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Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love
Score: 83%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: NIS America
Developer: Sega
Media: DVD/2
Players: 1
Genre: Strategy/ RPG

Graphics & Sound:
JRPGs are like Lost. Those who love them can't get enough and won't shut up about them. Those who don't, see them as a cultural anomaly that can't go away quick enough. Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love is one of these titles, so if you count yourself as part of the latter group, jump on over to another review now... you won't like what the game has to offer and I doubt much will sway you. For the Losties of the group, Sakura Wars is likely one of the more unique JRPGs to hit the States in a while. It's quirky, a unique but overdrawn experience.

If you hadn't guessed by the screenshots, Sakura Wars is pure anime, right down to the inappropriate-for-the-situation clothing on the girls and long, drawn out proclamations before nearly every move in battle. It's not my thing, but it all looks really nice and will appeal to the game's target audience. There's a lot of anime footage spliced into the gameplay and the voicework is top-notch. I'm not sure if this says more about me or just my expectations, but I was surprised at the lack of theatrical numbers in the game. You'll see a few, but I expected more.

Though most of the game takes place via 2D images, combat is completely 3D. Environments aren't incredibly detailed, but are detailed enough to help the 3D portions stay consistent with the look of the 2D parts. Mechs are really big (bosses are even bigger) and look great.

On second thought, labeling Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love a JRPG is a bit of a misnomer. There's an RPG element to the game, but it's more of an interactive graphic novel mixed with a dating sim that just so happens to contain a strategy RPG tacked on for the fun of it. In Japan there was at one time a name for the genre, though for the life of me I can't think of it. Besides, I'm not sure if it actually stuck - so for all intents and purposes consider Sakura Wars a really different JRPG.

Without getting too deep into the story (like Lost, it's best if you discover it for yourself), you play as Shinji Taiga, a member of the Imperial Assault Force who is transferred to the New York branch, Star Division. The core mission of Star Division is to protect the world from demons. Since it is a secret organization, the Division masquerades as the New York Combat Revue, a Broadway Dancing troupe. As I said, Sakura Wars is all kinds of different.

The main focus is on building trust with the girls in the Combat Revue. The idea is girls possess the type of spirit energy required to power the mechs and use them in battle. In order to tap into and get the most out of the energy, Shinji needs to build bonds with the girls. The concept isn't much different from Ar Tonelico, though here it's slightly more involved. Instead of navigating through dialogue trees (though you will run across a few), getting to know the girls involves a series of mini-games attached to story sequences.

Between conversation and story sequences, the Combat Revue will jump into mechs to fight enemies. Yes, the mission is secret and yes, battles take place out in the open... but at this point, its best to just take Sakura Wars for what it is.

In general, Sakura Wars is entertaining, though only if you have a high threshold for sitting and waiting while things happen. Mini-games during conversations at least keep you occupied, though you'll spend equal amounts of time with the mini-games as you will simply be pressing one button to push through dialogue. I'm all for a good story, but Sakura Wars lets things run a little too long. The same goes for combat. The system is complex and entertaining, but drag thanks to a few long-winded cinematics during fights.

Building trust is an integral part of gameplay. The strength of the bond between girls and Shinji has a direct impact on the amount of damage attacks do in combat. There are a lot of ways conversations can go and there's a chance more socially awkward players may trip up a few times while trying to converse with the girls. Okay, not really... but you will have to spend a lot of time figuring out each girl's personality and hitting the right notes. Though you're somewhat limited by what you can say and do, it's quite hard figuring out what will appeal to each girl. Some of the choices are cut and dry, but once you get below the surface, some choices will really throw you for a loop.

How well you perform during conversations has a direct impact on how you fare in battle. If you continually strike out with the girls (and it's possible), your joint attacks won't do as much damage and you'll have a harder time getting through fights.

Game Mechanics:
A large part of the game is spent talking to the girls using a variety of mini-games called the Live and Interactive Picture System (LIPS). Some games involve going through more-traditional dialogue trees, though others throw different mechanics at you. In certain parts, you're presented with a static picture of the girl and a magnifying glass. The idea is to place the cursor on certain objects and bring them to the girl's attention. If you hit the right part, a chime will let you know you're on the right path. Of course, you need to be careful when touching the girls. A tap on the arm can easily... well, just be careful about where you put the cursor. Unless, of course, the girl's personality... it's really hard to talk about the system without sounding like a sleaze. Just be mindful of what's going on.

Other conversations offer a short amount of time to make conversation choices, though the system goes slightly beyond choosing the right dialogue option. Most require pressing buttons or matching marks on a gauge using the Analog Sticks. Decisions are timed and if you screw up... well, you'll know when you do. If you're a fan of long conversations the system is great, but as I said previously it tends to drag.

Combat is fairly straightforward if you've ever played a Strategy RPG, but with a few changes. Movement isn't grid-based and offers semi-free movement through battlefields. Each time you move or attack, a dynamic bar depletes a little, showing how many actions you can make during your turn. Effective combat requires planning, especially when you begin to get into multi-hit attacks, super attacks and link attacks. The overall goal is to get as many units into one section, allowing you to pull off successive link attacks for more damage.

Though I've seen the elements in other games, Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love is unlike any game I've ever played. It's entertaining and fun, but only for so long. There's only so much waiting around a player can take. If long conversations, mechs and anime girls sounds like your kind of thing, Sakura Wars is for you.

-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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