By Ishaan . March 30, 2010 . 5:45pm
Calling Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love an RPG isn’t entirely correct. Sure, in the simplest sense, So Long, My Love could be considered a “role-playing game” without levels or grinding. If you’re willing to do away with pre-conceived notions about game genres, however, in Japan, the Sakura Taisen series is part of the "dramatic adventure" genre, which means it’s closer to a dating-sim than a role-playing game, and this is what makes it unique.
While there are battles in the game, Sakura Wars isn’t about customizing your character or going on an epic quest. No, the game’s sole purpose is to entertain the player through its outrageous and sidesplitting characters and dialogue. All throughout. And in this regard, So Long, My Love is a smashing success.
A Little Bit of History
The Sakura Wars games follow a single, coherent timeline, spanning across the 1920s in several different locales around the world. The first game centred around the Imperial Assault Force, a top-secret military organization set up as a line of defense against a demon invasion in Tokyo. Following the success of the Imperial Assault Force, newer divisions were set up to protect other countries. Sakura Wars 3, for instance, was about The Paris Assault Force.
While they may sound rather “by-the-book,” there’s more to the Assault Forces than meets the eye. On the outside, both the Imperial and Paris divisions appear to be entertainment troupes, using the power of song and dance to touch their audience. In reality, this is a front used to disguise their military operations, which involve giant transforming mechs and spiritual energy.
Why the front? Because, historically, classical Japanese music and dance were linked to rituals meant for warding off plague and disease and evil spirits. The Taiko in particular was considered to drive away evil spirits and bring rain, and also used a call-to-arms for Japanese warriors. Similarly, in Sakura Wars, the stage is considered to help build the confidence of the Assault Force’s members, and help keep people’s spirits high, in addition to keeping them safe. It’s beautifully idealistic. *wipes away tear*
So Long, My Love
Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love begins with you, Shinjiro Taiga, a graduate trainee transferring from the Imperial Assault Force in Tokyo to the New York Combat Revue, one of the newer branches of the organization. Like the groups in Tokyo and Paris, the New York Combat Revue shares a dual-identity with the Little Lip Theater, inappropriately named for the massive, glowing neon-pink lip displayed proudly above its entrance.
Shortly after you dock in New York, the fun begins. The game doesn’t pull any punches getting you acquainted with its cast of nutcases. The Combat Revue is chock-full of eccentric members (some more so than others), and at one point or another, each of them is going to make you grin from ear to ear. For instance, there’s Mr. Sunnyside, the manager of the operation in New York, who just so happens to be a complete Japanophile. (“Konnichiwa and ohayou, Shinster!”) At the other extreme, you’ve got Gemini Sunrise (Laura Bailey fan club assemble!), a cowgirl that wants to be a samurai. Every now and then, she’ll randomly break out into playacting a stereotypical samurai movie scene, and someone will have to pull her back down to earth. Then there’s Rosita Aries, a – wait for it – Mexican loli bounty-hunter with a pet ferret (no, he can’t talk).
Other characters include the gorgeous Diana Caprice; Ratchet Altair, captain of the NYCR’s “Star Division”; Cheiron Archer, a lawyer from Harlem; and Subaru Kujo, Sakura Wars’s version of Gabriel (Nier Replicant). Every single one of them is one of Little Lip Theater’s performers, and over the course of several chapters, the game acquaints you deeply with each of them, and allows you to strengthen your relationships.
The majority of So Long, My Love plays out like a visual novel. You can travel from place to place on New York’s “overworld” using a third-person viewpoint like in most RPGs, but all dialogue and character interaction is presented in a visual novel style. As always, NISA have somehow managed to gather an extremely capable team of voice-actors to portray the cast. Most characters –- yes, even Rosita –- are convincingly voiced, and they each have their own unique personalities and quirks to boot. I was particularly impressed by Ratchet and Subaru, who are fairly “normal” by this game’s standards, and never sounded out of place.
This is important because you’re going to spend most of the game talking to different characters, learning about them, and living Shinjiro’s life in New York. The interesting element here is, the dialogue choices in So Long, My Love are timed. Whenever you’re required to make a choice, a metre starts to fill and you have to make a choice before it reaches the end. Sometimes, you’ll be presented with a single choice, but you’ll be allowed to control a gauge to choose the intensity with which you want to reply. I liked that the game made me think on my feet because it resulted in me role-playing my character more instinctively and closer to my own personality.
Occasionally, there are quicktime events and minigames to keep you on your toes as well. These are called “LIPS” and they usually involve following onscreen directions with your analog stick. They affect your “performance” during different events, and a failure or success often leads to different outcomes or influences your relationship with a particular character. At times, you’re also given the opportunity to point and click at different things in the environment to examine them, or to click on different parts of a character to hear Shinjiro’s comments. Be warned that examining the girls’ chests begets dirty looks.
