Review by Iori

"Sakura Wars finally hits the US, with an outstanding localization to boot."

The Sakura Wars franchise has been around since the Sega Saturn, spawning numerous spin-offs, animated features, and live concerts featuring the amazingly talented Seiyuus that have made the games such a huge success.

However, other than the animated features, western fans (Myself included!) have had to import the games, as well as rely on their own skill in understanding the Japanese language (Or some excellent fan translations. Thanks Kayama!).

But thanks to the kind folks at NIS, the latest entry in the Sakura Wars saga finally arrives in the US.

Story

Shinjiro Taiga, nephew to Ogami Ichiro (The main character of Sakura Wars 1-4) comes to America to join the New York Combat Revue, a talented group of Pneuma (Or Spirit) powered warriors tasked with defending New York from evil, through the use of their own powers and Steam Powered Mecha known as STARs. But that is only half of their duty; they also entertain the citizens by performing musicals at the Little Lip Theater, such as their own unique version of Hamlet.

Since Sakura Wars is part dating simulation, asides from the main story which introduces the lovely ladies of the New York Combat Revue as well as some pretty unique side characters and villains, there are countless events and interactions that breathe life into the fantastic cast. The majority of the replay value comes from making different decisions and visiting areas you previously did not explore so that you can experience all the unique dialogue and interactions between the characters.

My only gripe with the story is that it does not take as much advantage of the American setting as it could have. In previous games, the overlying story and villains were based heavily on Japanese (Or in the case of Sakura Wars 3, European) culture. Interestingly, Sakura Wars 5 Episode 0 (The prequel to this game) did exactly that for the American setting, but the main game features a story that has its roots more in Japanese history and myth, much like the early games.

The story is very well written, however, and the localization is fantastic. The characters are what make it truly special, though. From the gallant and clumsy cowgirl Gemini Sunrise to the ace attorney from Harlem Sagitta Weinberg, the cast is diverse and memorable.

Graphics

Considering that the game is five years old, the 3d graphics used for exploring New York, battles, and a few in-game cut scenes are pleasant and colorful. The true winners here, however, are the gorgeous 2d illustrations and character designs by Kosuke Fujishima. The animated cut scenes, though fewer in number than in previous Sakura Wars games, are nice as well.

Sound

The music of Sakura Wars has always played a huge role in the games, and 5 is no different. Asides from the amazing intro and ending songs, throughout the game a variety of tunes create an immersive atmosphere. From the character themes to battle music, its always a joy to listen to.

For the voice acting, the Japanese cast is amazing. I was surprised that Red managed to get talent comparable to the original cast, which included so many famous Seiyuu. Which is not to say the English cast is bad; for the most part, the English disk is very enjoyable, even if some of the characters are a bit off.

Gameplay

Part dating simulation and part turn-based strategy, the unique blend of the two is what makes the Sakura Wars series so enjoyable. During the exploration phase, you move Shinjiro around New York and interact with the main cast, as well as a multitude of side characters including Kayama Yuichi, a fan favorite from the previous games.

Depending on your decisions during the LIPS ( Live & Interactive Picture System), which include multiple choices as well as mini-challenges utilizing the analog sticks, you earn the trust of the characters. This translates into increased battle stats, as well as contributing towards the eventual goal of being able to see the girl's unique events and ending with Shinjiro.

The battles are in 3d, and are turn-based. Your team pilots the STARs, which are steam powered mecha. Instead of using a grid based system, you use action points to freely move around the battle field. These actions points are represented by a bar which decreased whenever you move, attack, defend, etc. Joint attacks and supers are possible for all characters, and if your trust is high enough with one of the girls, you can team up to do flashy team supers. In addition to the regular ground battles, air battles allow your STARs to shift into flight mode, and make for some interesting boss battles.

The overall difficulty of the game is fairly low. If you are an experienced turn-based strategy fan, dont expect to see the game over screen much. But the battles are very enjoyable, and the flashy attacks and mecha are a blast to use.

My only complaint here is the lack of mini-games; previous Sakura Wars games featured a multitude of fun and addicting distractions, both throughout the main game and as post-game bonuses. While So Long My Love features a Free Mode where you can view pictures, listen to music, and unlock bromides, a quiz-game and the ability to take photos of the characters are the only interactive portions.

However, with a 25 hour adventure and multiple endings, there is plenty to keep you busy for quite a while.

Sakura Wars: So Long My Love is an amazing experience, and in a time where big budget next-generation titles are all the rage, a game like this is a breath of fresh air. So if you have ever heard your crazy otaku friends going on and on about dating sims and want to see what all the fuss is about, are a crazy otaku yourself, or just want to experience a well crafted game with a distinctively Japanese flavor, give it a shot.


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 04/22/10

Game Release: Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love (Premium Pack) (US, 03/30/10)


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