Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love Hands-On
When we're not fighting demon robots, we're chatting up the ladies in NIS America's upcoming fantasy strategy game.
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Sakura Wars is a long-running and popular video game franchise in Japan that combines fantasy, adventure, pretty anime girls, and mech battles. The fifth game in the series, Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love is the first to make it to North America on the PlayStation 2 and Wii thanks to publisher NIS America. As the young samurai Shinjiro Taiga, you have been sent to protect an alternate 1920s New York City from demons, and you're supported by a group of girls who are part of the New York Combat Revue. We received an early build of the game, and even though it takes a while to get started, once you get into the game, it's tough to tear yourself away from this combination of sim-based storytelling and strategy turn-based battles.
The protagonist, Shinjiro, is a fresh-faced young man of 19, who has been sent to the Big Apple to lead the Star Division, a group of fighters that operate under the guise of a musical troupe. Once we arrived at our destination, we discovered that the diverse group of women expected someone with a little more experience and authority, so our first order of business was to prove our worth by being the best usher we could be (all the roles in the musical were taken already). Even though the storyline is linear, your interactions with the other members of the team affect battles later. Similar to real life, you gain a bit of trust each time you say something that the other person wants to hear.
A feature used in the previous games, the Live and Interactive Picture System (LIPS) appears each time there's an event in which you must make a choice, and make it quickly. Sometimes you just pick an answer from a list, and in some cases you move the analog sticks up or down before answering and depending on your decision, it will lead to different story branches. If you take too long and your time runs out, you'll be forced down another path. You can tell when what you've said will have a negative or positive effect, because the girls don't hold back when it comes to giving you dirty looks or winning smiles. By building the trust between you and the other women, you'll be able to execute stronger joint attacks when the time comes to fight giant robots in the sky or on land.
During our play time, we participated in one battle in which we were shown how to operate our personalized mech to fend off hostile robots attacking the Statue of Liberty. Battles are turn-based, and there's a bar to indicate the amount of mobility you have to use to either maneuver closer to the enemy or engage in combat. The more distance you travel, the less mobility you have to attack or use super moves, so there's some planning required because you don't want to just run into battle without any juice left to fight. Your teammates fight with you, and you'll be able to control their actions as well and execute joint attacks. If the fight happens to take place in the skies, your mech transforms and has the ability to fly as well as access targeting missiles.
In addition to fighting battles and talking to your teammates, you will eventually be given a camera to take pictures around town. In the initial chapter, we weren't given a ton of freedom to wander around, but when we did have some freedom, we were able to see the sights of the city before having to head back to base--which is disguised as a theater and can transform into a high-tech battle station. Each time you move to another area, you'll lose five minutes, so if you have to meet someone at a specific time, this is something to keep in mind. When given an assignment to take a particular photo, you can also check your radio to see what themes you should be going after.
Playing Sakura Wars is almost like watching an anime, with a bulk of the game focused on the interaction between the characters and the unfolding story. It switches to a 3D battlefield when a fight is brewing, and you'll have the chance to explore the streets of Manhattan when you're sent on errands. The music is lively, with a distinct jazz vibe, and even though the game is supposed to be set in 1927, it takes a few liberties, but overall it's a fun setting. Although the game rotates between adventure and combat, it's like playing a game that's almost completely on rails, with some breaks to wander off and fight some demons, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. For those who aren't familiar with this genre, it's different from a traditional Japanese role-playing game, and it may seem a little bizarre and could take some getting used to. But the game was interesting enough to hold our attention during our time with it. Look for Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love when it is released on March 23, 2010, for the PlayStation 2 and the Nintendo Wii.