Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love is the fifth game in the long-running Japanese videogame and anime franchise "Sakura Taisen" and the first to get a localisation in both the US and Europe on both the PS2 and the Wii last year. The previous instalments were (and sadly still are) all only available in Japan and have amassed quite a following up to today. Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love is a seemingly obscure game but is it one worth checking out? Read on to find out.
To begin with, this game or rather this series altogether is very..unique, especially for anyone outside of Japan. It is a mix of Strategy-RPG, visual novel and dating sim. That said, anyone looking for a "hardcore" Strategy-RPG will almost certainly end up disappointed with Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love because that's not where its strength and charm lies. It is a very story-driven game, so most of the time you'll simply be following the story and making choices that will, hopefully positively, affect your relationships with the different girls in the game. The battles are simply a welcome change of pace and nothing overly special but that's not what they're supposed to be.
The game plays during the year 1928 in an alternate universe which is similar to the real world but much more advanced. You take control of a 19 year-old Japanese naval officer, Shinjiro Taiga, who departs to New York to join the New York Combat Revue Star Division, which is an organisation devoted to protecting the city of New York and keeping the spirits of its residents up at the same time by performing musicals in a theater. Things start out good with only occasional attacks on the city from hostile robots that can be easily dealt with but it slowly seems that there's something much bigger than that. I won't go into detail to avoid spoiling anything but anyone who is familiar with JRPGs should know what to expect just when the words "ancient evil" are said. However, that's not to say that it's yet again a cliche JRPG story, because the interaction with the characters you meet along the way are what make up the best part story, or rather of the entire game.
Throughout the game, you'll have to get along with the girls you meet by making the right choices and slowly understanding and unveiling their real personalities. Making those choices is done by timed LIPS, or Live & Interactive Picture System. There exist four forms of these LIPS to interact with other characters or deal with situations. First, you have your basic LIPS, where you are presented with 1-3 choices. Those can be things that you say or do. Secondly, there are Analog LIPS where you can raise an action gauge, ranging from 0-100%, up or down depending on the situation. A basic example: If you want to say something and are given an Analog LIPS, 100% means you'll say it very loud or even scream, 50% means you'll say it normally, 0% means that you'll say it very silently or nothing at all and so on. It's not just the volume that is affected by that though. You also sound more or less motivated depending on the percentage you choose. Then, there are Stick LIPS which require you to rotate the Control Sticks in a given way. These are used to do actions like repairing things or even simply making coffee. The outcome of those Stick LIPS sequences affects how well Shinjiro is going to do that particular task. There's however one very annoying thing about these Stick LIPS. Remember how I wrote "Control Sticks" before? You may know that the Wiimote + Nunchuck combo only gets you one control stick so you have to use the d-pad as well which is fine for directional input but when you're required to do circular motion inputs within a time limit then it gets really hard. A Classic Controller Pro is almost required to do well in all of these parts. Be warned though, as there are no on-screen instructions even if you have a CC Pro plugged in, so you have to find out what each button does yourself. You also still need the Wiimote for the fourth type of LIPS, which are called Click LIPS. There you simply need to point and click on things on the screen you want to interact with or look at. You better watch out where you are clicking when looking at a girl though, as that could have some very unfortunate results for you.
These four types of LIPS make up a big part of the game and influence your relationships with the various girls on your team. Doing well on a task that a girl asked you do or saying the things they want you to say will net you trust points, indicated by a little tune that plays everytime your relationship with that particular girl improves. However, you can also get negative trust points (that play a different tune) by screwing up, being a jerk or simply not saying what the girl wanted. Getting to understand their personalities to earn more trust points is key here because those will ultimately affect your overall performance in the various battle sequences, usually at the end of each chapter.
Yes, you just read right. You don't to need kill enemies for experience points or anything like that in this game. The better you get along with the girls, the stronger you'll be in battle. Make the right choices and you'll soon find yourself kicking ass during battles, along with your female team members. During these battles, you fight inside of mechanized two-legged suits called STARs. Everything is turn-based but it's not quite as simple as simply selecting your action and your target. You get a set amount of action points every turn (depending on your accumulated trust points) that you can use to move around, do normal combos, special attacks or Joint attacks (which I'll get into later). While moving, these action points aren't used up unless you attack. You can freely move everywhere in your range and scout without using up any of them. Say there's an enemy rather close to you. If you go there and need 2 action points for moving there and an extra one for performing your special move then all three of them will be used. Then, you have your basic stats such as HP, SP(Special Points), Attack, Defense and Speed. All of those should be obvious to anyone reading this here so I'll spare myself explaining basic stats that are in virtually every RPG. However, it should be noted that there are no items or anything in this game, so to recover HP or SP you have to use up action points to heal or charge your SP.
