I have a confession to make - my experience with Sakura Wars is limited, to say the least. Before sitting down to play the latest title at Sega of America HQ earlier this month, I hadn't played any of the previous titles in the franchise. While that might seem odd in any other case, since Sakura Wars is a game series with a long and storied history, I actually don't think that was an issue in this one. Sakura Wars (2019) is a bit of a reboot, and while it still takes place in the same world as the previous games, it certainly didn't feel like it expects you to have any deep knowledge of the world, its characters, or its history. Plenty about this game is different from its predecessors, down to its very foundation.
While I hadn't played any of the original Sakura Wars titles, series fans would tell you that the previous games were something of a Visual Novel and Tactical RPG hybrid - a modern example would have to be something like Utawarerumono, or the more recent Fire Emblem games. They had an emphasis on story, and really the gameplay segments were there to break up the pace. Sakura Wars for PS4 instead takes a completely different approach and shifts the combat mechanics to something more akin to Dynasty Warriors. Players still tackle demons in steampunk samurai mechs, but all of that action is now in realtime, with 3rd person action controls.
Combat is still less than the bulk of the game's experience, and I really only got to play one combat section during my hour or so of playtime. I had a few issues with flying enemies and a lack of a lock-on ability, but I was told that exactly such an option would be available for western players at launch, and that - at the time - the news would be rolling out for Japanese players in the coming days. Now, I haven't had the chance to test and see how well that lock-on is implemented in the gameplay - but I still doubt that the 3rd person action segments will be the main draw for players, and if anything they seem to be an attempt to better streamline the experience so that players can get right back to the real meat of the game: that being the dating sim elements.
Sakura Wars, when outside of combat, is structured quite similarly to a modern Persona title where you can explore a few pre-baked 3D environments, talk to characters, find sidequests, and bond with your party. Players take control of Seijuro Kamiyama, who is tasked with bringing the once illustrious Imperial Combat Revue's Flower Division back to its once high acclaim. The Revue's main job is to battle demons, but despite that, the majority of the gameplay is instead focused on their other objective - to ease the people's hearts and minds as a performance troupe, that puts on plays.
This is the portion of the story that I got to see the most of, where Seijuro and the Revue's Flower Division are tasked with creating a new play from scratch that could help put them back on the map, in order to bring funds in to help pay for both their theater as well as their combat mechs. Despite the game's story synopsis, what I saw of it leads me to believe that it'll be a rather light-hearted romp from start to finish. That being said, I was told that each chapter should conclude with a "high energy" combat finale, but the one instance of combat I tested was decidedly low key - I'm curious to see how the combat, and supposedly the story, may ramp up over time.
One thing that was immediately noticeable the moment that I started playing, was how slick and clean the title's presentation seemed to be on PlayStation 4. Character models and animations are energetic and filled with neat flourishes like the way that character blushes seamlessly come and go across their faces when embarrassed, or how their eyes might shrink or enlargen in much the same way.
Environments and the game's graphical performance are also very good, with nice clean textures and a - for the most part - very smooth framerate. Lighting, in particular, does a lot to set the tone here, and although for the vast majority of the game you won't be engaging in combat gameplay, the environments set a very nice atmosphere and really go a long way to sell the setting. Obviously I can't say if every environment will live up to what I saw within only an hour, but what I did see was very promising.
Much like any Visual Novel, and doubly so for any dating sim, Sakura Wars is absolutely filled with dialogue options, many of which will have a direct impact on how all of the numerous girls in the Revue think about you. Sega calls this the "LIPS" system, and in many cases, it works like a bit of a quick time event in which you have to choose what you want to say quickly with a limited amount of time to consider your options.
It's all well and good, and as an overall package, the game definitely feels like it'll be a charming and perhaps relaxing romp. I'm definitely interested to see how the full game pans out when it releases later next month, on April 28.