Sakura Wars Review – A Horny Mechsuit Soap Opera

Platform:

PS4

Released:

April 28, 2020

Publisher:

Sega

Developer:

Sega CS2 R&D


Posted April 28, 2020

Sakura Wars is not an RPG, turns out. I guess I shouldn’t have assumed. With Fire Emblem, Persona 5, Trails of Cold Steel, and the other Persona 5, I thought this would be another social sim/JRPG hybrid. But Sakura Wars bucks the trend by being part dating sim, part action-platformer. The parts are deliberately uneven; battles only make up 20-30% of your total playtime. Most of the game involves running around a steampunk reimagining of 1940s Tokyo, having conversations, doing small quests, and above all else, checking out teenage anime girls. One of whom is 13 years old.

Sakura Wars is a soft reboot of the long-running series. In a world overrun with demons, the only ones who can save Tokyo are the Flower Division. These five colour-coded young women and their handsome captain are the only people who can pilot mechsuits and fight the demon horde. And when the Flower Division aren’t fighting, they’re on stage! They rehearse and perform plays so the fledgling theatre they call home can stay financially secure. 

The game’s eight chapters are structured like a TV show, down to cute “Coming Up Next Time” montages at the end. Each chapter consists of a standalone tale and ends with a big battle sequence. This title takes place more than a decade after the previous Sakura Wars games, with an all-new cast. Not having played the previous games, I was able to understand everything, even when references to previous games are made later on in the story.

Some of the mechs featured in Sakura Wars

Despite the story being about an all-female demon fighting team, the protagonist is a dude. Kamiyama, the brand new captain of the Flower Division, is the only playable character out of combat. In battle, one of the girls, depending on the chapter, is playable alongside him. If you only follow the main story, Kamiyama is presented as a naive but passionate man who cares about everyone in his team, and will do everything in his power to protect them. But if you spend any time with the game’s many, many optional events, you’ll learn one important thing: Kamiyama is just so goshdarn horny all the time. 

This horniness is expressed through the game’s variety of gamified conversation types. The most standard is giving the player a time limit to choose one of three responses, which are usually: something nice, something mean, or a comment on how attractive a female character is. In another type, you physically move Kamiyama’s head with the analog stick to decide what to focus on. Do you want to look at a teenage girl’s breasts, or the bomb you need to defuse? You decide.

The most frustrating conversation type is the Tête-à-Tête, only unlocked once each girl’s Trust (a statistic increased by responding positively in conversations) reaches a certain threshold. These are presented as first-person private conversations with the members of the Flower Division. You move a cursor around the screen to select various elements of the girl’s bedroom, face or body, that Kamiyama will either talk about, think about, or in certain cases, touch. The girls, over time, start to open up and enjoy being treated like that. Once a Tête-à-Tête starts, there’s no option to explore platonic friendship, or even leave the room. You need to objectify these girls or reload your save. Nothing explicitly sexual or romantic happens in these scenes, but they carry a constant, uncomfortable sexual tension. I understand a lot of this stuff is part and parcel with being a dating sim.

But then you get to Azami, the 13-year-old ninja of the team (the other girls are 17+). Her Tête-à-Têtes are far less sexualised than the others, but revolve around developing an older brother/little sister-esque relationship using the exact same gameplay mechanics. You can help her open up about her insecurities. It reads like gross softcore erotica. I started avoiding Tête-à-Têtes completely after a certain point, because the sight of them genuinely made me anxious. I could say more about the lecherous aspects of Sakura Wars (there’s a female-only bathhouse in the theatre that exists solely for Kamiyama to watch the girls bathe because he “can’t help himself”, unless the player chooses not to) but let’s get to the combat. 

A Tête-à-Tête in Sakura Wars

Sakura Wars eschews the turn-based battle system of the previous games for a simple, if sloppy, action-platformer vibe. It’s all in real time, with light attacks and heavy attacks. Battles are the most fun when you’re mowing down dozens of enemies at once with your various combos. A Bayonetta-style last minute dodge mechanic lets you slow time and continue your onslaught. Fighting builds up each character’s ultimate attack meter, letting you destroy big health bars with ease.

A Morale mechanic increases your strength and defence the more you kill, and reduces it the more you take damage. Lock-on is a bit choppy, as your regular attacks will sometimes miss or collide past the enemy you’re trying to hit for seemingly no good reason. It felt like I was playing a PS2 platformer for the first time. Fun, but dated. But fun!

A battle in Sakura Wars

Each character plays differently, and that provides a lot of variety, but get ready to fight the same enemies and bosses repeatedly throughout the game. Not that I mind; each combat section only takes up around 30-40 minutes, so they felt more like palate cleansers before the next chunk of story. The higher your Trust is with the Flower Division member fighting alongside you, you get access to a team attack you can perform once per battle, but that’s it. This isn’t an RPG, there’s no other stats to keep track of, so it feels like a waste that the battle sections don’t have more of a connection with the rest of the game.

I’d like to quickly shout out the outstanding audiovisual presentation in Sakura Wars. The bright colours, cel-shaded art style and semi-realistic textures are always beautiful to look at, even when I didn’t enjoy what I was seeing. The game’s exuberant pop soundtrack is full of earworms I still can’t stop humming in the shower. Plus, the game’s theme song is a brand new cover of the same theme song from the previous games. Love a musical callback.

Sakura Wars

Sakura Wars

PS4
Action RPG, Dating Simulator

Positive:
  • Good visuals and music
  • The main plot is essentially a campy TV show
  • The battles are fun and exciting, if a tad repetitive
Negative:
  • You play an adult man attracted to teenage girls
  • No meaningful connection between story and combat
  • She's 13, for godsakes
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

4

Mediocre

I’m able to understand that my personal dislike of a game does not necessarily mean it’s a bad game. I honestly enjoyed a lot of what Sakura Wars has to offer. Unfortunately, that enjoyment came with a hefty dose of cognitive dissonance. The game is structured so that Tête-à-Têtes are supposed to be a reward for players, but I personally found them nauseating. Yes, this is a dating sim. Yes, these scenes are optional. Yes, this feels like the kind of media that makes certain Western gamers cite age of consent laws in Japan. If you’re a fan of the previous games, or if this actually sounds like the kind of game you’d be into, then go you should give it a go. But the bottom line is: there were scenes in this game that I found so difficult to watch, I was relieved when they ended. And that makes Sakura Wars hard to recommend. 



About the Author

Pedro Cooray

Pedro would like to apologise in advance for talking about Final Fantasy XIII-2 during a totally unrelated conversation. He really can't help himself.