Dialogue throughout the adventure portions is very well-written, and the humour fits right into NIS America’s portfolio of games rich with innuendo and quirky characters. I’m actually having a hard time deciding which of the girls I want to date because all the ones I’m interested in – Diana, Ratchet and Gemini – are appealing in their own way. Ratchet is the hot professional one that confides in you, while Gemini is very much the loveable “buddy” girl. And Diana is irresistible in her cheerfulness and maturity. It’s great that the game gives you ample opportunity to get to know each of the girls in their dedicated chapters. Their stories are often subplots, and will probably tie into the overall narrative, as you get further into the game, too.
Each chapter is a couple hours long and features save points at regular intervals, so you never have to start over from too far behind if you have to turn your system off. There’s even a suspend save option, although, the game itself never points it out. So Long, My Love is perfect for “casual” RPG players in how streamlined it is.
It bears mentioning that this is a very character-driven game, as opposed to story-driven. The plot doesn’t try to take itself too seriously (“There’s a giant robot at the Statue of Liberty! It’s destroying everything!”), but that’s because the emphasis is deliberately on cheesy action and character development. That isn’t to say there’s absolutely no plot at all –- there is. It just takes a backseat to character development.
Each chapter also features occasional battles. There’s no grinding in So Long, My Love, and every battle is tied to the plot. Once you get to the point where it’s time to take on your enemies, an awesome anime-style cutscene (using a fantastic blend of 2D and CG art) plays out, showing the STAR Division suiting up for battle and blasting off into the sky, complete with heroic music, as Sunnyside yells, “IT’S SHOWTIME!!”
Sometimes, the game even gives you (Shinjiro) the option of yelling “STAR Division, move out!” or something to that effect yourself, which I took great pleasure in doing whenever presented with the opportunity.
(I told you it was awesomely cheesy.)
Once you’re on the battlefield, the basic battle system plays like a very well-disguised SRPG. Now, I should mention that I tend to dislike SRPGs in general, but I thoroughly enjoy Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love’s battles because they’re very much based around strategy and coordination with your teammates, rather than levels and stats.
The camera is in 3D and fully controllable. The number of actions each mech in your party can make is governed its “mobility metre.” Each step or action that you take depletes the mobility metre. Once it’s your turn to attack, you control your mech in realtime, and you can perform actions until the metre is depleted. At your next turn, you’ll begin with a fully-charged metre again.
As far as movement is concerned, the metre depletes on the basis of how far you move from your current position. So, for example, I could be standing at a particular spot and then, circle around the battlefield, around obstacles, and return close to my original location, and the metre would only deplete by one or two units, depending on how far I ended up from where I started. You can see points being depleted and refunded to the metre in realtime, which really helps you figure out what path of movement would be best, and which enemies you should target first to make the best use of your resources.
The moves available to you in combat consist of regular attacks (which can be chained into combos or used one at a time, depending on how you want to manage your mobility metre), healing, joint attacks with a teammate standing within range of you and the enemy (the strength of which are governed by how close you are to that particular teammate), defensive positions and special moves. In addition to this, you also have three different battle formations: flexible, offensive and defensive. Each one has an impact on your offensive and defensive aptitude in battle, and depending on the strengths of your enemies, you’ll want to switch between these accordingly.
At times, the fight goes airborne, at which point, your mechs transform into flight mode, and instead of horizontal movement on the ground, altitude determines your proximity to the different enemy units. This adds another fun element of variety to the battles.
Since the majority of the strategy in So Long, My Love’s battles revolves around managing your units’ mobility metres, keeping your team alive (battles are challenging without being cheap) and doing more damage in fewer moves (via making smart use of joint attacks and your battle formations), battles are often fast-paced and cinematic. Every member of the STAR Division has their own corny lines, too, like, “Suffer the wrath of my VERDICT CHAIN!!” which helps keep things entertaining.
Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love constantly gives you reason to smile, whether it’s through its awesome cast, its 1920s depiction of New York or its charming idealism that shines throughout. I’ve played games like it before, but most were from the dating-sim side of things, and none as high budget as this. It gives you something most other RPGs and visual novels don’t, and despite coming out of left field, fits perfectly into NIS America’s portfolio.
Food for thought:
Awesome lines from the game:
1. “Heaven’s demon! BLADE. OF. THUNDER!!”
2. “Thick, juicy sausage, dripping with spicy mustard. Open up and enjoy it. Ahh…”
3. “I should tell you, here in America, harakiri is not an option. In America, you are expected to live with your mistakes!” – Sunnyside.