In late 2019 Sega blessed us with something that I thought would be impossible, a new entry in the beloved game series Sakura Wars. It had been over a decade since the previous mainline entry in the series came out. From the moment of announcement I was overjoyed, being a gigantic fan of the series for years now, I was one of those crazy people who would play along with the old games via a gamefaqs translated script. By the time that the game was revealed back in April 2018, literally no one even expected a new game, to the point that a Sakura Wars discord server I was in didn’t know about the reveal until hours after.
Then in March 2019 we got the first trailer for the game, with Tite Kubo (Bleach) confirmed to be character designer and Jiro Ishii (428 Shibuya) to be in charge of story structure. I seeked out people’s reactions online, to see how people other than myself felt about this. The little English Sakura Wars fanbase seemed to be split over the new style, however most seemed to be willing to give it a chance. Me personally? I was excited for the game no matter what we were getting, however one of the new major characters, Anastasia had a design that looked very out of place for the franchise, with her large breasts and exposed side boob. The most exciting part of the first trailer for me was being introduced to a character I fell in love with immediately, Azami Mochizuki. I told myself I’d have an Azami avatar on Discord until western release and haven’t looked back since.
Why have I spent a long time explaining the reveal and my feeling about it a year before release? I just want anyone reading this to understand that I have some bias towards this game. The prospect of just playing a new game in this series is more than enough for me to look over almost any flaw. This review is from the point of few of a huge fan and should be understood as such.
It should also be stated that, although I don’t know Japanese, I imported the game. Because I am a huge fan. This review will be entirely spoiler free both for that reason and because the game is still very new at the time of writing this paragraph.
Sakura Wars has always been a very story heavy franchise, I would sooner describe the first five games in the series as visual novels, rather than turn based strategy like how Wikipedia describes it. As such, it would be right to discuss the most important part of the game first, the Adventure Game segments.
Although I couldn’t read the sentences to understand what anyone was saying, the cutscenes in the game are very emotive and the character animations super expressive to the point of being able to get at least a rough grasp of things without needing to know the language. The animation in this game is really top tier. Also the atmosphere of the Adventure game segments is absolutely perfect, walking around the theater and parts of Ginza, interacting with characters, and appreciating the world of Sakura Wars is very nostalgic and relaxing, and of course funny when it wants to be. Adding to the great atmosphere is the FANTASTIC music some of the best in the series. Dragon Ball and One Piece composer Kohei Tanaka, who has been working on Sakura Wars ever since the first game, brought his A game to this soundtrack from returning songs to character themes to battle themes, I do not think there’s a single bad song in the entire ost. The Berlin Division’s theme song in particular is one of the best songs he’s ever composed, according to my two ears.
Collecting the bromides spread throughout the game during my first playthrough was unfruitful. Many of them are kept in rooms that you don’t have to visit during the chapter they appear. However during NG+ where they’re marked on the map I would always go out of my way to grab them, the prospect of just seeing pictures of the old cast was too much for me to resist. Not to undersell the new cast of course, the characters are all fantastic with great personalities that shine all throughout the game. Even Anastasia, who I figured I would hate because of her design grew on me by the end. A flaw in the game however is that side characters like the London and Berlin Divisions don’t get enough screen time, but the little they do get is really good. This is probably my second favorite cast in the series, right behind the original Tokyo Team from Sakura Wars 1 and 2.
As a protagonist, I prefer Ogami from the old games to Seijuro in the new game, however that’s only because I really like Ichiro Ogami. Seijuro has many moments and dialogue choices throughout the game to portray him as the utter silly and ridiculous man he is. You can’t hate the guy who screams Christmas at the top of his lungs.
