Thursday, March 15, 2012

A look back: Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love (Wii)

Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love was a slightly older game when it first released in North America a few years ago.  The reason being is it had taken five years for it to get out of Japan.  This makes the title old enough that it was released both for the PlayStation 2 and the Nintendo Wii by Sega and NIS.  Certain design choices made in the game help it to hold up well even now, while showing signs of age in other places.

The story is set in a steam-powered version of the 1920's located in New York.  The characters embrace a variety of stereotypes to begin, though Sakura Wars really shines later in the game as most of those characters prove to be much deeper and interesting than they first appeared to be.  You either like the stylized, over-the-top characters, animations and storyline or don't - it fits in perfectly with the sometimes quirky nature of animated television and movies.

The majority of the game takes place in conversational scenes.  You are often reading several lines of dialog and witnessing a handful of scene changes with no interaction on your part.  To make matters more unusual, there are turn-based strategy segments, but they only present themselves at the end of each level (the last level notwithstanding as it is one combat map after another).  If this seems like a strange way to present a game, then I would be inclined to agree.  At first, I really did not know what to make of it as I moved from scene to scene, never actually controlling anything but some dialog choices.

Sakura Wars is a slow burn to start, but over time it gives you more and more to do.  There are mini games that occur fairly regularly, and your performance in them affects how a character or sets of characters think of you.  The same can be said of your dialog choices.  This is the part of the game that feels a bit like a dating simulation, but the impact goes much deeper once you reach the end of the level.  That is because experience and gold are not earned like in most games of this type.

Your hero in this game, Shinjiro Taiga, gains strength from his interactions with others.  Your comrades on the battlefield also fare better if they are properly motivated by Shinjiro.  This creates a unique way of affecting combat through the story, though it is not a perfect system.  For example, some of the characters may irritate you for whatever reason, and while I realize the story is one about friendship and love conquering evil, there are times you just want to scold someone for their actions.  However, you will be hesitant to do so, because it will impact that person's ability in combat later at the end of the level.  Overall, I liked the system, and it can evolve into a romance with one of the characters if you so choose later, but it did feel a bit limiting at times too.  Perhaps if you could pick from several units and leave behind the ones you don't 'like' it would feel just a bit more authentic, but that would defeat the story's purpose as well.

The visuals are a mixed bag.  The game feels very much like an interactive anime series in terms of the graphics, music and voice work (of which there is a lot of the last).  The one really odd omission I found was that your lead character, Shinjiro, does not speak during any of the conversations - yet most of the other characters do have voice overs.  At first I thought maybe that was an intentional design choice so as not to create a voice that overrides the player's own in their mind - but then Shinjiro is voiced during the animated movie scenes

Character images are mostly static, yet drawn well enough that they are very expressive.  Most of the game's scenes and conversations are delivered in this still frame method, though there are sections of fully animated action as well.  One of my most memorable was a fight on a bridge about halfway through the game with one of your team.

Still, it would have been nice to have a bit more animation - both in characters and in the background scenes.  The backgrounds in particular are the most notable eyesore in Sakura Wars.  They tend to be very pixelated, with muddy colors that blur the fine lines of what could otherwise have been a much more attractive set of images.  There is also a camera mechanic built into the game for taking photos of characters against backgrounds, and these too look pretty rough at times.

The turn-based strategy segment is actually fairly deep, if not entirely perfect.  Sometimes it can be hard to understand where you need to be to move from one zone to another, or to target a person in the air born modes, but like the rest of the game there is more to like than not.  Combat takes place either in mech form on the ground, or in trandsformed aircraft mode in the sky.  The same basic principles apply to both ground and air combat.

You have an action bar that is drained from movement across the gridless landscape/airspace and also from using attacks, healing, joint attacks and special moves.  There is a lot of buried nuance here as doing joint attacks and performing protections of other characters can improve the bond between characters as well, and these more advanced bonds can lead to things like defensive counters and even rare joint attacks that initiate with two characters, and a third joins in to cause extra damage.

The missions tend to be quite varied as well.  Sometimes you are supposed to clear out all of the enemies, but at other times you are tasted with destroying specific target objects, or reaching a certain spot on the map, keeping enemy robots from making off with something valuable or preventing suicide robots from bombing your headquarters.  The fight scenes can be fairly lengthy, and I wish there had been a few more of them, but what is there is quite entertaining.

In the end, I spent about twenty five hours on my first play through of Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love.  There is plenty of reason to replay the game if you like it however.  There is a bonus chapter where you can take in sights, sounds and relations at a slightly more leisurely pace once you beat the game.  There is also a New Game+ where you can take over some of your combat improvements and skip the conversations and scenes you have already watched while you try to unlock another of the games many endings.  Completionists who want to see every 'what if' answered can wind up spending over one hundred hours easily on this game.



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