Sakura Wars for the World

When I wrote how the Sakura Wars had hard time landing in the Western world, I wasn’t sure if the series would still hit the Western shores with its soft reboot title. Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love didn’t exactly perform well and had the usual NISA quality bug filtering. Wii version lacked the original language option altogether. Outside SEGA fans and importers, the series was mostly known for its animated entries. Interestingly, for a long time American and European Sakura Wars fans were overtaken by the people who were familiar with the franchise from these animations, not from their source material. I recommend reading how much an uphill battle Cherry Blossom Wars has in the West from the post linked earlier, I’d rather not repeat myself too much.

Well, at least it is hitting America on April 28th at a first glance. Despite this being cited as a world wide release date, none of my usual European sellers, not even local ones, are even listing it. At least the official SEGA of Europe is listing it for 28.04.2020 release. Though nothing can be pre-ordered yet, and the pre-order edition is very lacklustre; reversible box sleeve and a sticker set. For a high calibre game, one of SEGA’s most prestige titles, this seems rather lacklustre try. Where’s the music CD and other bells and whistles something like Yakuza gets? SEGA knows the game has an uphill battle. Old-school mecha fans will probably pick this up for it being a Sakura Wars game, franchise’s fans probably already imported the title from Japan and are buying it just to support the title, and the rest of the audience has to be convinced by the game’s play and visuals. It’s a tough battle for the PR department.

SEGA’s websites somehow never look all that exciting.

Sakura Wars has high production values, that much can be said. The models look decent enough, though they don’t exactly convey Tite Kubo’s character designs as well as they could, but there’s spirit in there. They’re as animated as you could expect from team that said they’ve taken lessons from the Yakuza games. From what we could see from the demo and numerous game play videos, many elements are very similar in execution, from how camera moves and characters interact. There are lots of interactive elements and small mini-game events that play out throughout the game. The game’s, the franchise’s, main delivery however is in its Dramatic storytelling. That’s where all the interactive mini-games are spread around, as the player is expected to decide via the LIPS system how to talk or act. Sometimes it’s to choose a simple answer, sometimes you have to limit how much you you want to peak on someone. The Yakuza series is very contemporary and managed to break some cultural walls, but in all earnest, it is an easier series to approach just from visual point of view.

Usual LIPS scene. You could think options as Right, Wrong and Joke, all resulting in a different reaction. Which option is which is never in the same place for different interactions. You could let let the timer run out too.

The demo’s emphasize is on the adventure and interaction portion of the game. You’re expected to be invested into the story and the characters enough for multiple playthroughs in order to see all the different outcomes. This is is effectively the dating simulation aspect of the game, but rather than the game waiting for you to give an answer, waiting around is an answer in itself. Whether or not this is to your liking, it is essentially the main course of the game. Sakura Wars’ action stages look nice, but sadly have the same floaty and weightless feeling to them as the Sonic games the engine was lifted from. Attacks carry no real impact and camera positioning is not exactly user-friendly. A game like this, especially from an experienced team and big name franchise, should have far more polish and engaging action. The American and European audiences have been less enthusiastic about relationship simulation games than the Japanese, and while they’ve gained more audience as the time has gone by, the action would still be the more attractive element for the general audiences.

Famitsu’s 33/40 might be a spot on review for the game in Japan, with French Jeuxvideos scoring it at 13/20. If these are anything to go by, with the addition that the game’s sales dropped from second place to fifteenth after one week (latest Pokémon held the top spot), the gut feeling I have is that this game will be relegated to a very niche audience, which is partially already built into the fandom. Minimising costs is sensible, albeit always gives off a feeling that the publishing company doesn’t exactly trust the product. No English voice acting is mostly a cost-cutting method, as recording all the needed voices would add a lot to the end total production costs. However, it would have expanded the possible audience in the English speaking countries. We can carefully assume that the review scores will reflect the the aforementioned all the while giving it a respectful effort marking.

Maybe SEGA hopes to replicate success of Yakuza by slowly introducing this new action oriented Sakura Wars to the rest of the world and polishing it with each entry. However, the franchise’s relaunch in Japan first has to be a success in itself and we’re far from the point where we can safely say anything concrete. The reason I wanted to draw attention to sellers not listing the game, and me even wondering if the game was coming out on the stated date, is because the PR has been lacklustre. My small inquiry to a store stated that they wouldn’t know if they’d stock it, that a new and untested franchise like this probably won’t sell too much at full price. It’s not all doom and gloom. The word on the street is pushing the game forwards and positive word of mouth is the best thing this game could have going for it. I hope that this won’t be one-time game, that SGEA will put effort to expand from the niche by not only introducing new elements to the play, perhaps expanding the action portions by re-introducing series’ tactical aspects back. A niche and cult audience is a great a place to start, especially you already have a basis to stand on, but all those have to made to be worth something. SEGA needs that general audience to make Sakura Wars a success, but whether or not they’ll keep striking the iron while it’s still hot has to be left open. Well, if all else fails, they always could do a series compilation and re-release the previous games that way.

