I’ve only played about two hours of Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love so far and I haven’t fought a single battle yet, but I wanted to post my early impressions of the game anyway. Normally, this would be an odd choice, as a Japanese RPG’s battle system is what usually makes or breaks the experience, but Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love isn’t quite a regular JRPG.
Is there a story?
Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love takes place in an alternate 1920s New York. You play as Shinjiro Taiga, a newly-appointed member of the New York Combat Revue, a law enforcement task force of sorts that pilot mechs and protect the city. Initially a part of its Japanese division, Shinjiro is sent to lead the squad in New York.
Upon arriving there, he finds out that there’s more to the Combat Revue than meets the eye. The squad is comprised entirely of entertainers who perform in "Little Lip" theatre productions, which is a front meant to divert attention from their secret identities. Regardless of which is more important, both "careers" are carried out with a fiery passion, and Shinjiro quickly learns he’ll need to pull up his socks or risk being sent back to Japan if he fails to impress his new squadmates. Oh, somewhere amidst all this is an evil overlord planning to take over the city and you pilot aforementioned giant mechs in SRPG battles.
What makes it unique?
If you’ve been following the game, you’ve probably seen the term "visual novel RPG" tossed around a lot, and two hours into it, that’s exactly how I would describe the experience myself. In its first two hours, Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love relies solely on character interaction and dialogue choices to keep the player entertained, and it works like a charm. If you’ve played visual novels before, you know exactly the kind of feeling I’m talking about — you don’t need any more incentive than to simply step into the shoes of the protagonist and experience a regular day in his life to keep pushing forward. There’s always something happening… always a new event or character or location being introduced to catch your interest… which offsets the need for battles almost entirely.
But even in its visual novel segments, Sakura Wars does a few interesting things I haven’t seen before. Breaking up the dialogue is the series’ unique take on dialogue choices, known as the LIPS (Live & Interactive Picture System). Basically, each time a dialogue choice appears, a metre will start to fill around the menu, and you’ll have a limited amount of time to choose from the list of statements you can reply with. You also have the option of not replying at all by letting the metre fill completely. This is interesting because it feels like it makes you roleplay your character more "instinctively" and closer to your own personality than you would if you had the luxury of mulling over each choice. I often found myself making decisions that weren’t the most "efficient" but were the ones I would have made were I in a similar situation myself.
Sometimes, the extent to which the metre is filled will affect the aggressiveness or enthusiasm of your reply, which adds another layer to the LIPS. These are called "Analog LIPS" according to NIS America’s site for the game, and are yet another way that can change a character’s perception of you. In the long run, these LIPS decisions change the course of the story. There are also LIPS quicktime events involving context-specific motions that you’ll need to perform with your two analogue sticks to mimic actions like, say, screwing something in place.
The other aspect of Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love‘s visual novel segments is a mix of Persona and Phoenix Wright. You can run around in the environment just like the newer Persona games, and when the need arises, guide a cursor around the screen to "click" on different things and people to examine them. Even here, there are some pleasant surprises to be found, such as the time a certain female character caught me staring at her chest area specifically and called me out on it. The point-and-click elements along with the LIPS are what make the game feel like an evolved visual novel.
Like all visual novel-esque games, Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love lives and dies by its characters, all of which are crazy (in a good way), just as you’d expect of any game NIS America license. Here’s a few characters I’ve met in the opening that stood out:
1. Mr. Sunnyside – Your commander and a rather eccentric chap whose early queries of the Japanese protagonist include asking if you’re familiar with "harakiri" and telling you how it’s "not an option in America." He likes feeding pigeons, using random Japanese words to impress you, and being overly eccentric.
2. Captain Ratchet Altair – It’s a lady, in case you can’t tell. She’s the captain of your squad: the STAR team. One could file her under the "intelligent beauty" stereotype, except she pilots a giant mech, which makes her excellent “waifu” material. (She really does look quite pretty, though, even by intelligent beauty standards.)
3. Gemini Sunrise – A cowgirl from Texas that wants to be a samurai. No, seriously. She also has some of the best lines in the game, and is the girl 80% of you will want to choose as your partner. Watch out, though, because she keeps a horse in her apartment.
4. Cherry Cocker – A flirty bartender in a maid outfit. You should listen to her talk about rugged, stubbly men. Of course, none of those traits describe you, which means you’ll have to work for her affections.
5. Anri Yoshino – The possibly underage one. She runs a shop at the Little Lip theatre and is Cherry’s assistant in the STAR recon division. She thinks you’re a pedophile, which is always a great way to make friends.
As you can probably tell, so far, I’m really enjoying this game. You can look forward to impressions of the combat — this is a strategy RPG — in the near future.
Food for thought:
1. The English voice-acting isn’t as consistent as it was in Mana Khemia 2. Still, certain characters in Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love are really well done.
2. This is a NIS America localization through and through. At one point, Gemini exclaims, "Now is your chance for a rare stake in my rare steak. Get it?!"
3. Shinjiro probably has the most petnames of any videogame character to date. Shin, Shinster, Shiny…the list goes on.