Sakura Wars ~So Long, My Love~ - Staff Review  

Dinner! Dinner! Steak, Potatoes, Burgers! Everyone, Let's Eat!
by Sam "Nyx" Marchello

20-40 Hours
+ Hilariously cheesy story (in a good way).
+ Fun and whimsical characters.
+ Beautiful anime graphics.
- Less than steller gameplay graphics.
- Stick LIPS are sticky.
- Combat is slow.
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   Back when I was a wee girl and was super into anime, I picked up a copy of the Sakura Wars OVA at my local rental place on VHS. I knew nothing about the series, but the cover was captivating enough to take it home. Popping it into my VHS player I was introduced to glitz, glamour and steam-power robots fighting to save Japan from demonic forces. Upon further research I found out it had been based off a video game series, one which never saw the light of day until this year when NIS America released the fifth installment of the series, Sakura Wars: ~So Long, My Love~.

   Sakura Wars: ~So Long, My Love~ is a sequel to the popular franchise, though instead of taking place in Japan, it takes place in New York starring a completely new cast of characters. The New York Combat Revue -- Star Division takes center-stage as they must protect the peace and prosperity of New York City from a demonic invasion. The person tasked to keep New York safe? Shinjiro Taiga, nephew of the Flower Division captain Ichiro Ogami, and boy does he have his work cut out for him. Assigned to serve as the captain of the Star Division, Shinjiro Taiga moves to New York City from Japan to embark on this a task that only "he can complete" according to Ogami. Met with lukewarm response by the Star Division, it is up to Shinjiro to persuade the lovely ladies into showing them that he has the strength to be their leader.

   First let's discuss NIS America's localization: it's great. The game's story isn't groundbreaking, in fact, it's downright cheesy, but this is part of its charm. The dialog is humorous, whimsical, and is never dull. It exerts insane amounts of positivity, and focuses on the importance of teamwork. Although it can come across as hokey, part of the fun is engaging in conversations with the characters and seeing their personalities shine through. Plus, the story lends itself to having multiple playthroughs, making replay value high. A lot of the story elements are changed depending on which girl is selected to be at the center of the player's affections. It's worth it to go through and see the different situations, scenarios and endings for each of the girls.

Yes, I did actually click the Yes, I did actually click the "Wipe Gemini" option. Everyone should!

   Part of what makes Sakura Wars such a fresh experience comes from the interaction within the story. The story itself isn't much to write home about as it's boy meets girls, girls don't like him, boy must win the trust of said girls, demons are invading, but oh my god girls still don't like me yet, etc. Knowing the basic premise is not that exciting, but being able to influence the story is part of what makes Sakura Wars an engaging experience. Through the game's Live & Interactive Picture System, or LIPS, players will have the chance to not only woo members of the Star Division, but help change their situations throughout the game. Interacting with the women correctly creates positive changes within their characterization, while failing to keep them happy causes negative changes within their personalities. With the LIPS system, it's easy enough to change the outcome of the story in each chapter based on Shinjiro's actions and the responses generated from his teammates.

   The LIPS system can be broken down into three parts. Analog LIPS appear when the volume, speed, and tone of an action can affect the outcome. The higher the gauge, the stronger Shinjiro's actions or response will be. Second is the Double LIPS which most of the decisions are made. They are multiple choice responses that will affect your standing with whomever Shinjiro is speaking to, and can be met with a positive, neutral or negative response. Finally, Stick LIPS are timed tasks that must be performed using the analog sticks by following a sequenced pattern. Stick LIPS are the most difficult LIPS tasks to perform because they require good reflexes and have a strict time limit. The LIPS system really is the main focus of the game, as it determines your social standings with the ladies of the Star Division. Failure to answer LIPS questions well or complete Stick LIPS tasks satisfactorily results in characters becoming unmotivated in battle. The better Shinjiro's relationship is with the ladies, the more damage they can inflict during combat.

   Combat in Sakura Wars is in itself a unique experience. First, there is no traditional leveling experience within the game and there is often only one battle per chapter (except in the later chapters). This game relies on pure strategy, meaning every move needs to be well thought out. Often the battle's goals involve not just annihiliating the enemy, but focusing on saving innocent lives or discovering how to break past an enemy's defences before it can be defeated. The game gives enough hints on how to successfully complete each mission, though it's very easy to become bogged down by floods of enemy robots. Thankfully, joint attacks can be performed to deal with hordes of enemies, and can target a wide range of them. Herein lies one of the game's flaws: combat moves incredibly slowly. Each turn is dictated by the number of mobility points each member of the Star Division has. Moving, attacking, using super moves and healing all take up mobility from the gauge. Some characters have less than others, so it requires a lot of planning to make sure that mobility is used to its maximum potential.

This area will make your head spin! These jet-fighter portions were a pain in the tush.

   Movement itself in the game is slow, though one would expect this when piloting steam-powered robots. Still, the slow pace of the targeting can be a bit jarring compared to the breezy fun of the game's story sections. Adding to the issues bogging down the combat system is a frustrating targeting system. Each character has a limited attack range, so often players will find themselves moving in to attack a unit but not having enough mobility to perform actions in full. The only way to target enemies is to be in range and move the cursor over them, but sometimes even standing right beside an enemy doesn't trigger the attack cursor. This is far worse in the jet-fighter battles, as the targeting system is even stingier up in the air. Overall, these problems do not cripple the battle system, but they can make combat frustrating and can test one's patience.

   The overall presentation of Sakura Wars is done quite well. The voice acting in the English version is mostly good, although a few characters, particularly Rosita, sound awkward when reciting their dialog, whereas characters like Cherion and Subaru deliver strong performances. The game's music also fits the 1920's New York City setting. It's jazzy, upbeat, and possesses a strong sound, though on a whole there isn't too much diversity in terms of tracks.

   Visuals are also a positive point for the game, as most of them are done via anime-style stills during dialog and events. The character art is stunning, and adds a lot of colour and expression to each dialog sequence. The backgrounds in these sequences are also incredibly detailed, and show off the setting quite nicely. Conversely, the non-anime visuals found during the game's brief exploration segments aren't exactly the most pleasant to look at. The 3D character models lack the detail of the anime stills. The combat scenes look okay, but do not push the capabilities of the PlayStation 2. Thankfully, players will be spending most of their time with the attractive anime visuals.

   Sakura Wars can take anywhere between twenty to thirty hours to complete, though this number will vary based on the number of retries that are performed by players when they fail a mission. With save points only being on hand after roughly an hour of play, it's not fun to have to redo previous content when something doesn't go right the first time. Still, this will vary from person to person, as some might not care enough to redo content within the chapter because of how time-consuming it can be.

   Sakura Wars is certainly not for everyone, but it comes with the recommendation for those who enjoy zany storylines with a bizarro-world twist. There's so much content to explore within the game that it can't all be done in a single playthrough. What with having to juggle saving New York City and keeping the ladies happy, it's tough to be Shinjiro Taiga. The story may not be a work of art, but it's often hilarious. Between that and the game's strong cast of characters, there's much enjoyment to be found if players can get over the sluggish combat system. Plus who doesn't love wooing a split-personality cowgirl or hot-headed attorney? When it comes to dating, Sakura Wars has you covered. Except for Rosita, because dating her is gross.

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