These days, it almost feels like a given that any big-name JRPG will have equal servings of intricate turn-based combat and endearing bonding moments with a varied cast of supporting characters. Recent hits like Persona 5 and Fire Emblem: Three Houses prove that these hybrid RPGs are an incredible recipe for success. This formula is no recent discovery, though. Almost 25 years ago, this recipe was already perfected on the Sega Saturn by a big budget, massively ambitious Sega title named Sakura Wars that, despite its popularity Japan, has remained in tragic obscurity overseas for decades.
Many games back then were either systems heavy RPG adventures or narrative decision-based visual novels, but never both. Sakura Wars did the impossible by combining both of these genres into one massive “dramatic adventure” game with an unprecedented choice systems, gorgeous art by the Tales and Neon Genesis Evangelion artists, timeless music from the now infamous One Piece composer Kohei Tanaka, and gripping tactical combat challenges. It was all blended together in a genre-defining experience that never got to shine globally as much as it did in Japan.
Decades later and gaming has wholeheartedly embraced the DNA of Sakura Wars, and so a new entry in the series after 15 years is less about reinventing the wheel and more about reminding people who invented the wheel in the first place.
If the long-running lineage of the Sakura Wars series seems overwhelming, you don’t need to worry. This new PS4 entry in the series, simply titled Sakura Wars, is a soft-reboot of the series that aims to be an entry point into the franchise for RPG enthusiasts around the world. If you’re going into Sakura Wars blind, it may take a little while to wrap your head around the wildly unique setting of the franchise, which is perhaps best described as Japanese steampunk.
Set in a fictionalized version of 1940s Japan, life in this alternate Taisho period is often interrupted by cruel demonic forces who are only kept at bay by the mecha-piloting warriors of the Combat Revue. The Shanghai Combat Revue is an elite squad responsible for defending Tokyo, but your protagonist, the ex-Naval captain Seijuro Kamiyama, has instead arrived in Tokyo to work with the Imperial Combat Revue, a much less successful squad of robot-piloting women who keep their operation afloat by performing as stage actresses in the Imperial Theater.
Sakura Wars was always built on the idea of fusing dating simulators with tactical RPGs, and that theme of clashing worlds has worked itself into the core of the story and aesthetic of this game. Steam-powered machinery and flittering Sakura petals line the streets of Tokyo, while characters wear gorgeous clothing that naturally blends these Western and Eastern aesthetics. Legendary manga artist Tite Kubo lent his talents to the designs of the main cast of the game, but supporting characters designed by guest artists like Persona veteran Shigenori Soejima are just as memorable.
Just as the game blends genres and visual cultures, the story of your protagonist being in charge of a troupe of struggling theater actresses who moonlight as demon-slaying mecha warriors is completely bonkers, and yet it somehow manages to mix together into an incredibly charming story that always kept me smiling. You’ll end up getting invested in the struggles of the Imperial Theater crew almost immediately, thanks to how much focus is put on your choices.
Dialogue decisions are a constant presence in Sakura Wars, giving you a limited amount of time to pick the response you feel best fits the current situation. You can go with earnest choices that might improve your bond with the character you’re talking to, or go for a completely stupid dialogue decision that instead rewards you with gut-punching humour as the cast reacts to your utter stupidity. It helps that every scene of the game is fully animated, even if they aren’t always fully voiced. I really appreciated that there were rarely scenes of two characters simply standing five feet apart and going through a canned talking animation. If characters were angry, they were always flailing around and going completely nuts.
There’s a real charm to the writing, characters, and world of Sakura Wars. A lot of it comes from just how strongly the game wears its 90s anime influences on its sleeve. From scenes of characters sliding down secret chutes into underground bunkers that magically equip them with their colour-coded battle uniform, to end-of-chapter story previews that are paced and edited just like an anime episode preview, Sakura Wars slaps the presentation and story beats of a bright and colourful shonen anime series into an interactive environment. It results in one of the most heartwarming and purely fun JRPG stories I’ve ever experienced.
The cherry on top is undoubtedly the gorgeous soundtrack by Sakura Wars veteran and legendary Japanese composer Kohei Tanaka. The sounds of the game have just as much multi-cultural influence as the visuals do, with traditional Japanese instruments and blaring trumpets coalescing into some unforgettable tracks. The standout piece is the addictive and goosebump-inducing opening theme song that you would be a criminal to skip. It’s used liberally throughout the game, but it never, ever gets old.
As you progress through the game and interact with the girls of the Imperial Theater and your supporting cast, you’ll build up your bonds with them, unlocking new side stories and, in the case of the five main heroines, are able to go on dates with them. Building up these bonds doesn’t just lead to cutscenes of anime smooching though, as building this trust also plays into the action-combat sections of the game. Each chapter of Sakura Wars is split into two parts, with the first part being 70% story and environment exploration while the last 30% is a story-driven segment of brawling baddies in your giant mech.
Unfortunately, as engaging and satisfying as the story scenes of Sakura Wars are, the combat sections are merely okay. They’re gorgeous to look at, but there’s a disappointing lack of depth to them. Combat leans more toward the button-mashing simplicity of a Dynasty Warriors game than the intricate rhythms of a smooth character action game. There’s glaring issues like character-swapping not letting you link together combos or the lack of a mid-air dodge which stand out as simple ways that the game could have added some much-needed variety to these scenes.