you don't earn XP by defeating enemies. Instead, Shinjoro and the other Star members 'level up' based upon the amount of trust between one another. That's primarily what the Adventure mode and LIPS are about. In the Adventure Mode, Shinjoro chats with other Star members and characters while simultaneously being able to explore 1928 steam-punk inspired New York. Each area has a variety of buildings you can enter and characters you can talk to. The Live & Interactive Picture System (LIPS) is a big reason why fans of this game may play it multiple times. With LIPS, how other characters view Shinjiro and the flow of the story can change significantly.
While the LIPS element is nice, I still found most dialogue sequences to be a bit draining. Most are text or audio based with dashes of interaction whereby you have a few seconds to pick a response. Other times, mini-quick time events may have you tapping a button before Shinjiro gives a response. The whole idea is again to build trust amongst your characters so that they perform better during Battle Mode. If you're interested in it, you can also choose to romantically pursue another character, too.
I don't have any major issues with the actual dialogue or the translation, even though from what I've read the translation isn't one for one, but unless you become vested in the characters, the sheer amount of dialogue can become a real burden. For me, that's still the biggest challenge as I work through this game. Just getting into the story and the characters themselves has not proven easy for me. It's not that they aren't well presented or void of interesting traits or back stories, much of which are presented and revealed through these conversations. Instead, I'm just not captivated by the plot or the people involved.
Some of the main characters in addition to Shinjiro that you will talk to and fight alongside with in battle are Gemini Sunrise, Cheiron Archer, Diana Caprice, Subaru, Sunnyside, Cherry Cocker, and captain of the Star Division Ratchet Altair. Each character is nicely developed and complete with a variety of traits, like Subaru's stoic attitude and Gemini's Texas accent. Try as I might, I personally couldn't get vested in any of them, but I think anime fans will get more out of them.
In terms of presentation, Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love looks pretty darn good for a game that's five years old. I thought the art was plenty colorful and well animated, and I didn't experience any notable technical issues, either. The Premium/Special Edition PS2 version, i.e., the only PS2 version by the looks of it, is a double disc offering with English voiceovers on one disc and the original Japanese voiceovers on the other. You also get a fold out poster of Gemini Sunrise and a fancy art book complete with character profiles and a map of the LittleLip theater (headquarters of the New York Star Revue, Combat Division). Furthermore, I would point out that the manual is very well done. From an audio standpoint, Sakura Wars gets the job done with great voiceovers. The effects and soundtrack do very well for themselves, too.
Ultimately, Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love is a welcomed addition to the PS2 and Wii library. Who knows why it took this long to make it to the States -- or if we'll see other localizations from other titles in the series -- but for any gamer who enjoys anime or is looking for an unusual SRPG, give Sakura Wars a serious look.
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