In the Saturn's Japanese heyday, Sega published Red Company's quirky Sakura Taisen and was immediately shocked by the popularity it garnered. Immensely popular, the game spawned a sequel, an anime OAV, and a slew of related merchandise. Seeking to capitalize on this series once again, Sega is retooling and rereleasing Sakura Taisen and Sakura Taisen 2 before shipping the much anticipated Sakura Taisen 3 for the Sega Dreamcast later this year.
The game was developed by Red Company, the team responsible for Atlus' Thousand Arms, it may come as no surprise that Sakura Taisen features one of the most offbeat, original, and unlikely of storylines. Set in 1920s Japan during the first industrialization and westernization of the country, Sakura Taisen chronicles the dual lives of the "Teikokukageki-dan." A homophone for both "Imperial Attack Corps" and "Imperial Opera Corps," this secret force is charged with the duties of protecting Japan from the forces of evil and entertaining the locals with impressive musical productions. Steam and spirit fuel the group members' efforts, as they battle in massive steam-powered mechs. Ichiro Okami, the character you control, is set to replace the Corps' current captain and must struggle through the attacks of the Kurosukai and relate to the beautiful women who scurry through the halls.
Set up like the first season of an anime series, Sakura Taisen is more about story and characterization than it is about battle. The game is divided into thirteen episodes, each of which continues the story and deals with various characters and situations. At the end of each episode, you're even treated to a preview of the next episode - a great device for keeping the player going.
The majority of the game is spent talking to the various characters and talking your way through the various quirky situations that are bound to arise in a female-populated attack force and opera company. As in most of the infamous Japanese dating sims, you're prompted to choose a response when confronted by a member of the cast. However, unlike in most dating sims, you have a limited amount of time to react - remaining silent is just as viable an option as the other choices presented, and it's sometimes necessary to maintain the relationships with the girls. There isn't any actual dating - as the captain-in-training, Ichiro, just has to maintain morale and keep the girls happy. There's really no way to absolutely fail in these scenarios, and the player's actions only have minimal effect on the story.
Morale translates directly into performance in the game's strategic battles - the higher the morale, the more damage attacks will do. A relatively simple grid-based strategy game along the lines of Sega's classic Shining Force series, Sakura Taisen has you maneuvering and destroying mechs galore. Each character's turn is split into two actions, letting you move and attack, move and defend, attack and move, etc. Each character also has a critical attack, which is charged throughout battle by the charge command and by receiving damage from the enemy. Additionally, Ichiro's mech can rush to the defense of a selected character, negating damage and raising that character's morale. The battles aren't particularly difficult for the most part, as enough healing and attacking options are present. Despite this, however, they're usually short and entertaining.
As a remake of a Saturn game, Sakura Taisen's technological abilities are somewhat limited. However, Sakura Taisen's production values are still impressive. Sporting crisp, high-resolution graphics and tons of anime cutscenes, the two-disc game is hardly at a loss for visuals. Red Company's flamboyant anime style is in full force in Sakura Taisen, bringing the world and characters to life. While mostly simple FM-synth, Sakura Taisen's music is catchy and appropriate for the various situations. The ample voice work is also of high quality in both performance and bit rate, and although the entire game is in Japanese, you can wade through it without knowledge of that language, as the story and conversations aren't crucial, and the strategic battles are pretty straightforward.
While a little low on gameplay, Sakura Taisen's focus on story and presentation is handled expertly. It's unfortunate, if understandable, that Sega won't give this series a shot in the US. An excellent game given its due once again, Sakura Taisen should please fans of anime, strategy games, and dating sims. If this Saturn remake is any indication, Sakura Taisen 3 will be quite a treat.