Sakura Wars is a soft reboot of SEGA's long running series. Like its predecessors, it combines visual novel and dating sim elements with steampunk robots, as the threat of a demonic invasion looms over one of Earth's major cities. This one's all about alternate timeline Tokyo in 1940, as former navy captain Seijuro Kamiyama is brought in to spearhead the Flower Division -- an all-female combat squad tasked with defending Japan's capital.
You play as Seijuro as you patrol the Grand Imperial Theater, which acts as the Flower Division's base of operations. In between combat missions, you spend your time exploring a number of locations throughout the city, getting to know the game's colourful cast of characters and building relationships with your allies in the Flower Division.
Sakura Wars has a relaxed feel to it as you wander Tokyo. The pacing may be a little too slow for some, but it gives the intriguing setting room to breathe. That said, this isn't a particularly long game. It took us roughly 15 hours to see the story through, but player choice and multiple endings give the package some decent replay value.
The path that you take largely comes down to which member of the Flower Division you romance -- and this is where the dating sim elements enter the equation. Pursuing the girl of your dreams isn't difficult -- you simply hang out with them whenever the opportunity arises -- but Seijuro still has to master the art of flirting. Most conversations present you with three dialogue choices, and choosing the right response gets you closer to that character's heart. Try your best not to piss them off, and you'll hopefully end up with your favourite waifu by the time the credits roll.
It's a straightforward system, but sometimes the dialogue options are annoyingly vague. Seijuro's the kind of goofball who can jump between being charismatic and pathetic in the blink of an eye, and so trying to predict the outcome of a specific choice can be difficult. The same issue also applies to dialogue choices that are peppered throughout the main story. Frustration kicks in when you select an option that seems completely normal, only to watch in horror as Seijuro blurts out something totally inappropriate.
To make matters worse, you're usually berated for picking incorrectly. Granted, some of these scenes can be genuinely funny, but they create an awkwardly inconsistent tone. One minute the girls of the Flower Division are calling Seijuro a disgusting pervert, and the next, they're blindly following him into a battle where all of their lives are on the line. We get it, you can't exactly lock the protagonist up for being a degenerate halfway through the story, but again, it's frustrating that you're able to derail important scenes through dialogue options that appear innocent.
But to be fair, the plot's painfully predictable anyway. You'll see all the twists coming hours before they actually happen, and it doesn't help that the bad guys are mind-numbingly generic. Sakura Wars focuses on its primary cast of characters, and that's fine, but even the Flower Division can't escape the pull of predictability. One of your allies goes through the exact same character arc not once, not twice, but three times as the story progresses, and by that point, you're starting to wonder whether there's actually any depth to these personalities.
While there are some nice character moments between Seijuro and the girls, they're overshadowed by tired anime tropes that show up over and over again. These aren't dislikeable characters, but they do feel underdeveloped. And sadly, this is especially true of the game's supporting cast, most of whom barely get enough screentime to establish any kind of personality that's not wholly stereotypical.
It's ultimately a shame that more couldn't have been done with the characters in Sakura Wars. There's an endearing spark to the central cast, but it never feels like they're allowed to spread their wings. Instead, they're confined to what is essentially a mediocre action romance anime in video game form.
Speaking of action, that's the other side of Sakura Wars. The series used to adopt a combat system built around turn based strategy, but this new instalment opts for Dynasty Warriors-style hack and slash skirmishes. It's quite the departure, and at first, we were left severely underwhelmed. Fortunately, the game's day one patch improves combat significantly by pulling the camera back and fixing some seriously dodgy hitboxes. Just in time for the review!
Seijuro and company pilot cool looking mechs as they scrap with demons of all shapes and sizes. You smack enemies about by mashing circle and triangle, while hitting R1 lets you dodge incoming attacks. Time it just right, and you'll get to enjoy a temporary slow motion effect. Despite its simplicity, there's quite an enjoyable rhythm to combat, although some progression would have been welcome.
You don't upgrade your suits or level up your characters -- your abilities stay the same throughout the entire release. As such, combat scenarios start to feel a little shallow, even though each story chapter hinges on a big battle or two. Much like the characters, combat isn't bad, but it rarely goes beyond the basics.
Gameplay-wise Sakura Wars can be hit and miss, and the same applies to its visuals. In terms of presentation, it's got some great ideas. For example, we love the way each story chapter ends with an anime-style "next time on Sakura Wars" sequence, and the main character models look fantastic. Seijuro and the Flower Division were designed by Bleach author Tite Kubo, but the supporting cast were crafted by a number of other recognisable artists -- and it shows. Some characters look like they belong to a completely different property, leading to a noticeable stylistic clash during certain scenes. Utilising different artists is a neat concept on paper, but in reality, the results distract from an otherwise cohesive work of fiction.
But hey, at least the music is consistent. Sakura Wars has a surprisingly good soundtrack, featuring catchy brass-based melodies.
Sakura Wars is an entertaining fusion of dating sim elements and button mashing action, but it's held back by tired anime tropes and some disappointingly underdeveloped characters. The overarching story may be painfully predictable, but there's still waifu-chasing fun to be had here, and the combat is enough to keep the otherwise relaxed pacing in check.