I don’t think I’ve ever played a game quite as polarizing as Sakura Wars. While the game looks amazing and provides the sort of hack-and-slash experience akin to something along the lines of a stripped-down musou, it tends to stumble a bit in terms of tone and taste. I’m certainly no prude by any stretch of the imagination — I own The World Is Ended and love it — but the game’s inherent horniness seems to fly in the face of the serious story it wants to tell. Unfortunately, you’ll spend more time wooing curvy girls and encountering scenarios that wouldn’t look out of place in a raunchy 80s comedy than a game about people who use giant mechs to fight demons in a steampunk version of 1940s Japan. Of course, if you desperately need pervy adventures and interactions mixed with your hack-and-slash gameplay, you’ve come to the right place. Chances are, you won’t walk away from this experience disappointed.
A “soft reboot” of a beloved franchise that began its life as a Sega Saturn title way back in 1996, Sakura Wars explores what happens when a skinny, odd, sexually awkward man-child finds himself in charge of a theater troupe composed mostly of women. These very capable women also spend a good chunk of their time kicking demons out of Tokyo, though they’re not as well-respected or experienced as their contemporaries.
That’s where you come in. As Seijuro Kamiyama, the newly appointed captain of the Imperial Combat Revue’s Flower Division, you’ll need to keep the floundering theater open and financially viable while improving the girls’ ability to effectively combat demons whenever they decide to wreak havoc. As mentioned, the setup feels very much like a racy 80s comedy, complete with an impossibly dopey protagonist (who often feels like the anime version of a young Leisure Suit Larry) and some tonal shifts that frequently sprout unintentional hilarity. I’m laughing at you, not with you.
For the majority of the game, Kamiyama will deal with the comings and goings of his squad, from managing their insecurities on and off the battlefield to ensuring that the theater doesn’t fall into complete financial ruin. For example, when the theater struggles to put together a new play that makes the most of its new member’s sizable talents (ahem), it’s up to our hero to unlock resident writer Clarissa’s skills as a playwright (read: he takes her out on a date). And when childhood friend Sakura doubts herself on the field of battle, Kamiyama will offer up words of encouragement that help turn the tide in the Flower Division’s favor. These moments are a mixed bag of good-hearted cheesiness and melodramatic waffling, though it helps matters considerably that the game doesn’t seem to take itself very seriously. Except, of course, when it wants you to take it seriously, which tends to make for a very uneven narrative.
Managing the theater and its budding actresses will require players to partake in what boils down to a very silly and sporadically voiced visual novel. In fact, Sakura Wars feels more like an adventure game/visual novel hybrid that occasionally allows you to smack around hordes of demons. Additionally, you’ll also have the opportunity to woo the actresses in your charge, an act that seems a little inappropriate given Kamiyama’s status as their captain. I don’t want to spend too much time harping on this point, but watching the protagonist struggle with ogling Clarissa’s legs and backside as she bends over to finish a script comes across as creepy and downright wildly inappropriate, not funny or charming. And when Kamiyama considers taking a peek at Sakura while he’s hiding out in the girls’ dressing room, you’ll wonder how, exactly, this guy managed to land his position within the revue. Don’t get me started on the whole bath situation. Yeesh. How many times can one man “accidentally” wander into the wrong room? Seriously?
Narratively, Sakura Wars presents its story like episodes in an anime, complete with a “Next Time On” segment that, truthfully, helps set the stage for things to come without giving too much away in the process. The episodes themselves follow a pretty basic formula: you follow a central storyline, accompanied by optional conversations/quests that will help you increase your relationships with the trope-y Flower Division members. Most of these side missions involve simple conversations, during which you’ll need to make a decision about a particular conundrum (usually from three options) within a limited amount of time. Choose incorrectly and you’ll damage your budding relationship; choose correctly and you’ll charm them with your ability to meet their individual needs. You’ve probably seen this setup in countless other games — a little franchise called Persona immediately springs to mind — but Sakura Wars manages to keep the reactions entertaining regardless of which option you choose. Sometimes, bungling the entire conversation is just as much fun as saying the right thing at exactly the right time.
And, yes, a lot of those conversations involve something perverse, especially when you have an opportunity to romance one of the Flower Division’s adorable ladies. But let me just make one thing clear: Sakura Wars is only as horny as you make it. This is certainly great for those who want to role-play as a sleazy, womanizing captain who, upon meeting one girl for the first time, admits that he doesn’t know how he can keep his hands off her. To put a finer point on it, each episode plays out almost like a Police Academy movie: You’ll encounter goofy situations, sexually awkward characters, and scenarios you simply cannot take seriously. Then, suddenly, your squad must perform a very important, very serious mission at the tail end of the episode. If you’ve never seen any of the Police Academy movies, well, I suggest you sort out your priorities as soon as possible — especially if you like Sakura Wars’ brand of humor.
Every once in a while, you’ll actually get to fight something. As mentioned, this usually happens toward the end of an episode, though you’ll occasionally run into something the game refers to as “raids,” otherwise known as random encounters. For example, one moment you’re out on the town with one of the ladies doing something mundane, the next you’re smacking around hordes of generic demons on the city streets. And while you’d think this sort of horrific scenario would cause the people around you to flee in terror, most of the NPCs really don’t seem to notice that you saved their collective behinds from an otherworldly terror. And the ones who do notice seem kind of lackadaisical about the whole experience.
And this game really needed more action sequences. Sakura Wars really comes to life when it lets you lay waste to its admittedly small assortment of demons. It’s a pretty typical musou-esque hack-and-slash setup: you’ll string together simple combos using two buttons while charging up a meter that will allow you to unleash a powerful move that’s unique to whichever character you’re controlling. You can switch between two heroes during these sequences, though I never found myself moving away from Kamiyama once I discovered I preferred how he controls. Although you can easily button-mash your way through most levels, it helps to get a feel for your chosen hero’s combos, as you’ll often find yourself swarmed with enemies that, in large numbers, can easily drain your health. Getting into the flow of combat feels natural and easy, especially if you’ve spent any amount of time with the Warriors franchise. I even found myself heading back to the Battle Bot system, which allows you to replay battles from various chapters.
Sadly, this is precisely what makes Sakura Wars so polarizing. On one hand, I loved the idea of a squadron of mech-wielding soldiers who moonlight as a group of struggling actors. The steampunk version of Tokyo looks sharp and visually stunning, to the point that I wished I had more areas to explore and characters to keep me company. The combat, while not the greatest hack-and-slasher you’ll ever play, doesn’t disappoint, and it provides enough strategic options for those who want to do more than simply mash buttons. On the other hand, every time I became invested in the story, Sakura Wars did something pervy or inappropriate, which derailed its momentum. The game doesn’t need sex-comedy humor or Leisure Suit Larry-inspired tomfoolery; it just needs to tell the story of a guy, a group of strong women, and their quest to prove to the world that they’re a force to be reckoned with. Beneath the pervy jokes and eye-rolling raciness lies a tight, visually compelling action/adventure game, one that deserves a much better script. Sakura Wars can be fun, but you’ll frequently need to look the other way when it gets so many things wrong.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game. A copy for Sakura Wars was provided by SEGA.
When it wants, the Sakura Wars reboot can deliver excellent combat and a story that's both compelling and emotionally sound. Unfortunately, the game spends way too much time wallowing in cheap sophomoric humor to truly make the most of its strengths.