Started playing it, just finished Chapter Two.
I’m a tad conflicted on this one. On the one hand, we finally got a Sakura Taisen game, the localization is solid, the battles are fun (if a tad easy), and the story is pretty good. On the other hand, the marketing is blatant lies, the setting is outright offensive in its inaccuracies at times, and according to everyone that’s beaten it, there’s only one battle per chapter.
If you are in any way interested in this game, research it. I knew going in it was mostly a Dating Sim; I just didn’t know how MUCH of the game was devoted to pressing X to get through conversations about why Japan is so awesome and New York is crap. (Okay, the latter one isn’t really brought up that much, but still…) The dialogue system (called LIPS for some ungodly reason) feels a lot like Indigo Prophecy, where every response is timed and additional scenes play out if you don’t choose an option. The timer is fairly merciful for the most part…until you get to the Double LIPS, which has a time limit ON TOP OF a time limit. And then there’s the QTE parts, which are some of the most merciless things I’ve ever seen.
As said, it’s a Dating Sim. (And sorry Martinez, but there’s no porn.) You have a selection of girls you have to romance up via dialogue options, QTEs, Analog LIPS (think point-and-click adventure), and just helping out in battle. Choosing the right options raises their “trust,” which in turn raises their stats. Leveling trust also raises the power of Joint attacks (think Double Techs), which is important when you consider you’ll be relying on the damn things pretty early on. The strategy battles play out like an early version of Valkyria Chronicles. Your number of moves are dictated by an action bar at the bottom; walking a few steps deletes one piece, while a full combo can whack out five. You can also use Specials, and then follow up with a few regular attacks to finish the enemy off.
The story is fairly simple, but at the same time engaging. That’s one of the highlights of a good visual novel, and one of the few strengths the genre has over its contemporaries. A well-written Dating Sim is one that, while confined to a general story, still gives the player room to play their role as they see fit, and Sakura Wars does that beautifully. The characters are generic, but at the same time have enough backstory and personality to entertain. It also helps that the script is funny as hell; I probably spent most of Chapter One laughing my ass off.
Then there’s the setting. Imagine New York in 1928, only with giant transforming mecha and constant monster attacks. The player is Shinjiro Taiga, a member of the Japanese Imperial Force transferred to head up New York’s division of…well, whatever group is in charge here. (This is the fifth Sakura Taisen, and the game assumes you played the first four.) What’s the first thing he sees upon arriving? Two bank robbers running off with stereotypical brown bags with money signs painted on. And they’re stopped by a katana-wielding female Lone Ranger knock-off. From there, he gets bullied by everyone else on the team for two game days before he finally gets into a mech.
After playing through this far, I just have to say, on behalf of all Americans, I apologize to every country, every nationality we have ever stereotyped, ridiculed, or in some way negatively influenced the international perception of in the past. In this New York, horses are allowed to live inside apartments (and eat meat, apparently). People calmly eat dinner while rival mobsters pelt the building with bullets. A racially-mixed, all-female performance troupe doesn’t raise any eyebrows (which is actually a good thing, but still kinda jaring if you have any knowledge of the 1920s). And to top it off, America is greedily obsessed with obtaining priceless historical artifacts (some of which are explicitly cursed), all because they’re just too young and too dumb to make up their own culture. And I’m only through Chapter Two; I’m sure even more of these are awaiting me.
Overall, it’s actually pretty good, and considering it’s the only entry anyone outside of Japan will ever get, it’s at least worth a look. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must go back to Virtual Dating: Giant Robot Edition.