A big part of whether or not you’ll enjoy a game is based on your expectations going in. If I thought The Last of Us was going to be a cutesy daddy-daughter adventure about growing up, well…I’d be…kind of right, but in entirely the wrong way. I’d probably not enjoy the game that much as a result. That can apply to all kinds of games, of course, including Sakura Wars. The latest in Sega’s long-running series, it’s a mech game insofar as it’s got mechs, but what you’re actually getting here is one of the better visual novels or dating sims around these days.
In 1940s Tokyo, the world’s got a serious demon problem going on. The only hope for humanity is the Combat Revues, trained soldiers who spend their duty hours battling demons using powerful mechs called Koubu and their off time performing. Years after the most intense human-Demon conflict, the Great Demon War, the Combat Revues have focused more on performance than battle. Here, we follow the Flower Division of the Imperial Theater Revue and its new leader, Seijuro Kamiyama, as they fight against a demon resurgence.
However, since demons haven’t been quite as much of a force as it used to be in the years following the Great Demon War, the Imperial Theater Revue’s kind of fallen apart. They’re not great actors, their Koubu are a mess (insofar as they have any Koubu at all) and, well, everything’s in pretty bad shape. Seijuro’s responsibilities are twofold: he’s got to whip the Flower Division back into shape from both a performance and a combat perspective. Maybe even three or fourfold, as he develops relationships with the various women of the Flower Division and becomes a Koubu pilot in his own right.
That first bit is the central focus of Sakura Wars. This is a dating sim at heart, so Seijuro’s interaction with other characters form the heart of the gameplay. Each of the Flower Division women has their own personality and Seijuro will spend a lot of time getting to know them; these include traditional Japanese woman Sakura, bookish Claris, hotblooded shrine maiden Hatsuho and others. Our hero can be an actual hero, a perverted “hero” or whatever you’d prefer, though Sakura Wars is pretty hilariously on the nose when it comes to consequences for questionable behavior. Over time, this will lead to different reactions and, eventually, a different ending.
There’s also a bit of mech combat here and there. It’s not spoiling much to say that Seijuro eventually obtains a mech of his own, which he’ll use to cruise around defeating demons. Doing so isn’t exactly the most in-depth mech simulator or anything; it’s closer to a lite version of the Dynasty Warriors games, in fact. You can’t customize your Koubu or level up, so these sequences tend to be pretty easy. They’re more for flavor and to spice the gameplay up than anything, and there’s something to be said for the bombastic special attacks and boss battles.
Sakura Wars’ presentation is pretty fantastic, befitting a game that’s all about its story. It’s got a lovely anime art style that’s well-suited for both the narrative and combat scenes. Meanwhile, the voice acting is pretty solid as well, insofar as I can understand given it’s all in Japanese, and topping it all off is some of the best music you’ll hear from a recent title.
Sakura Wars is, first and foremost, a visual novel or dating sim. Sure, it’s also got some lite mech combat to shake things up. But let’s be honest, that’s not what you’re here for – you’re here for some of the best storytelling to come out of this genre in some time. What’s even more amazing is that you don’t have to be familiar with past releases in the series, which is impressive as they stretch back nearly 25 years now. With that in mind, Sakura Wars is an easy recommendation. Go in with the right expectations and you won’t be disappointed.