Platforms: PS4 (reviewed)

You’d be forgiven for not knowing that Sakura Wars is actually a long-established franchise. It’s a high concept “Japanese anime girl stereotypes fighting against demons in giant robots during an alternate universe Taisho era while also working on their idol careers” is pretty far out there even as far as anime goes. It’s like someone smashed up all the popular anime and videogame genres into one.

And it worked, decently enough. Past Sakura Wars titles were essentially a combination of a Persona style social and time-management game and a tactical RPG, and while I wasn’t the biggest fan, I certainly thought it was charming enough to warrant a playthrough or two. However, the franchise’s quirkiness didn’t give it enough staying power to survive and we haven’t seen a new Sakura Wars title since the early turn of the new millennium (or 2010 if you are only counting stateside releases).

But it’s 2020 and everything old is new again, so Sakura Wars is back with a soft reboot. So how does this New Sakura Wars stack up, both against its own franchise and against other modern games?

Story - How I learned to stop worrying and love the gratuitous anime

You take on the role of Japanese Navy ensign Seijuro Kamiyama, who has been called to become the new captain of the Imperial Combat Revue’s Flower Division in Tokyo. What’s this mean? Well it means you are going to get to order around a lot of blushing anime stereotypes.

The story, at face value, is an underdog story. The Flower Division kind of sucks, and is basically the laughing stock of the alternate history giant mech demon fighting army. The Shanghai Combat Revue is basically carrying them, protecting much of Japan without needing their help.

The secondary purpose of the Flower Division is to put on shows in their home theater to keep morale up. Unfortunately, they kind of suck at that too. No one ever comes to their shows unless it’s to watch them inevitably screw up spectacularly on stage.

All of this means that their theater and their division are in danger of shutting down, and it’s up to you to save the day by teaching them how to have confidence in themselves, how to inspire the people of Japan, and how to kick demon ass in their giant robots.

The plot is just full of every stereotype that you could possibly imagine. The characters are practically copy-pastes from TV tropes, from the blushing girl you knew from your childhood, to the fiery tomboy, to the quiet awkward nerd (who also happens to be from another country for that extra awkwardness). You have seen these characters before, and they aren’t particularly deep.

So let’s get one thing straight right away. If you are looking for some sort of complex nuanced storytelling, this is not the game for you. If anything I just said makes you cringe, then run as far away as you possibly can.

But if you are the type of weeb trash who eats this stuff up (and don’t worry, I am too) then please proceed. In fact, I’d say that’s the only way to really enjoy the plot of Sakura Wars, to just give in to your weebyness and enjoy the stereotypes. There are no surprises here. You can basically predict the story beat for beat. You can practically predict the dialogue if you have ever seen a slice of life anime or two. That’s a bug for some but a feature for others. Sometimes predictability can be somewhat like anime comfort food.

There is one very annoying aspect of the plot, however, and that’s that it rarely stops to explain… well anything. This game takes place chronologically after the other Sakura Wars titles, but most of them haven’t been released in the west. Yet, the game still expects you to have played them all, barely spending any time on this world’s history or explaining who this strange demonic force is. Yes, anyone who has played fan translations of every prior game can jump right in, but does Sega know how small that market is?

I guess what’ I’m saying is, go online and at the very least read a plot summary of the rest of the Sakura Wars franchise. You’ll be happy you did.

Gameplay - Wanna go on a date?

The original Sakura Wars titles were about dating, and they weren’t ashamed of it. You were the sole guy in a troop full of anime girl stereotypes, of course it was going to be about dating.

The thing is, there was more than just the dating going on. All social interaction was wrapped up in a Persona style time-management game, while battle was conducted in a turn-based tactical style.

This new Sakura Wars is unmistakably about dating, but everything else has changed.

