Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love (Wii) – Staff Review

´╗┐Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love exists in a strange realm of intersections. It lies between dating sim and tactical mecha combat sim, between long-established Japanese tradition and familiar New York iconography, between the storytelling constructs we know as “video games” and “anime.” Like the Zen master, or the pathetic fanboy trying to get the “harem” ending, it strives to achieve balance in all things.

No discipline is flawless. At one level or another, we are all human, defective, stained with the deepest seeds of doubt and regret, shame and anger. But we can try, dammit. We can try. And this game, despite some technical flaws, tries. Dammit.

Nippon-Ichi have gone out on a limb in their attempt to bring this, the fifth installment in the Sakura Taisen series, to American audiences. As Lt. Shinjiro Taiga, nephew of… some guy from the earlier games, you’re sent to a very Steampunky 1928 New York City to assist in the operations of the Star Division. Upon arrival…

Y’know, I could go into more of the plot here, but frankly the game does it better than I ever could. There’s a lot of plot. This is, after all, very solidly in the “visual novel” genre. Most of the time. Suffice it to say, this particular imagining of 1928 New York has no difficulty rationalizing giant robots, air travel, cellular telecommunications, or digital photography. Soon you’re shooting enemy mecha out of the sky and restoring peace to the city after a host of demonic attacks.

Part giant-robot tactical combat sim...
Part giant-robot tactical combat sim…

Supporting you in these missions are the members of the New York Combat Revue, a cleverly-concealed fighting force in the guise of a Broadway theater troupe. Your interactions with these members, all of them lovely young women (we think), are facilitated by a series of multiple-choice text responses… most of the time. In a unique twist, your responses are timed; woe betide the indecisive. Or not. Timing out is always an option, and can lead to its own sequences of events. While the new-standard Large Character Shots above said boxes are well-rendered in their own right, Sakura Wars isn’t afraid to mix it up every once in a while by including lip-flap animation on what would normally be an static insert image. It’s a refreshing change of pace, and certainly serves to develop what would be standard RPG fare into something much more… animated, for lack of a better word.

Interspersed with those standard text responses are innovations such as the Analog response box, where you’re given one sentiment to reply with, but can vary its emphasis from a glorious battle cry to a low whisper. Also featuring in more skill-intensive sections of the narrative are events which challenge the player to accomplish a series of button presses or rotations in a set time, the success of which determines Shin’s aptitude at the task. All these serve to branch the story out in true visual-novel fashion, and to influence the good graces of the ladies on your team.

Now, in a normal dating sim, that’d be the crux of the mechanics. You make choices, influence people, and hope to date one of them. However, introduce giant robots into the mix, and you get to have more fun. The relationships you build influence the course of battle, as friendlier pairs team up for more effective Joint Attacks, and can sometimes negate enemy offensives. As such, it’s not enough for you to manage Shin Protagonist’s image and standing in the group, you must also concern yourself with the intrapersonal dynamics of the team, as well. Likewise, performance in combat does influence opinion outside of combat; nothing says “Let’s be friends!” like a timely heal or cooperative assault.

Part dating-sim-style visual novel. All New York.
Part dating-sim-style visual novel. All New York.

I originally found the combat to be rather hand-wavey and simple, having already familiarized myself with much more in-depth offerings like the Front Mission series. While the fight scenes can be a bit of a cakewalk in the early game, by the last couple chapters it becomes crucial to use every bit of firepower in your arsenal. Further, the flavor of the game changes significantly between the terrestrial and aerial combat encounters, while some fights even hybridize the two, offering multiple fronts for a single operation. This game changed my mind. I underestimated it, I paid for my hubris, and I was rewarded with an enjoyable tactical experience.

That said, the combat shows a number of the technical flaws which keep Sakura Wars from achieving greatness. In particularly explosive scenes – and, for that matter, in a couple parts of the game outside of combat – the stereo sound has holes you could drive a giant robot of death through. Occasionally, your attacks will land completely silently. (This tends to occur most commonly in aerial skirmishes.) Further, particularly in later boss attacks, the video can lag quite horribly, causing massive A/V sync issues and, in particularly egregious cases, can leave your Wiimote whirring provocatively for 10 seconds at a time, with absolutely nothing happening on the screen. Even in the “adventure” segments of the game, sometimes a vocal segment will be completely lost, drowned out by overzealous background music.

It’s not bad background music, mind. Lots of smooth, slow jazz, with Japanese influences in just the right places. (Though the gestalt may be a little MIDI-heavy for a period piece.) And the English dub, courtesy of our friends over at Bang-Zoom, is capable, if a bit overacted at times. (It was refreshing to hear a Texan accent that was not being used to approximate Kansai dialect.) The character who sounded like a Mexican 9-year-old straight off of Sesame Street… was meant to sound like a Mexican 9-year-old. Could this be an echo of the uncanny valley? One immediately notices how “off” the lip-flaps in the more cinematic shots… but, were this anime, would we really notice?

That brings us to the crux of it. The “game,” if one can call it that, is much better understood as a 7-episode anime series, with all the schmaltzy plot, cheesy musical numbers, and feel-good endings one would expect from an early-to-mid-90’s giant robot show. The difference is that you, Joe McPlayer, get to direct sections of the character development, and conduct the battle segments as you see fit.

… That’s the mechanical side of it, at least. However, there’s a large part of this game that isn’t mechanical at all. Perhaps because of the limited “gameplay,” a huge part of this game is about understanding the stories of these people, coming together in this city. I realize it’s rather divorced from what most people are looking for in something that purports to be a tactical RPG… but in this case, it’s the truth. This isn’t so much a game with a story, it’s a story with game-like mechanics. If you’re just looking for the challenge, you’re going to end up missing what is, in truth, a fantastic narrative, one which changes as you play it and makes you want to go back and try things again… and again. It’s been murder on me to actually try to get this review out in a timely fashion; I keep wanting to go back and play one more scenario.

There’s a lot of joy in this game. There has to be. It’s a game about saving New York, using giant robots and the power of musical theater. It’s told in the style of admittedly-retro anime. It’s about as campy as you can possibly get without attracting the ire of Fred Phelps. (Well, aside from the crossdressing scenes. Move over, Miss Cloud! Peppermint’s taking over New York!) This game manages to be greater than the sum of its parts by achieving a truly harmonic balance. Perhaps it’s because it’s designed, much like the theater troupe it portrays, to lift hearts and weary spirits.

To quote Winston Zeddemore in Ghostbusters, exclaiming from the top of Central Park West after banishing Zuul and defeating the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man…

“I love this town!”

Played to completion using a copy provided by the publisher.

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