Sakura Wars’ uphill battle

If you’re familiar with some of Sega’s (and Red Entertainment’s) prestige IPs, Sakura Taisen, or as known under its official English moniker, Sakura Wars, is a franchise that people sometimes bring up when discussing game IPs that never got a real chance in the West. When it did however, it bombed for whatever reasons. Only the fifth installment was released in the West, and you can imagine how well that went. To make matters worse, if reports are to be believed, even Japan gave a colder shoulder to that entry than the rest of the series. So not the greatest start for this series outside of Japan.

First game hit the shelves in 1996 and was touted as Sega’s most ambitious title for the Sega Saturn. Since then, this particular title saw ports to Dreamcast, PSP and Windows. The game got an expanded remake for the PS2 with the subtitle In Hot Blood. Original release was also a massive success, selling out from stores and selling over half of stock available in a week. It was the fastest selling Sega at the time

Something like Yakuza had to build its fanbase for a decade before it broke through its barriers toward the larger markets. Initially, it was marketed and touted as the spiritual sequel to Shuenmue but since then it has been allowed to flourish on its own. As a concept, it is more approachable game than Sakura Wars. After all, realistic modern day Japan is more approachable as a concept than fantasy version of Taishō period Japan. While it would be easy to simply Sakura Wars as a strategic RPG with classical oriental motif, the fact that it heavily marries its gameplay to visual novel styled story telling and certain level of emphasize on dating simulation, it is extremely clear why Sega would have worries whether or not any of the series’ games would a success enough in the West.

Despite what the sub-culture would like you to tell, Japanese media cartoons and comics are still a relatively small niche in the West, especially in the US. Sure, they’re probably the most stable mainstream than what it has ever been. Everything from dubbing to free streaming has been made to open the access points for people with interest, but even in Europe certain other forms of media are consumed more despite the how much e.g. France and Italy experienced Japanese classics in the late 1970’s and 1980’s. That was the time when the origin of these shows wasn’t made a huge deal, that their source wasn’t something that used to market. The best example of this is still with the US marketing of the NES and its games, where some have come to argue that Nintendo of America intentionally made people think the NES and its games were American products. Perhaps it was because how well Japan’s aggressive business practices did against US businesses, or maybe just to keep things as a cohesive whole. The source didn’t really matter, only that Nintendo’s branding was there and visible.

Kousuke Fujishima was instrumental in realising the characters and designs, balancing the era’s mix of Japanese and Western flavours with the magical steampunk world. Fujishima is know for such works as Oh My Goddess!, You’re Under Arrest and working on characters in the Tales of series. At the time, he was a household name and further drove the franchise’s initial success

Sakura Wars is inherently Japanese to the point of its detriment in the Western market.

My point of Yakuza taking a decade to make a solid fanbase comes is important, as it initially had, and still has, the same kind of wall on its way. However, the constant positive word of mouth and Sega sticking to their guns and releasing all the mainline games, and that one zombie sidegame, and ultimately growing positive press gave the series a pretty good reputation. It also helped that it was called Japanese Grand Theft Auto at some point during the two latest GTA games, which made more people curious about it. more than few fans were made through that.

Sakura Wars has none of this backing it up. While it has a small and dedicated cult following in the West, that’s all it has. Japan on the other hand treats the IP with silk gloves, though later games in the series simply didn’t have the selling power the earlier titles had. Sakura Wars is an expensive franchise to make with all the animated cutscenes, all the voices that need to be paid, the illustrated works and whole multimedia thing it has going on with cartoons, comics, figures and whatnot. It was designed from grounds up for Japanese markets only. It’s cultural ties are its most prominent element after all, specifically designed to invoke certain emotional response from the Japanese consumers. This is similar how Ciel Nosurge uses Shōwa era to directly invoke nostalgia from its older players. The Western audience has no links to this age in any form outside historical oddities. It becomes a double-edged sword in the Western markets.

Imagine if some US developer would make a fantasy RPG set in a romanticised version of the American Civil War with romance partner elements akin to Dragon Age. Whatever its success would be in the US, both European and Asian markets would not have any connections to the era and treat it as some kind of self-centered, bolstering product. Similarly, a British developer could make a similar product of their great colonial days, and it would have the same reception. This would be similar how Sakura Wars presents its idealised fantasy version of the Imperial Japan that no longer exists.

This carries even to the music of the series, with its main theme is a mix of Super Sentai opening song and 1949’s Aoi Sanmyaku‘s theme. Most of the character songs later in the franchise has been intentionally designed and composed to be nostalgic period pieces with characteristic twists. However, the main, ‘Geki! Teitoku Kagekidan’, or ‘Attack! Imperial Floral Assault Troop,’ has been the most repeated song in the franchise and is the most iconic representation whenever the series represents itself. Project Sakura Wars, the upcoming game, even uses a new variation on the song, further emphasising the fact that this is a new game.