You have a couple of actions you can do if you want to attack your enemy. You can chain up to 5 basic combo attacks, each using up one action point, use a devastating special attack that uses up approximately 85% of your SP or special Joint attacks. With those, you can attack over a wide area and it's pretty much the feature that seperates the experts from the beginners. To begin with, these Joint attacks get stronger or weaker based on the relationship between the two characters so making sure that you and all your teammates get along well is crucial. If the trust between the two characters is high then Joint attacks will be just as powerful as special moves but with a much wider range, capable of hitting multiple targets and only at the cost of about 15-20% of your SP. Using Joint attacks between your female members is a good way to increase their relationships so the earlier you start doing those, the stronger you'll be later on.
You can also choose between three strategies for your team to follow. These are "Shin", "Gi" and "Tai". Shin is offensive and increases your attack but you can't heal anymore. Gi is flexible and increases your speed while still being able to use Healing and Special Attacks. Tai is defensive and increases your Defense but your special attacks can't be used anymore. Using the correct strategy in the correct situation can make battles so much easier and quicker for you but you should never get cocky, even though the fights are generally on the easy side given that you weren't a total jerk with the girls. Using the offensive strategy Shin disables your heal and you can only change the strategy with Shinjiro so you have to stick with it till his next turn. I generally stick with Gi just to be safe because losing a teammate means negative trust points for you plus you lose that member for the rest of the fight. You also have two more commands during combat, which are "Help Me!" and "Protect!". With "Help Me!" you can call a girl to your side once a battle to get her out of a difficult situation or simply to save valuable action points and time by getting her to a key location. "Protect!" lets you protect a teammate of your choice up to three times a battle. While protecting you take no damage and the girl doesn't either, so it's a good strategy if you want to place both of them up in the face of a boss and attack away for one or more turns. Both of these commands improve the relationship with the girl you use them on, so make sure you use them up each battle even though you don't need them.
That's pretty much it as far as combat goes. There are some things to master but nothing overly deep, so don't go into this game expecting something that rivals Fire Emblem games. Like I said earlier, battles don't take up the majority of the game and should be viewed as a change of pace rather than a key gameplay element. They usually consist of two or more parts where you fight minions first and then the boss in one or more phases.
Graphically, it should be noted that this is a port of a PS2 game and that's just how it looks. The dialogue scenes consist of flat anime pictures of the people you are talking to and a little circle left in the dialogue box where you can see Shinjiro's reaction. I personally much prefer it that way as the 3D models aren't overly pretty but that's understandable. That's not to say that they aren't looking good at all though. 3D models in combat look good and special attacks are over the top (some even lasting up to a minute) like you would expect from a game of the genre. However, these are often so insane with so many effects that it's apparently too much for the game to handle so everything slows down to sometimes even extremely low FPS rates. These are really only for some major boss special attacks though and you can skip the entire animation once you've seen it at least once so it's not a game-breaker. There are also a good amount of CG movies that are top notch anime quality and leave you with a desire for more.
The soundtrack of Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love is excellent and perfectly captures the emotion of each scene or the personality of each character that has his/her own theme. I actually got quite emotional at some points in the story. During battles you'll hear some great relatively fast-paced tracks that get you really motivated while walking around the city during "Free Movement" is supported by mellow music. This version of the game features English voice acting only which is fantastic. The voices fit the characters perfectly, convey lots of different emotions and are generally just well done. The PS2 release came with two discs, one featuring the original Japanese voices but with such brilliant English voicework I wasn't longing for the original dubs at all.
"Free Movement", that I just mentioned in the previous paragraph is another feature in this game. During those parts in the game, you can move in up to five small districts of New York and go to different places. You usually only have a limited amount of time and each visit to a location costs 5 minutes so you better make good use of those to talk to the girls and improve your relationships with them.
Should you screw up a Stick LIPS or (unintentionally) act like a jerk, you can make use of a handy "Discontinue" feature anytime during a conversation. You can always reset and start from there, so it's not similar to quicksave features found in other games. There is only one Discontinue save though, so only overwrite a previous one between save points when you're sure that you didn't screw up a lot.
A normal playthrough lasts for about 20 hours and you'll be playing this for up to 60-70 hours if you want to get everything. There are 6 possible endings in total, a ton of unlockable CG scenes, pictures that you can obtain and much more. You can have a look at everything once you've completed the game once to see if you're still missing something. Saving in different slots to get different endings or scenes without having to replay the entire game is also a very good idea.
Summing up, Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love is a very entertaining experience that combines elements of a Strategy-RPG, dating sim and visual novel. The characters all have very well put together background stories and character development and combat is a fun change of pace during the usual conversations and watching the story unfold. The graphics are very good and should please any fan of anime/manga and the English voicework is downright fantastic. This is a game very well worth checking out for any fellow Otakus and it definitely deserves the score I awarded it, given the right audience. For anyone not fond of the dating sim and visual novel genres, deduct 1 or even 2 points from my final score because you likely won't enjoy the game as much as the target audience and the Strategy-RPG parts aren't enough to make up for it if you aren't interested in the other parts of the game.