Title (JP): Shin Sakura Taisen (新サクラ大戦)
Title (NA): Sakura Wars
Developer: Sega Games
Publisher: Sega Games
Release date: 12 December 2019 (JP), 28 April 2020 (English/worldwide)
This review was written based on the Japanese release of the game, and may not reflect changes made to versions released in other regions.
The Sakura Wars series has always been a cultural oddity of sorts in Japanese gaming, even within Japan itself, with its base premise of a Takarazuka-style revue doubling as a top-secret spec ops squad piloting giant robots and defending Tokyo from demons and other occult monstrosities, in a steampunk version of the 1920s being somewhat over-the-top even when compared to some of the more outlandish premises one might find in Japanese pop culture. This unique premise, however, combined with likeable characters and a cast comprising of some of the biggest names in voice acting at the time resulted in the series becoming a massive cultural phenomenon in Japan from the mid to late 90’s to early 00’s.
Pictured above: The Sakura Wars exhibition at Sega Fes 2019
The first part of the series had previously ended once with the release of Sakura Taisen 4 for the Dreamcast in 2002. It was not initially planned for the franchise itself to end, however: While the games up till then had been released for the Sega Saturn and Dreamcast, the series would move on to the Playstation 2, as part of the “Sakura Taisen World Project”, which was presented as a new phase for the series.
Though the first game in this phase, a PS2 remake of the first game, saw decent sales, it still fell short of all the previous titles, and the failure of the spinoffs and even Sakura Taisen V, the project’s controversial 2005 flagship title, sealed its fate. The plans for the three remaining titles were scrapped, and aside from mobile games, and a single 2008 Nintendo DS roguelike dungeon crawler, the series had been in hibernation ever since.
Avid fans of the series have nevertheless been pining for the series’ return, and Sega listened, announcing a new game at Sega Fes 2018. Concrete details on Shin Sakura Taisen (New Sakura Wars) were first revealed a year later at Sega Fes 2019, and the game was released in December 2019, 14 years after the release of V.
Shin Sakura Taisen, titled simply Sakura Wars in English, is a soft reboot of the series, taking place 12 years after V, in the year Taisho 29 (1940). The basic premise remains unchanged: The main character, Kamiyama Seijuurou, is a member of the Japanese navy who is transferred to the Imperial Combat Revue, a top secret special forces unit in the capital city of Tokyo, which turns out to also don the cover of an all-woman revue based in the Grand Imperial Theatre in Ginza.
Though the game takes place in the same locale, Tokyo, as the first, second, and fourth games, the vast majority of characters are entirely new, with only one older character, Kanzaki Sumire of the original team, returning to serve as the team’s commander. Aside from her, the other members of the previous teams were “lost” in a large war a decade prior, and the Tokyo team had only just recently been reformed with rookie members.
With no accomplishments to speak of and the Shanghai Combat Revue doing a perfect job of defending Tokyo, however, the Imperial Combat Revue is in danger of being disbanded, with the military refusing to fund the team and constant failure on stage resulting in no revenue from the team’s day jobs in the theatre. Kamiyama is thus entrusted with leading the team to victory in an Olympics-style competition between the numerous Combat Revue teams formed around the world over the past decade and also to success on stage to secure funding for their operations, all while a mysterious enemy force lurks in the shadows.
The game is formatted very similarly to previous serious instalments, with the story divided into multiple chapters, with each chapter featuring several adventure sequences in which the player explores the world interacting with characters, and a battle sequence. Though previous games in the series featured turn-based strategy for the battle sequences, New Sakura Wars replaces this with action.
While adventure sequences in previous games allowed the player to only see a set number of events before the story is advanced, New Sakura Wars does away with this entirely, allowing the player to explore the world to their heart’s content and see all side events in one playthrough. The LIPS dialogue system, in which the player is given a limited amount of time to choose a dialogue option or perform an action (such as look at a specific object or direct their gaze in a certain direction) and where allowing time to run out is at times a valid option also returns.
The transition from the 2D portraits of previous games to 3D models is definitely a positive change: A great deal of work was put into animating characters, and that combined with the use of camerawork makes a massive difference in how expressive characters can be.
Unfortunately, however there are several issues to be found in the adventure sequences; the game is not fully voiced, and fully animated characters speaking with their dialogue only in text can be quite jarring. The animations themselves also feel off at times, with characters often using exaggerated motions.
