Written in 2019 by Kaoru, updated in 2021
Sega's Sakura Wars franchise is very interesting. Already having made first experiences with the storage space of the CD medium thanks to the Sega Mega CD addon, they decided one of the killer apps for their new Sega Saturn system would best be using this by making a playable anime. With stories set in a fictionalized steampunk era between the two World Wars, the storylines would be divided into episodes and feature groups of girls (attractively designed by Kosuke Fujishima) that form a troupe of stage actors as their day job while secretly piloting mechs to oppose invading demons between rehearsals.
It was clear that the storyline and getting to know the cast of characters would be the main attraction of the game, with the strategy battles taking a back seat to the visual novel narrative and possibly making the main character fall in love with one the the girls. Indeed the female characters became so popular that Sega quickly launched an avalanche of merchandising and spinoff games with the girls plastered all over, anime adaptions (which often where character centric), its own Sakura Wars Café, and stage plays that lived longer than the games. The surrounding merch probably made more money for Sega than the games in and on themselves, which often sold close to or even over half a million copies – very respectable for a Japan exclusive franchise locked down to Sega consoles.
It also gave the world one of the most inconic songs with "Geki! Teikoku Kagekidan".
The first game sets the ground for how the franchise would work. With the narrative being cut into up to a dozen chapters that would see the main protagonist learn to know the theatre troupe slash mecha fighting gals and develope relationships with them in the typical choose your own adventure visual novel style for the most part. But also finding an excuse to go out to the isometric battle field to kill some demons in mechs once an episode. It already offers the series trademark LIPS-system in which the games only gives the player a limited amount of time to pick the right answer to impress the girls in their new virtual life. The battles on the other hand are almost a bit pedestrian, being simple affairs that don’t seem to matter much.
The main character is called Ogami, and’ll stay such for the rest of the Sega console based entries. Meanwhile we are introduced to the original cast of six girls of the Teito Floral Assault Troupe: The series poster child Sakura, the haughty Sumire, muscular martial artist Kanna, the geeky Kohran, the mysterious Maria, and the little French girl Iris (don’t worry, her route is very in line of „big brother“ and the games are super tame to begin with). All of which have to learn some comradery, become a big family, and defeat the evil that threatens the capital. Told with plenty of still frames brought to life with lots of voice acting and a decent dose of anime cutscenes that stretch the game to two discs.
Sakura Wars later saw ports to the Dreamcast, the PC, and was bundled with the sequel on the PSP. There was even a full fledged remake on the PS2 that completely remade the game from the ground up.
With the first game already being more successful than Sega ever hoped, a sequel was naturally in the making. One which should land in the top 5 best selling games for the Japanese Sega Saturn. And which changes nothing, only adds to the existing to now fill a full three discs.
We still have a storyline that will be mostly told in visual novel form with some anime cutscenes here and there. Offering some free time for Ogami to roam the theatre between important points to run into the girls and romance them by giving the right answers before time runs out. Now there are also some choices that only appear after waiting some time or Ogami will have a longer scene with several choices in a row to make. The battlefields, which only account for about a third of an episode‘s run time, are still rather standard, but the second game at least adds combo-attacks and strategic variables by adapting different formation stances. Furthermore, two new characters join the troupe, the hot-headed Orihime and the German Wunderkind Reni, to help in the battle against new ancient evil appearing in town.
Like the other games, Sakura Wars 2 too saw a release on the PC and Dreamcast. The PSP-version has it bundled with the first game on one UMD. As long as they are on the same platform, these first four games even offer some little bonuses if you import a save from a previous entry.
In the same year that the second game released, Sega brought their new and also last console to the Japanese market. Naturally Sakura Wars was bound to get an entry there too, hitting in 2001 with the much upgraded third entry. And turning in a fresh setting. Turns out that the Japanese capital is not the only place in the world where ancient evil lurks, and Ogami gets lend out to help the newly established combat unit slash carbaret dancers in Paris get off the ground. Sporting an all new cast of girls with the machine-gun wielding nun Erica, the aristrocrat amazon Glycine, circus acrobat Coquelicot, widow Hanabi, and wanted thief Lobelia.
There is not much one could change in the visual novel parts, with the LIPS-system for choosing your answers making a return and getting an addition in being able to choose how much emphasis Ogami should put into certain choices. There are also now some group sessions during which the player gets the choice which of the involved girls gets their turn to talk when. The free movement time is now also expanded with Ogami being able to roam the streets of Paris in addition to the theatre building.
Sakura Wars always had a heavy emphasis on telling its storyline and letting you grow attached to the loveable cast of characters. The strategic battles on the other hand were more of an afterthought to give you someting to do between all the reading so you don’t fall asleep. But the third game heavily improves those skirmishes. They might still be few and far between but are a lot more fun now. The game has gotten rid oft he riggid grid based movement and now every unit gets a certain amount of points to spend each turn – the farther you move the more is spent, and different actions like attacks, specials and healing also consume varied amounts. This gives you a lot more choice on how to spend a character’s turn.
The only re-releaseses the third game ever saw was a port to the PC and one to the PS2.
We all know now that Sega‘s last hope in the Dreamcast did not pay out for them. And indeed, just a few weeks after Sakura Wars 3 hit Japanese shelves, the company officially announced that they would cease support of the Dreamcast and exit the console business. But the guys and gals at Red Company and Overworks decided to make one last game as a send off for both Ogami and his girls and the Sega consoles that had been so good to them. But with the platform more or less officially dropped, it was a race against time to get the fourth game out as quickly as possible, running short of a year between the two releases. Thus we really don’t get so much what feels like a full fledged game, and more a shortened fan disk for the franchise. For the first time a Sakura Wars game could be contained on a single disc.
