The History Behind Sakura Wars: So Long My Love (2005)

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With the Dreamcast long gone and done for with the company decided it was time for a change of pace. In 2003 Ouji Hiroi, creator of Sakura Wars and Red Company, announced the Sakura Wars World Project, a plan that seemed crazy enough to work. Starting from the ground up with their former competitors PlayStation 2, the plan was to recreate all 4 of the original Sakura Wars titles with the new and better hardware along with several side titles to add to the series mythos. If these brand new reiterations did well enough, Sega would shell out the money to finally bring the series proper to Western shores. Much was riding on the success of these new games. But fans wouldn’t have to wait long however as not a year later the remake of the one that started it all came about.

Unlike in the past where the original was ported over in a similar condition to its Sega Saturn state, this time everything was built from the ground up with the series latest innovations. Sakura Wars: In Hot Blood did away with the cramped box that contained the famous art and its place was the full frame art that had been introduced in previous entries. The game looked beautiful but how did it play? The ARMS system that was introduced in Sakura Wars 3 makes its triumphant return in its original state with a new paint job as the definitive way to play Sakura Wars. While the combat never changed, the story and gameplay surrounding changed somewhat. The plot was the same as ever with the some beloved characters and dialogue fans had come to expect; but one last edition was made. A new chapter, and a new romance option were added into to make the original more diverse and long form then ever before. And last but not least was the LIPS system. Taking advantage of what had been introduced before it such as the classic multiple options, analog meter, and point and click sections, it seemed like not much had changed; but it had. A new innovation for its time, quick time events, became and integral part to the remake. The new quirks and nostalgia the title contained made it the defining entry in the series as a whole. One that would judge those that came after it

And those would come soon enough. The first to come after was a side edition that would contribute to the Paris storyline. Sakura Wars Monogatari or Mysterious Paris was the beginning of a very different set of spin offs; ones that would expand on the story instead of the franchise proper. Taking place right after Sakura Wars 4, the game follows detective Kojirou Akechi and his sister Miki Akechi as they work with the old Paris Hanagumi to unravel the mysterious disappearances of several Chattes Noires performers. Forgoing tactical combat entirely the title would solely focus on LIPS-based scenarios and a few new tricks. A life bar was added, a series first. As you go along your journey and face several LIPS choices you may fail them. Fail them enough and you will earn a game over making your choices more important than ever before. Combat is still very much apart of this with first person dungeon crawling and rudimentary shooting sequences to spice things up. Compared to past entries it’s surprisingly well put together given its peripheral status, with full-on anime sequences and good production values to boot. Initially, a Tokyo counterpart was meant to be in development alongside this entry, but the game has since never materialized. Alongside this a port not a remake of Sakura Wars 3 made it to the PlayStation 2 with all its bells and whistles intact.

The animation department stayed intact too, although never reaching the heights that the film and TV series had set ever again. Three one-off OVA’s were released in this time period. First off was Sumire, a single episode meant to commemorate the retirement of Sumire’s voice actress, Michie Tomizawa, in late 2002. Taking place after Sakura Wars 4, Sumire discovers shes losing her spiritual powers, and must put on one final performance before her retirement from the Hanagumi. After that came two Sakura Wars 3 tie-in OVA’s, Ecole de Paris and Le Nouveau Paris releasing in 2003 and 2005 respectively. Each tells side stories about the relationships between the various Hanagumi members, from how Glycine and Erica met, how Lobelia was captured and put in prison, and who truly is the captain of Groupe Fleur De Paris. While having a different feel in the animation and writing departments, the three counterparts still stood up well against previous iterations.

Another interesting jump into a different medium came with the Sakura Wars manga. Coinciding with the release of Sakura Wars: In Hot Blood and written by series creator Ouji Hiroi himself the plot would mostly take pointers form the main storyline of the original game, but with a multitude of elements from other Sakura Wars properties added in. Kayama from Sakura Wars 2, characters from the stage shows, mechanical designs from Atsuki Chishio Ni and so on. Sakura Wars TV’s forgoing of romance was also used to craft a story that appealed to fans of the original and new readers alike.

But all was not well on the home front. Sales for the new entries significantly dipped from their Sega Saturn and Dreamcast heights putting Red Company in a perilous situation. If Sakura Wars can’t sell in the East how could it even have a chance in the West? In a last ditch effort the company hurried along two new games; a spin off and the next and possibly final game in the franchise, Sakura Wars V.