First of all, the time management puzzles appear to be gone. I’ll be honest, I didn’t manage to 100 percent complete the game, but for the most part I was able to speak with every girl and every NPC between each battle with no downside. The LIPS system returns, which basically means you have a limited time to make decisions while talking to characters, but that’s real life time, not game time. You can, essentially, woo every girl as long as you know the right things to say.

This feels like it was vastly simplified for the purpose of wish fulfillment, but there’s a bad side-effect. It makes the time between battles feel less like a game. You aren’t really making any serious decisions. You are just running around the map talking to everyone who has an icon over their head.

Or more realistically you are walking around the map because running controls feel terribly loose and janky.

The pacing and focus of the romance gameplay and general story is a little disappointing too. Each main character gets a chapter to focus on them, but for the most part this is the only major screen time they get. Once their specific chapter is over, the story practically forgets about them. Even if you focus all your romantic efforts on your girl of choice, it will feel like chasing a background NPC, rather than a full-fledged member of the revue. It’s fairly clear that the game wants you to pair up with Sakura, but if this is supposed to be a dating sim, or at least partially a dating sim, I feel like every character should have been equally as important.

Combat is no longer turn-based but is instead a real-time action system. It’s most similar to musou-style games such as Dynasty Warriors. What does that mean? Button mashing.

You have two attack buttons and a special attack, once again just like Dynasty Warriors games. You can dodge and dash and… well that’s pretty much it. The game auto-locks on to enemies which, unfortunately, means sometimes you are struggling against the lock-on system to target the enemy you want. There are also flying enemies, which are a pain to fight because it’s very hard to lock on to them, which means more often than not you’ll just have to deal with them taking pot shots at you until every other enemy is wiped off the face of the map. (Note: A Day 1 patch is supposed to fix the lock-on system, but it wasn’t available at the time of this writing.)

Remember when I said that the tactical RPG elements were taken out. I mean that they were taken out in their entirety. Characters don’t level up. Mechs can’t be customized. You can’t even learn new attacks! This means your combos will stay the same from the beginning of the game to the end, which reduces combat variety, which makes combat less fun.

Even with all this frustration combat just isn’t challenging. Every so often I’d find myself slipping in combat, getting ambushed by a demon or two, but for the most part all I had to do was mash some buttons and I’d come out on top. It doesn’t help that there isn’t a whole lot of enemy variety nor are the combat arena’s particularly complex. Any major enemy flashes red before any significant attack comes your way, making them very easy to dodge, and frankly you can just tank the damage anyway. You are frequently forced to fight with parties that you might not be experienced with, but you can always fall back on Kamiyama, who is already one of the best characters in the game. This means, once again, the girls, who are supposed to be the focus of the game, fall into the background.

And it’s these two faults together that kind of make Sakura Wars break down. Past Sakura Wars titles were all about the interplay between social gameplay and combat gameplay, and the same is true here. However, the simplification and outright removal of the time puzzle aspect of social gameplay, makes it far easier to just breeze through these sections, chucking out correct answers with little consequence for wrong answers.

Meanwhile, the ease of battle means that there’s no pressure to do well in the social seconds of the game so that you can get tangential combat benefits. There are high points that really drag you in, but for the most part this is a game that is easy to get bored of and hard to pick up again once you turn it off.

Presentation - You like Tite Kubo? We got Tite Kubo!

Sakura Wars took some pretty hefty risks when it comes to its presentation. Most notably, it did something very experimental with its animation. Going into the game casually the animations might look a bit awkward, or at the very least over exaggerated. But that’s because the animations here are based on real actors in real Japanese theater, which is very well known for its extreme expressive body movements. In short, it’s supposed to look that way.

Does that make it good? Well it depends. If you have a cursory knowledge of Japanese theater it does give you a neat little “aaaah I get it” moment early in the game, but this is a game that takes around 40 hours to beat and I’d be lying if I said the animations didn’t get cringey after a while. Maybe that’s just my own lack of culture, my inability to fully appreciate the artform, but there are some situations where I just wanted characters to move more realistically, like casual conversations, even while still being expressive on stage.