We are back in Teito, back with ancient Japanese evil from the first game‘s backstory trying to mess things up. Ogami and the Hana-Gumi from the first two games get help from the Paris troupe this time around for a full set of thirteen girls to have Ogami finalize as their true partner. And possible mishaps happening should you import saves from previous games and decided to cheat on your Tokyo girlfriend back in Paris.
The combat ist he same as the fun one introduced in Sakura Wars 3 and the cast of characters is as likeable as ever. But the game is really short and does indeed feel cut. Instead of being split into almost a dozen episodes, we now have a three act structure, with each of those feeling more like we got presented the first, a middle, and the last episode of a game that mysteriously drops the rest.
Thus Sakura Wars 4 is a neat little closure for the fans that stayed true to the franchise and Sega for its six year run on their consoles, but feels a bit lacking when seen out of context. It also was only ever ported to the PC, making it and the Dreamcast the only two places one could play through the whole Ogami-Arc from start to finish.
Their consoles might have stopped finding enough of an audience, but the Sakura Wars franchise was still going strong, with the third and fourth game both selling around 300.000 copies. And with the larger installation base of Sony‘s PS2 being their new target platform, Sega had high hopes fort he franchise, starting the Sakura Wars World Project that was supposed to send the previous games to the new console, produce several spinoffs, eventually starting fresh with Sakura Wars V, and also finally opening up the franchise to the West which mostly only knew it from the anime.
Shinjiro, a relative to Ogami, is send to New York to once again build up a team of girls and make their clashing personalities able to work together. With them taking the stage in broadway musicals during the day and having to combat steampunk mechs to fight evil at night. Initial chapters mostly spend time getting to know the individual characters, later ones to wrap up the overarching storyline, and about a strategic battle per episode stacked against a lot of walking through the city to talk to people and possible romance one oft he musical-stars-made-combatants. Which are the cowgirl with her own spinoff game Gemini, the reserved androgynous Subaru, lawyer Cheiron, gun enthusiast Rosita, and the wheelchair bound Diana.
Gameplay is mostly unaffected. The large variety of LIPS-style choices from the previous games get yet another addition via quick time event scenes. Meanwhile the battle system from Sakura Wars 3 makes a return but the mechs can now also change into a flying form to spice things up with distinct boss battles after initial skirmishes taking a bigger role now.
Alas, Sakura Wars did not set Japan on fire on the PS2. Neither the full on remake of the first game, nor the spinoff to Sakura Wars 3, or even the new fifth entry met Segas expectation. Thus the video game side of the franchise was set to rest until 2018‘s announcement of a new one and plans of releasing games overseas fell through. Initially at least. For whatever reason Sakura Wars V was picked up for a release in Northamerica and Europe a full five years after the Japanese one by Nippon Ichi. They even went and made a Wii version since the PS2 was by now not a current system anymore.
The main series, like a lot of other Sega franchises, lay dorment for almost 15 years. But when Sakura Wars topped a popularity chart of which IPs to bring back, Sega did come through and announced a new game in the franchise. This time the West would even see it without much delay, though confusingly simply titled Sakura Wars.
Canonically it has been over a decade since the things that happened in the previous 5 games. There are combat revues all around the globe, with the Shanghai, London and Berlin ones actually showing up during the game. But the classic ones from Tokyo, Paris and New York went missing while fighting off a big demon invasion. So the task fallen upon the shoulders of young Seijuro Kamiyama is to once again build up a rag-tag team of inexperienced maidens. To set the hearts of the audience ablaze during stage shows in the rusty old Imperial Theatre, while blazing through demons in rusty Steampunk mechs whenever those decide it is time to stake another invasion.
Despite all the time since the last one, Shin Sakura Wars is surprisingly close to the original games. There are some QoL-Improvements made, sure. Like being allowed to save anytime or (if their trust is high enough) pick from each of the 5 girls to see their end instead of having to replay the game to get everyone's climax. But the player still gets to romance five arechetypes from the clumsy childhood friend to the hot-headed shrine maden, the shy book worm or the sexy starlet. The game's still 2/3rds a Visual Novel (albeit with full movement through 3D environments now) that follows a linear narrative while giving opportunity to get to know the cast and woo the lady of choice.
The biggest difference comes in during the break from all the reading: The fighting scenes. Those are now quick and flashy hack and slash Warriors style combats. Dash into the enemy cluster, mash some buttons, profit. It's not great, but honestly the combats have always been on the short, simple and easy side in the Sakura Wars games. For most people, the change in direction probably neither adds nor subtracts from the experience as a whole.
There are quite a few spinoff games to Sakura Wars, ranging from the more obvious ones to less related things like putting the girl‘s faces into Columns or an interface for an online messaging system. Few can be strenuously called having RPG elements. But arguably the main franchise despite often reviewed as such is already very low on those to begin with.
2000 and 2001 saw Sakura Wars GB and Sakura Wars GB2 hitting the GameBoy Color. Despite the technical limitations of Nintendo‘s protable system, they offer hanging out with the Teito girls and making them like you in the typical visual novel interactions and even have a couple of battles in them (tho in the first game they are fully menu based). Thus delivering a package at least close to the main games.
The DS saw 2008‘s Dramatic Dungeon: Sakura Wars. This spinoff is similar to Spike Chunsofts large Mysterious Dungeon series, but was developed by now defunct Neverland of Lufia and Rune Factory fame. The game sees the combat revues of all games come together to roam randomly generated dungeons and defeat a resurrected Jeanne D’arc. Unlike other roguelikes, this game at least doesn’t restart your levels and equipment on each new delve into the dungeon.