All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.
Publisher NIS America sure isn’t afraid of throwing an off-beat, not-particularly-catchy-sounding name for a video game out there. True, after such punctuation-intensive, head-wobbling standouts as Prinny: Can I Really Be the Hero? and Holy Invasion of Privacy, Badman! What Did I Do to Deserve This?, a game-title like Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love might even seem like a few tentative steps in the direction of ‘normal’, but don’t let your guard down for a second. If you do, you might find yourself getting cracked over the head with an alternate-history RPG/turn-based tactical/dating-sim hybrid, set in old New York and full of transforming Japanese mechs piloted by cute anime chicks in various stages of personality disorders… who do Broadway stage musicals in the daytime (which, oh yes, you will be watching). Yeah, you better be afraid.
[image1]The time is 1928, the place none other than New York City—home to Masters of the Universe (and, by some reckonings, Center of the Universe in the Rent kind of way). It seems that demonic beings are threatening the city (big freakin’ shocker there, huh?); a special assault force has been cobbled together, and a young, decidedly-green advisor has been dispatched from Japan. Imagine his surprise when he learns that—in addition to heading up an elite, all-female group of mech pilots to combat the aforementioned demonic beings—he must also oversee daytime musical-stage productions, juggle the emotions and affections of four or five fairly wiggy American girls, and learn to cope with his otherwise everyday, Japanese-transplant, urban life in the great American ‘Big Ringo’—er, ‘Apple’.
Originally published in Japan in 2005 and coming Stateside for the first time, Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love is… well… pretty weird. Each of the game’s eight chapters is essentially subdivided into three main modes of play: Interactive, for characters to ‘mingle’ and advance the main story—this is also where you’ll see how your Broadway stage shows and interpersonal relationships are doing; Adventure, to meet new characters, visit new areas and explore mysteries; and Battle, to battle enemy troops in 3D, partially-destructible environments. Sakura Wars eschews the traditional, grid-based battle scheme in favor of a rather more fluid system based on Action Gauges.
Action Gauges are composed of a certain number of bars, which can be spent (or not) to move, guard, heal, or attack. When the gauge is used up, that unit’s turn is over. If you’ve played Valkyria Chronicles, you’ve also seen this same sort of scheme in action… although probably not set to quite the same brand of breezy, herky-jerky music redolent of the most faaaaaabulous show-tunes.
While not conducting ground combat in mech form, or battling air-based enemies in transformed, fighter-plane form, the player must manage the interrelationships of their team members, since team-combo effectiveness in battle is directly affected by said relationships. Same goes for the quality of the Broadway musical performances which the player must help stage and improve via scattered interactive mini-tasks, such as making sure the stage-lighting fuses don’t blow out during performances. Dialogue-based decisions, special-encounter side quests and a ‘Cameratron’ picture-taking mini-game will round out the many anime-inspired, story-driving cutscenes.
[image2]Players will spend a large amount—indeed, an easy majority—of their time watching simple 2D cutscenes and point-of-view interactions with the various characters, and making some rudimentary dialogue-tree choices to get on the various NPCs’ good sides… or not. In this regard, much of Sakura Wars has a very Japanese ‘dating sim lite’ kind of vibe, as players get to know the quirks, foibles, and (in some cases) deep-seated issues of the various pilots. This is not only played for plot-points and/or humor, but also affects performance of the team members when the combat segments roll around; members who have ‘bonded’ the most will have notably more effective “joint attack” combos.
As with many other titles under the NIS banner, Sakura Wars is heavy on the humor, ranging from quirky-offbeat to flat-out surreal: When it comes time for the player’s combat team to launch out onto the streets of old New York, they do so from launch-bays hidden within the bowels of the Broadway Theater, which grinds and deploys its way out of the ground like some single, massive hidden missile-launching rig. And of course, it’s topped with a gaudy pair of huge, lighted, mega-billboard-sized decorative lips, like something from the beginning of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Sakura Wars will also offer both English and Japanese audio options—another long-standing (by this point, almost obligatory) bit of NIS America fan-service.
Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love also devotes a fair amount of its story and dialogue to making humorous and refreshingly blunt comments on what it means to be American, what it means to be Japanese, and what it’s like to retain your identity as (or desire to be) one, among throngs of the other. It will be available in ‘premium’ packaging for PS2 as well for Wii in February 2010; join us in the front row to see our review of NIS America’s newest, oddest production. Break a mech leg!