This coming April 2020, a new JRPG from publisher SEGA will be released for the PS4, entitled Sakura Wars. Does the title ring a bell? I’d be surprised if it did, because the Sakura Wars franchise has long flown below the radar of Western and English-speaking audiences due to many of the franchise’s games being Japan-only releases.
To the uninitiated, Sakura Wars may look like a new original IP from SEGA, and its combination of anime-style art, action gameplay, and life simulator elements make it seem like a PS4 release created to rival the immensely popular Fire Emblem: Three Houses for the Nintendo Switch. What most of the Western and English-speaking audiences don’t know is that Sakura Wars has been around since the 1990s, with the first game in the franchise being released in 1996.
In anticipation of Sakura Wars’ Western release this April 28, let’s take a look at the franchise’s history to see why its journey to the West took as long as it did, and why the Sakura Wars series is so popular in Japan.
The original Sakura Wars games released for the Dreamcast are set in a fictionalized, steampunk version of Japan during the Taishō era (1912-1926). You take on the role of Ichiro Ogami, the leader of the Imperial Combat Revue’s Flower Division, as you command your all-female roster of mech pilots and battle demons alongside them in steam-powered mechs.
The art style, premise, and even the voice acting of the original Sakura Wars games feel like an amalgamation of popular 90s anime series like Saber Marionette J and Rurouni Kenshin, making it popular among anime fans at the time. Sakura Wars was even adapted into several OVAs and eventually an anime series, between 1997 to 2000.
Gameplay in the original Sakura Wars is divided into an Adventure Mode and a Battle Mode. In Adventure Mode, the player can explore various areas and interact with NPCs, while Battle Mode follows a turn-based tactics-style combat system set on a grid. Adventure Mode also allows the player to interact with members of the Flower Division (which is basically your typical anime harem), and conversations with them are played through LIPS (Live & Interactive Picture System), which gives the player dialogue choices in the form of quick-time events.
Through LIPS, you can increase your friendship and eventual romance with any of the Flower Division members. LIPS is also used in critical events in the game to decide which ending the player will get. The Sakura Wars games have no predetermined outcome, and it’s all up to the player’s choices to determine how the story will open up, branch out and eventually end.
The Sakura Wars games have the same formula as many of today’s most well-loved JRPGs: you can go on dates, explore the town, and fight off monsters with your friends. Game franchises like Persona and Fire Emblem that use the same life sim plus combat formula have proven to be popular among Western audiences, so why have we never heard of Sakura Wars before?
The simple answer is that SEGA in the 1990s did not have as much faith in localization as it does now. Localizing a game costs money and requires plenty of work between the original developers and the foreign studio that’ll be handling the game’s localization. Due to Sakura Wars being a “cross-genre” game, mixing combat with dating sim and visual novel elements, SEGA couldn’t imagine the franchise being popular with Western audiences and decided that it wasn’t worth the costs of localization.
As a result of SEGA’s lack of faith that Sakura Wars would sell overseas, the first four Sakura Wars games were never localized for Western release. The fifth Sakura Wars game released in 2005, subtitled So Long, My Love, is the first Sakura Wars game to be localized to English, but its localization process suffered numerous delays resulting in a 2010 release for the PS2 and Wii, five years after the original was released in Japan.
It was the success of JRPGs on the PlayStation and Nintendo platforms in the West during the early 2000s that eventually inspired SEGA to try and have the fifth game in the Sakura Wars series localized to English, but it proved to be a move too late as the fifth game already had a new protagonist and was somewhat a spinoff of the first four games. It had missed the 2000’s JRPG wave that skyrocketed the popularity of games like Advance Wars (2001) and Fire Emblem (2003).
Despite Sakura Wars’ lack of English language releases, the first four games can still be played via Dreamcast emulators and fan-created translation patches. Through the hard work of fan-translators and programmers, the first four games can be played in Russian, Chinese, and English, among other languages.
The silver lining in Sakura Wars’ troubled localization past is that its latest installment is now being released in the West just four months after its original release in Japan. Gone are the days of SEGA doubting the overseas selling potential of their uniquely Japanese games (I believe we can thank the Yakuza franchise for that), and Sakura Wars fans in the West are finally getting their day in the sun.
The upcoming Sakura Wars, also known as Shin Sakura Taisen (“New Sakura Wars”) is a soft reboot of the Sakura Wars series, with its development team being a mix of the original series’ developers as well as new staff. It also features art and character designs by renowned manga artist Tite Kubo, who is most known for his work on the classic manga and anime Bleach.
Sakura Wars features the same gameplay formula as its predecessors, with an Adventure Mode as well as a Battle Mode. The Adventure Mode allows players to free roam through the city and interact with NPCs and members of the Flower Division. You can unlock special events in the city through side quests, and increase the battle abilities of your party members by spending time with them. The LIPS dialogue feature also makes a comeback, allowing the player to decide on the game’s ending through their dialogue choices.
The biggest change in the Sakura Wars soft reboot is the battle system, which trades out the turn-based tactics-style gameplay for a platforming action-based combat system which feels like a mix of musou gameplay and mech battle games like Armored Core and Transformers: Devastation. While a real-time combat system for Sakura Wars may cause doubt for some, let’s not forget that both Persona 5 Scramble, a musou game and Yakuza 7, an RPG game were released to critical acclaim in Japan. A change to the battle system can sometimes be a good thing.
Anime cutscenes, loads of sidequests and branching paths, and action-packed gameplay make the new Sakura Wars game something to look forward to. Whether you’re a JRPG fan or an action-adventure game fan, Sakura Wars will have something for everyone. Now, all we need to do is wait!
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