Sega also spared no expense when it came to character design this time around, getting Tite Kubo of Bleach fame to head the project. And, well…

OK look. Hot take incoming. I don’t actually think Tite Kubo is that great at designing characters. He makes them look pretty, sure, but in the end they lack substance. Heck, he was infamous for just throwing in new characters whenever Bleach’s plot got backed into a corner.

Just look at these characters. The stereotypes are out in force. You have sexy older foreign lady, intellectual, loli, guy, shy friend next door, and tomboy. I suppose the friend next door carries a sword and the tomboy is a shrine maiden but… those aren’t really personalities; they are just quirks.

I’m being a little harsh here because, to be honest, the character models kind of freak me out. For the most part they are detailed and well-drawn but there is something about the way their faces are drawn in-game that make them look slightly cross-eyed. I think that Sega was trying to emphasize the “doe-eyed” effect that innocent characters have and to me, personally, it just comes across as unnerving.

Not to harp on that one aspect of design though, because there are a lot of other high points. The U.I design, in particular, is very good. The map is easy to read, the menus are easy to navigate, and I never felt lost.

Anime cutscenes are top notch, brilliantly animated by Sanzigen. It’s also a pleasure to collect the many “bromides” of the many female characters, which are drawn in a variety of different anime styles (one of the first ones draws Sakura in that classic 90s Gundam style, which was a neat little reference.)

Character animations in battle or action based cutscenes are wonderful to look at. Over-expressiveness lends itself to anime style combat, and there’s something really satisfying about watching a giant robot open up a paper umbrella, strike a kabuki pose, and fire a giant laser out of it!

So, I can’t really deny that Sakura Wars is a good looking game, but you need much more than looks to survive in a market littered with blockbuster games such Final Fantasy 7 Remake, Persona 5 Royal, Doom Eternal and so on. There are frankly better options for action games, RPGs, and even dating sims.

The verdict - Selling itself on looks

I had expectations for Sakura Wars and, quite frankly, they weren’t met. This new Sakura Wars just isn’t the franchise it used to be. It’s very, very dumbed down, with less complex social gameplay, less complex combat, and fewer aspects of gameplay, period. I am sure that this was done to try and rope the mainstream market into giving Sakura Wars a shot.

But here’s the thing, the mainstream market isn’t interesting in Sakura Wars. It’s wonky premise is only going to attract fans of anime and more bizarre Japanese video games, and I don’t mean to generalize here, but those fan bases tend to like complex crunchy systems that they can really dive into. Even when they play dating sims they like complex narrative webs that give them lots of options with each of their favorite girls.

This new Sakura Wars doesn’t have any of it. The romance gampeplay is shallow. The combat gameplay is shallow. The story for every girl but Sakura is shallow. In the end, the only major strength the game has is its looks and it’s nostalgia.

But, let’s be honest, few of you have even heard of Sakura Wars before now, so nostalgia will only take it so far. As for looks, yeah this is a good way to oogle anime girls, but you can do the same for far less money in far less time by watching an anime on Crunchyroll, or heck, logging on to DeviantArt.

I think that Sega thought that the type of people who would enjoy Sakura Wars would be content with just seeing some cute anime girls emote. So let me tell you something, straight from the weeb’s mouth.

Yes, weeb trash like us will watch any number of shows about cute girls doing things. However, the market is saturated with shows like that, and if you don’t have some other hook to keep us there, we get bored and move on to the next one. Sakura Wars’ hook was its gameplay, and you took out most of it. So sure enough, I got bored and moved on to the next one.

I wouldn’t call Sakura Wars a total waste of time. If you have nothing else to play and can get it on a discount, it will keep you entertained for short 1-2-hour bursts here and there. However, in a market filled with absolute blockbuster titles, it’s a big ask for me to drop full price on this game. It’s just not the Sakura Wars I was expecting.