In anticipation for the newly announced sequel a tie in came into existence. Staring the titular yet unknown character of Sakura Wars V, Gemini Sunrise, the game would try to take the series roots and firmly plant them in another genre, hack and slash. The story would follow Gemini, the klutzy samurai, on her journey from her homeland of Texas to find her destiny in New York under orders from her master. But as all female icons of the series are her ditzyness sends her in the opposite direction towards San Francisco where she gets wrapped up in trying to protect a girl named Juanita from antagonists from Sakura Wars the Movie. All of this takes places on a curiously botched map, where Illinois is in Missouri and Tennessee is in Minnesota. The primary gameplay revolved around the classic LIPS but also Dynasty Warriors esque combat. Controlling Gemini on her trusty horse Rally the player runs around set arenas and fights robots with her katana but this was held back by many things. An extremely brief development cycle left it in a poor state. Unnatural controls, mediocre hack and slash gameplay, and Gemini yelling “Yah! Yah! Heyyah” ad nauseum left this to be the black sheep of the series. Generally regarded as a meaningless and unworthy entry of the franchise at large, Sakura Wars V: Samurai Girl of the West lacked the charm and charisma of the franchise in all the wrong places. But not letting things get them down, the series continued on towards the next entry.

And what a great game that waited for the masses. But what would it be; a full reboot or a continuation? Turns out it was the first one. Considering how Sakura Wars 4 clearly wrapped up the Ogami and the Imperial Revue storyline, and especially with the stepping-down of Sumire’s voice actress Michie Tomizawa, any new game would need to take on a completely different setting and cast changing everything we know about the series. Before that could happen a new title had to be chosen. Forgoing numbers from roman numerals, “Sakura Wars V: Saraba Itoshiki Hito yo” or “Farewell, My Love” is based off the 1940 American crime novel Farewell My Lovely. Having less to deal with the meaning of the title and more to deal with what it said, Farewell My Love turned out to be a deadly premonition of the future.

But the show must go on and thus, in keeping with this World Project theme, Sakura Wars V brings in a new main character, someone who is significantly different than our original protagonist. Shinjiro Taiga, Ogami’s happy go lucky nephew, is sent off to New York to command their brand new combat revue. But unlike Ogami, Shinjiro has to earn his keep at the New York Combat Revue. Compared to the originals warm and whimsical opening this time everyone except a few are cold and harsh to you from the start. This storytelling echoes the old American dream, picking yourself up from the bootstraps and getting back to work. This mixture of Sakura Wars 1 and 3’s storytelling makes for an interesting concoction, one that is familiar but can stand on its own. The plot also takes its own dips and twists involving a certain historical figure, Oda Nobunaga. Even though they can be cold he still has plenty of allies on his side. The klutzy samurai Gemini, the law abiding Sagitta, the gun totting Rikaritta, the paralyzed Diana, and the mysterious Subaru round them out and while 13 other heroes have already represented the franchise for nearly a decade these 6 new ones prove to be as original and imaginative as the rest.

Combat and LIPS are also as imaginative as ever. Essentially a new game based on Sakura Wars: In Hot Bloods technology, Sakura Wars V was still innovative in its own right. The iconic Koubu is out in favor of the new and improved Star unit. These can still behave similar to the Koubu but have the added functionality of turning into jets, allowing them to take to the sky for the boss battles and certain other opportunities. This is a novel but ultimately not significantly more exciting or deeper than the ground battles the series has been known for. Other additions come with joint attacks, more advanced versions of the series standard double attacks. There are also several other revamps to the adventure mode. Gone are the 2.5D point and click Grand Imperial Theatres and Paris, and in their place is 3D New York that you can walk around and interact with. Events pop right in the middle of the street and now there are multiple places to go to such as Central Park or Harlem. LIPS has been overhauled quite significantly with streamlined portraits in higher definition. The quick time LIPS has also been further extended to simulate Shinjiro walking, running, or even a sword battle or two. The Kinematron has also been upgraded to the Cameratron, allowing you to take photos that can move the story forward or bring about a laugh or two. Even series favorite Kayama is along for the ride with his Romando shop being sort of an in game tribute Taisho Romando. This new story, cast, and innovations seemed like they could propel the series past its tough times. But was that reality?

Unfortunately this was not the case. Even with a larger base of operations on the PlayStation2 it seemed the Sakura Wars franchise was finished. Selling a measly 150,000 units, nearly 1/5th of what the original earned, it was the true death knell for the series. As the world continued to advance toward a long form role playing gaming and first person shooter future, Sakura Wars was left in the dust. A product of the times, the franchise just couldn’t compete in the new global market. But was the case? Was there any hope on the horizon?

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