This seems like it may have been a concious decision with motion capture done with stage actors, who use such exaggerated gestures in theatre to convey emotions to audiences who, viewing from afar, cannot see actors’ facial expressions. When seen up-close, however, it has a tendency to feel simply like bad or comedically overdone acting. Additionally, some of the characters move too much, and seem to be squirming non-stop while they speak, and some other animations feel off, as if the bodies and heads of the characters were animated separately.
The LIPS system has also been simplified from previous entries- For example, previous games might have dialogue sequences where waiting for a period of time might result in new dialogue options appearing or replacing others, but this is not seen at all in New Sakura Wars.
Another issue with the adventure sequences is how the player cannot save whenever they want: Like the older games, the game can only be saved at specific intermission points, and is hard to imagine that this archaic system would go down well with most players, especially those new to the series.
The poker-like koi-koi hanafuda minigame makes a return and once unlocked can be played at any time in the game, and can also be accessed from the start menu. The unlocking of new characters to play against is an odd proccess, however, and this reviewer only got two characters to play against throughout the entire main story, with all the other characters becoming available only after clearing the game.
Koi-koi has two difficulty modes available this time, but they are two extremes: The easy mode is very easy, while the hard mode has opponents start with several times the number of points the player has and also seemingly cheat at the game, getting multiple yaku (equivalent to a hand in poker) at the same time in unrealistic short amounts of time. The minigame does still remain enjoyable, however, and the game being in HD means that it is now far easier to keep track of what cards have been taken. As always the cards that can be taken are highlighted, and the player can also easily refer to a list of yaku at any time during a game, making it easy for players unfamiliar with koi-koi to play.
The battle system is a mostly simplistic affair, with the player constantly being pitted against large numbers of weak enemies in a musou-style fashion. The player has access to a weak and strong attack, with the strong attack being changed when added to the end of a string of weak attacks. The player can also double-jump, dash, and dodge. When timed to match an enemy attack, the dodge results in time slowing down for a few seconds, the player becoming invincible during this period of time, and the player gaining access to an instant kill counter attack against enemies with low health. Attacking while dashing also results in dashing attacks. A spirit power gauge builds up in combat, and can be used to unleash a powerful special attack with the square button when full. Another feature shown in the demo is the wall dash, which is performed automatically when dashing towards specially designated walls in areas (the player can wait till the end of a wall dash to jump off automatically, or manually jump off at any time).
Regular enemies come at the player in large numbers but do small amounts of damage and do not take swings very often. There are some stronger enemies that do swing more often mixed in, but combat remains mostly one-sided in the player’s favour.
The action sequences have their own fair share of issues. The dodge system, while an interesting idea, is not implemented very well. The large number of enemies results in far too much visual information on the screen, which makes it so that even with the visual cues (red flashes), it is difficult to notice when specific enemies are about to attack and thus time the dodge perfectly, and this is not helped by how enemies will also attack the player from off-screen, even with projectiles. The dodge can be mashed indefinitely, however, and the end result is that battles can be trivialised simply by mashing the dodge button.
Another issue is with the lack of a lock-on function. Camera control is completely manual, and because attacks are all face buttons, this means that the player easily loses sight of enemies when there are only a few left. The player has to defeat all enemies to progress in most areas, and sometimes a weaker enemy will just wander off to the other side of the room resulting in the player having to spin the camera around to look for them. The lack of a lock-on also makes it difficult to aim some attacks, particularly Hatsuho’s special which also covers the entire screen in fire making it nigh impossible to see anything and thus aim the attack.
The lack of a lock-on also makes fighting flying enemies much more troublesome than it should be, which brings us to the next issue. Flying enemies are one of the most problematic parts of the battle system, being needlessly hard to hit despite posing close to nothing of a threat, and are a constant source of annoyance and frustration. While certain characters have a far easier time dealing with them, aside from a precious few exceptions the game typically does not allow the player to choose what characters they want to use in the main story.
There are several platforming sequences throughout the game, and it is also possible to fall off the side of many regular combat areas, but this only serves to become another annoyance due to there being a large number of attacks that send the player flying in a direction. It is also possible to knock enemies off platforms, but this does no damage to them and simply results in the player having to wait for them to teleport back to the combat area, which is yet another source of frustration.
The lack of a controller configuration option is questionable, as some might find the button placement awkward: Both dash and dodge being R shoulder buttons might make it hard for players to switch from one to the other on the fly, and the face button assignments might feel odd to others.
Action sequences can be replayed through a computer found in the basement of the theatre, which also allows the player to go through previous sequences with characters not available in the main story. This is also linked to the collectible bromide system, however, and completionists would have to go through every single stage five times (once for each partner character), which is nothing short of a grueling process. It is also perplexing as to why this function is not available from the main menu the way the koi-koi hanafuda minigame is.