Compare the two song here;

The main difference is in the lyrics while keeping the base composition the same. Perhaps I should also emphasise that the Japanese title of Project Sakura Wars is translated as New Sakura Wars. Again, culturally the song hits the times, as it was used to introduce melodic composition back to Japanese mainstream, and was Kohei Tanaka’s first major video game work, and helped him to further his career. I must admit I have an enormous soft spot for Kohei Tanaka’s works, and probably should count as one of his fans. I even have GaoGaiGar DVD box with his signature on it. (He was surprised and asked if I had seen the whole series, and was rather touched to hear that it made me a fan of his other works as well.) Sakura Wars music is one of the more important works for him, and has been used to describe his body of works in Western conventions. But I digress.

Of course, one thing this series is known for in certain circles the most are its steampunk mechas, the Koubu, which the fair maidens use to war against demons

With only one low-selling game in the West, Sega’s best bet to market this game in the West is to tie itself to Sakura Wars’ popularity and status as a prestige franchise within their home market.  The series has always shown strong national and historical pride despite its fantastic nature, which probably will rub some small groups the wrong way. Unless this time the rule is that North Americans and Europeans can’t show national pride, but others can. The gameplay elements, with its strong emphasize what Sega has coined as ‘dramatic adventure,’ naturally will get the dating sim label, which still carries the whole ‘dating sim=porn game’ stigma that’s been around since the early 1990’s. To the same extent, no matter what the hardcore VN fans tells you, the general perception is still ‘VN=porn game’.

Still, as a certain Youtuber told me in a chat why he didn’t get into the series was because, and I quote; “Does that actually have gameplay? I sat down once for an hour and they just wouldn’t shut the fuck up.” Oh gee, another PS2 RPG!” This isn’t all too rare a reaction to the series from the two decades I’ve followed the series from the sidelines. Sony made a similar notion, as an yet unnamed company tried to localise the ports of the two first Sakura Wars, but were rejected by Sony when they categorised the series as text novels due to sheer amount of text compared to the game play.

Yakuza is the game franchise that showed Sega that inherently Japanese products can succeed in the West. With their newfound courage and willingness to serve a niche audience is always welcome, and perhaps there’s some hopes that they’ll keep expanding if the series becomes a cult hit. Then again, Yakuza visually doesn’t look cartoony and sticks its legs into more realistic graphics and setting over girls with magical powers controlling robots to defeat demons. One more thing that makes it easier to sell. Nevertheless, there is a niche for the series. If Fire Emblem can find its niche despite its low acceptance first, all Sakura Wars needs to do is to be present and have a new entry available.

While Sakura Wars had massive initial success, the fourth game was a rushed job and gained rather negative reception, while the fifth pretty much ended the series with completely new set of characters and new setting. In few ways, Sakura Wars is like Virtual-On in that you can follow the last truly glorious days of Sega end in misery

This isn’t enough as is though, it also has to stay true to its nature to keep that niche. Capitulating to trends, removing game play elements, censoring anything either during development or in overseas version or removing any cultural motifs among numerous others will impact how that niche will view the game, thus affecting how the word of mouth will treat the title. They also need to do translation and localisation in-house and follow Yakuza‘s later steps, as Sakura Wars; So Long My Love has the usual NISA quality of translation and buggy coding. The PS2 version came with two discs in the West, one with faithful translation with Japanese voices, and one that had NISA’s less-than-accurate translations with extremely subpar English voice acting. The Wii version is based on the second NISA-fied disc, so you might burn it. Sadly, the Wii version was the only version released in Europe, making Sakura Wars initial entry in the PAL region doubly worse. Then again, starting with fifth game in the franchise might not be a good idea. A soft reboot on the franchise probably was the best move outside complete modern remake of the first game.

There is hope for Project Sakura Wars to be best it can, seeing the development team is using lessons learned from Yakuza how to present the game, but it was also mentioned that battles would be easier to go through in order for new players to have a better time. This interview with Famitsu is rather good representation how carefully the new entry is approached, but perhaps it also the text between the lines is telling how they’re putting more effort on story segments over gameplay, which will only raise the wall for the mass audiences. People who play games for stories, games like Persona 5, probably would like their direction.

Sega will have to deal with Sakura Wars being inherently anime and Japanese, which are probably its biggest obstacles in the larger markets while being one of major selling points to sub-culture niches. The best way to build toward an expanding market is up start with a  cult-hit. I wish this series would see some decent success in order to ensure further longevity of the franchise and more localised entries, despite its niche status in the West. It’s an expensive endeavour for Sega, but perhaps the market niche is large enough now for this new Sakura Wars to bloom in spring 2020.

In the meanwhile, you can visit Japan and play that Pachislot machine.