Innovation and strategy games rarely go together. The Pikmins and Advance Wars of the world only come around every five or 10 years. In between those major franchise-starters, strategy fans are left to roam the gaming world in search of something great to play.
Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love could have been that game. In fact, it had the potential be more than filler; it had a real shot at creating a new kind of strategic entertainment.
That shot is seriously damaged – though not completely ruined – by the game Sakura Wars wants to be versus the game it should be. It wants to tell a story fit for a romantic comedy: lots of girls, one heroic guy, and the added ability to persuade the lovely ladies in that guy’s direction.
When you’re not covering your ears trying to avoid one of the lengthiest and most boring storylines ever conceived for a game, Sakura Wars becomes the game it should be. At this time, you will be engaged in battles that are deep, compelling, and challenging. But those battles only make up a very small portion of the game. The majority of your time will be spent in chat mode, which effectively turns Sakura Wars into a storybook adventure that contains more trivial bits of dialogue than a Twitter feed.
Though I’d love to start this review by covering the battles, it would be a tad misleading to do so. After all, Sakura Wars physically forces the player to endure several minutes (20? 30? I lost count) of ludicrous dialogue before the first battle is even introduced. That battle is only a tutorial of things to come, so you only get to control one character even though there are several available. Throughout the battle, the silly dialogue continues. If f you don’t want to pay attention, you could miss important details regarding how to control the various mobile suits. When the battle ends, you’ll be sent right back into chatterbox mode, where the characters talk about nothing and expect the player to participate with the hope of earning the affection of a lovely anime lady.
While this is a decent premise for a game, the execution is depressingly flawed. The voice-overs are as bad as what the characters are saying; if you can think of the worst anime you have ever watched, Sakura Wars is probably worse. The characters get excited by minor things that, in reality, couldn’t even excite a prepubescent child. And then, after all that, the game adds the torturous task of having to run through the city and check various locations (the park, a coffee shop, a hotel, etc.) to see if it triggers the next chapter in the story. In most cases, these silly runarounds are used to kill time within the in-game clock, which will eventually point you in the right direction. But before then, it’s nothing but nonsensical monotony.
Sakura Wars attempts to pull players into the story by using conversational gimmicks. The first and most common requires you to select one of three possible responses; pick the best one and you’ll charm the ladies – pick the worst and you’ll turn them off.
Another involves pushing the analog sticks in various directions (quarter-circles, half-circles, full circles, up/down, etc.), all designed to impress the ladies. No matter what, however, it doesn’t seem to matter if you feverishly fight to reach the goal or leisurely sit back and let yourself lose because the game still continues. There aren’t any noticeable consequences for merely doing the best you could – or in truth, the best you felt like.
Despite the gorgeous anime-inspired designs of the female characters, no one in this game is physically or emotionally unique. Every single character is trapped within a cliché: a sweet girl, a tough girl, a curvy girl who’s ditzy, and so on. The lead character is so childish and annoying that he actually makes Cory from Boy Meets World seem cool. In every circumstance, no matter what you do, the characters’ chatter never rises above the level of cheesy, thrown-together dialogue that will make you wish you could skip every single atrocious scene.
You can’t, however. You can’t skip any part of it, nor can you skip the long battle animations, presumably because Sakura Wars wants the player to pay attention to the story. It’s that silly development desire that will kill the experience for most players, because the part they’re going to enjoy the most is the part they’re going to experience the least.
During the game’s brief but cherished combat scenarios, players will take control of several different mobile suits. The whole event is turn-based, and every suit is controlled individually from a close third-person perspective. This leads to inevitable camera problems that should have been ironed out. But by the second battle, you won’t be thinking about them. You’ll be too busy planning your next attack.
Sakura Wars is clever in its use of movement and attack limitations, which prevent any mobile suit (yours or your enemy’s) from performing too many actions in one turn. This is guided by an attack/movement bar that rests on the bottom of the screen. The bar is divided into chunks; attack once or walk a few feet in any direction and one chunk will be eliminated. Perform a combo (five hits) and the bar will be substantially reduced (by one chunk for every hit).
This may sound like a very simple system – maybe even a cheap one. But it is insanely addictive. If you’ve ever played through the awful portions of a game just to get to the good stuff, then you know exactly what to expect from Sakura Wars. It might actually make you want to endure the never-ending story just to experience the battles.
However, there is great concern players may never get to that point. You’ll have to suffer through more than an hour of painful storytelling before the first really good battle is introduced. For many, that will be one hour too long, regardless of the rewards at stake. And for those who can endure that first painful hour, what’s going to happen when chat mode returns? Will they be prepared for the rest?