In the end, the action sequences are extremely easy, meaning that most of the issues do not affect the player’s ability to clear the game. They do, however, serve as a myriad of annoyances that build up and make the battles more frustrating than they ought to be. The combat being too easy can itself also be a problem, as the player can miss dialogue with the villains by defeating bosses too quickly.
The main draw of the Sakura Wars series has always been the characters and setting, and New Sakura Wars does a fantastic job in portraying the world, letting the player explore multiple areas. The handling of characters, however, is not as well done. The basic formula of the Sakura Wars series, also adopted by games that followed in its vein, is to have individual chapters give the spotlight to specific characters, allowing the player to learn more about them. While the game does try to follow that format, what the player learns about most of the main characters (main heroine Amamiya Sakura being the sole outlier) is pretty much superficial, and the game eventually ends with the player knowing little more about them than they did at the beginning. The majority of side characters, too, are given little screen time, getting little more than basic introductions.
The story, while serviceable, feels awkwardly paced, and ultimately insufficient. Aside from individual characters being given too little screentime, the story also leaves much unresolved, and even throws in more plot hooks for a sequel near to the end. The final boss of the game does not even feel like a final boss, serving as nothing more than a vanguard to a larger threat. The story focuses on main heroine Amamiya Sakura more than any other character, and the end result is that it feels like an origin story for her regardless of the player’s choices.
The shift from the simple turn-based strategy combat of previous games to action is appreciable, especially in how it makes it so that the player can choose the funnier and more eccentric dialogue choices for the main character without turning battle sequences into a tedious affair (in previous games in the series this would result in stats for characters falling and turn battles into horrendous slogs), but the numerous issues make it impossible to heap praise on it. All the ingredients for a great battle system are present, however, and it is fully possible that a sequel might come up with something truly fantastic.
The elephant in the room is of course how the game clearly prioritises being the first game in a series far more than being a game on its own. Most characters are barely touched on and the story ends up adding as many dangling plot lines as it resolves, if not more. At 20-25 hours for the first playthrough, the game is in fact longer than some of the previous games in the series- For reference, the first two games in the series were each 15-20 hours long- But the content somehow feels shallow.
New Sakura Wars is an adequate restart point for the series, inheriting enough of the series’ strengths and qualities to feel like a faithful successor. But while it does not have any lethal flaws, however, it is unfortunately filled with numerous small issues that nevertheless result in it leaving a less than optimal impression on the player.
The Good: The game does a fantastic job in depicting its world more clearly than ever before, and being able to explore the Imperial Theatre is in itself a great treat for fans of the series. The shift to 3D for adventure parts and action for battle parts was also a good decision.
The Bad: While utilising 3D for the adventure parts and action for battle parts was a good idea, the implementation left much to be desired. The game also prioritises being the start of a new series too much, with the end result being that it neglects to deliver a satisfying experience on its own.
Conclusion: New Sakura Wars is not a bad starting point for a new series set in the Sakura Wars world, and gives the player a sense that this new series has a large amount of potential. Unfortunately, its focus on being the start of a new series results in it being a somewhat weak entry on its own.
Update (3 April 2020): The ver 1.01 patch of the game adds Amamiya Sakura’s Mugen to the game as a playable unit, and also introduces some critical functionality that was missing in the original release, namely:
- A backlog function allowing players to look up previous lines of text
- The ability to lock on to enemies in battle
- A controller configuration option
- The ability to save/load at any point in the game (however, saving/loading in battle puts the player at the start of the previous checkpoint)
- The removal of sharing (screenshot/recording/broadcast) restrictions
- Re-balancing of koi-koi gameplay, giving the player and opponent the same number of points.
While these changes do fix some issues with the gameplay and add some sorely-needed functionality, the reviewer considered the lack of some conveniences (such as only being able to save during intermissions) as part of the series’ inherited identity, and while acknowledging that some players might find this problematic, did not deduct points for these when scoring the game.
Some of these changes also come with new issues: The lock-on feature with the auto-lock on (enabled by default) results in the camera becoming hard to control in battles with large groups of enemies. Also, the changes to koi-koi make the hard mode redundant, and also make hard mode matches last too long
Ultimately, the changes made by the patch do not improve the game significantly enough to change its impression, and as such, the 70/100 score remains unchanged.
This review was updated on 14th February 2020 to add the worldwide English version’s release date, and on 3rd April 2020 to include information on the ver 1.01 patch