Now that I’ve gushed about how good the Adventure game segments are, it’s time to talk a bit about what will easily be the most divisive part of the game, the battle segments. The battle game segments make up, I’d say 30% of the game, depending on if you’re going for Battle Bot Simulation S ranks. While the gameplay in previous games in the series was turn based strategy, the new game goes for real time action gameplay
It’s been written off by many as a musou game. However, as a huge musou fan myself, I have to say, it’s definitely not musou. While it does have big groups of enemies and combos, it plays very differently from almost all musou games I have played. A more apt comparison I think would be Ys with a taste of musou. Unfortunately that “taste of musou” is the difficulty. The game is really easy for almost the entire first half, and although there is a difficulty spike around halfway through, it never gets to be a challenge. The game would have benefited greatly from having either a harder base difficulty or some optional difficulty options. The game also doesn’t have a lock on button for some reason, which can make targeting some enemies, especially flying ones a hassle at times.
UPDATE: Since patch 1.01 was released, a lock on function has been added to the game, fixing a major annoyance with the battle system
Unfortunately the game really only has 3 bosses in the battle sections that they recycle with some changed attacks. And out of those bosses the only ones I really enjoy are fights against rival divisions, which can be chaotic and provide some of the little challenge in the entire game. One end game boss unfortunately suffers from being able to interrupt most of her attacks before they happen, almost ruining a very emotionally tense encounter.
There are about 10 battle segments in the entire game, averaging about 10-20 minutes each. Overall you’re only going to be spending about 2-3 hours total in battle during an average playthrough. Battling was never the true focus of Sakura Wars, the story and characters always were and the new game stays true to that. The ratio of combat and VN in the old games was about equal to how it is in the new one
Several people think that the new battle system should just be scrapped because it was flawed the first time they tried it. I vastly disagree with this mindset. What if Sega just dropped the ARMS system after Sakura Wars 3? It’s easy to look through rose tinted glasses at Sakura Wars 3 now, but the battle system there suffered from many of the issues that the system in the new game suffers from. If Sega abandoned ARMS because it was flawed the first time they did it, we would have never gotten Valkyria Chronicles.
ARMS (Pictured above) is a unique style of turn based combat created in Sakura Wars where the player would freely be able to move their units, attack, and then keep moving all based on how much was left in their action gauge. Other than Valkryia Chronicles, another noteworthy game to use the system was Codename S.TE.A.M.
Which of course, brings me to something that many people have been echoing: “Why didn’t they just use ARMS again?” And they do have a point, after all, Valkyria Chronicles has been using Sakura Wars’ ARMS system to great effect for the past decade.
I thought that too at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I wouldn’t want that. I think it’s for the better they didn’t use VC combat, and VC1 is one of my favorite games ever for the record.
I think, although VC is the spiritual successor to SW combat wise, I want it to completely stand on its own now and not get compared to its sister series, like it has in the west for nearly a decade now. Plus, it’s not like SW hasn’t changed gameplay before in the past and in my opinion all good things about the battle system came from VC anyway.
In the future I want Valkyria Chronicles and Sakura Wars to stand side by side as two seperate franchises under Sega’s belt. Wouldn’t it be better to have 2 great series that vary greatly from each other than having people argue about which one is better in comparisons of the two?
The length of the game is a point of contention among people as well. While I didn’t measure how long my first playthrough was, it is a short game. I don’t see this as a negative, but rather as part of the series tradition. Sakura Wars 1 and Sakura Wars 5 were also shorter than Sakura Wars 2 and 3. The series has often given shorter, simpler little adventures for the games intended to bring in new, fresh fans. Which the new game is very much trying to do, with it’s new cast, new 3D style, and plot that could work well as your first Sakura Wars. I would describe the game as short and sweet rather than short and disappointing.
Overall, Sakura Wars (2019) was a very nice and enjoyable experience for me as a long time fan, and once the western release rolls around I will be trying to get all my non-Sakura Wars fan friends into the series with it. If I had to rank it among the rest of the games in the series it would look like.
2 ≥ 3 > (2019) > 5 > 1 > 4
About in the middle of quality range in the series. If placing it in the middle doesn’t seem like high praise, let me tell you I consider Sakura Wars 2 and 3 to be some of the greatest games ever made, so ranking it that close to them is very high praise from me.
I hope to see more from the Sakura Wars franchise in the future. As a rabid fan I don’t think I’ll ever have enough, and Sega has yet to disappoint with this series. I hope this sprouts a new golden age for this blossoming soft reboot of the series.