Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Long Shadowed Cherry Blossoms

Sakura Wars, or Sakura Taisen in the original Japanese, is a long running franchise consisting of five main titles, numerous spin-off games, various comics, an anime mini-series and a feature length animated film in addition to a ridiculous amount of plastic merchandise.  Perhaps the most outrageous aspect of the Sakura Wars (aside from being classified as a "tactical role-playing adventure game") is the fact that it had a stage musical with the voice cast from the game reprising their roles in live performances.  Despite considerable domestic success though the franchise has never gained much traction outside of the land of its birth.  That said, the series has had considerable influence on a variety of games made outside of Japan.  Just to name a few, GTA IV, Wing Commander III, Mass Effect 2, and Dragon Age: Origins all utilize mechanics that made Sakura Wars so innovative in its heyday.  In particular, cultivating a team, earning their trust, and building person relationships in order to foster greater effectiveness in combat are key mechanics which did not exist before Sakura Wars.  Their is a whole lot else that made this series unique; some good, some bad, and some downright ugly.  Lets start with the good.

Set in a 1920s alternative history in which World War 1 never occurred, Sakura Wars focuses on a single cosmopolitan city (either Tokyo, Paris or New York, depending on the game).  The main cast of characters are psychically gifted and as such are charged with halting demonic incursions, essentially satanic cult terrorist cells.  In order to give these heroes a fighting chance they have been outfitted with steam powered mecha.  Cross a turtle, armadillo and beetle, build it a suit of armor using a deep sea diving suit as the template and you have "Kōbu" (or "Spirit Armor" if you translate the meaning of Kanji to Enlgish).  Personally, I find the design pleasantly refreshing.  Compared to the rather generic ultra-slick hyper-kinetic mecha that dominate the genre, Sakura Wars opted to go with much more bulky yet durable looking machinery.  It makes sense after a fashion.  If you think about it, psychically gifted individuals are a rarity which means they need to be protected from harm. While the Kōbu might inhibit mobility, and offensive potential, it greatly reduces the chance of injury or death.  Thus ensuring that the unit retains combat effectiveness over multiple operations.  Instead of traditional RPG style leveling up based on the number and type of enemies defeated, characters improve by interacting with each other outside battle.  Good moral equates to stat bonuses, making good management of the team essential to achieving victory.

So, what's bad about this game?  Well, for one thing the steam mecha are underutilized.  Color schemes aside there isn't a whole lot of other visual customization.  Mechanics-wise only the signature weapons of each character make a difference.  Here too the designers drop the ball.  I'm cool with the idea of these mechanized soldiers using traditional Japanese arms since the damage isn't done so much by the weapon itself, as a psychic extension of the character.  In other words, the weapon is a focal point for the character's innate power.  If you still have no idea what I'm saying go check out this clip on weirding modules from the film adaptation of Dune.  So, speaking in-universe it makes sense that something like an ancestral sword would better suit one of these psychic warriors than a more conventional weapon.  Unfortunately the game seems to abandon this idea shorty after introducing it since some of the characters employee pretty silly armaments, such as a holy-cross shaped machine gun or steam-powered laser beams.  It's a pity because there's more than enough variety to feudal Japanese weapons.  Off the top of my head we got a single katana, a daishō combo, the long-bladed ōdachi, the neither-here-nor-there nagamaki, the naginata, the yari, and the kanabō.  Worst comes to worst getting down and dirty with Aikido, Judo or Karate are also viable strategies.  After all, watching mecha duke it out (while causing extensive collateral damage) is one of the highlights of the genre...which is also why it's disappointing that Sakura Wars uses a bland abstract hit point system rather than location specific damage modeling.

Mecha issues aside, the character interaction segments tend to fall into the dating sim variety.  Eventually the developers steered clear of this territory when they moved on to make Valkyria Chronicles.  While an improvement, I think the best model to follow would be something akin to Telltale's The Walking Dead series.  It's interesting to note that Sakura Wars was one of the first to employee time limited dialogue trees, and it even had an episodic format (except all episodes in a season/game were sold as one set, so to speak).  Regrettably, the script writer seemed to adhere to the format a bit too much in that the villains of Sakura Wars fall into the hammy, Saturday-morning-cartoon category...and here's where things get ugly.

Racial stereotypes and the kind of sexism that comes with harem anime (you can only play as a guy and all the other major characters are young attractive single women) are problems.  Generally speaking , the storytelling is too reliant on overused character archetypes and cliche tropes.  Just to give a quick example of this, the first combat encounter of the very first game has your team dispatched to Ueno Park in Tokyo to stop demonic forces that are engaged in destroying a bunch of temporary snack vending stalls.  So, basically these bad guys are on the same level of evil as a bunch of mischievous teenagers.  Overall, the execution of the concept feels like it has more in common with Power Rangers (excuse me, Super Sentai) than anything else.  Any kind of dramatic tension is also tossed out when the heroes arrive on the scene via a special subway train...that leaps out of the park pond like a giant metallic serpent!  Let me stress, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially for the time in which it was created.  The thing is gamers have grown older and the new generations thankfully don't have to same tastes as those that came before.

Despite one failed attempt to market the game overseas it sounds like Sega still clings to the hope that Sakura Wars will find a substantial audience overseas.  The only way I think this can happen though is with a re-imagining of the franchise.  Replacing demons with the Cthulhu Mythos would go a long way toward giving the setting a time period appropriate threat.  Instead of romance being the main theme, I'd make it a secondary to keeping the team (of equally mixed gender individuals) alive and sane.  At the same time the setting should avoid getting too grimdark since the key theme of Sakura Wars has always been a blend of comradery and nostalgia.  Turn based strategic combat and a specially trained unit formed for the sole purpose of fighting off cosmic horrors might scream X-Com to some people, but I think this too should be avoided since distinctly memorable characters with compelling story arcs is the series strong point.

On a technical side it would be advantageous to integrate destructible environments and accurate damage modeling.  Some of the tech on display in titles like Beam NG Drive would add a lot to the visuals of mech combat.  Heavy use of Kanji and other signature visual could be adapted to a western UI in the form of roman numerals, analogue dials and fluid gauges (not to mention vacuum tubes).  The turn based combat sections of Sakura Wars were derived from table-top war games.  Another useful source for inspiration might be CthulhuTech.  Futuristic trapping aside, the setting material contained in this table-top RPG could provide helpful structural guidelines for rebooting the IP.  Just be sure to swap out cyberpunk with steampunk.

Like a lot of Japanese media, Sakura Wars represents a combination of interesting ideas tailored to an overly insular market.  Sure, the "Otaku" crowd love it, but I find myself agreeing with Miyazaki Hayao when he says they're what's holding the medium back.  Then again with a fresh perspective and a bit of creativity this landmark series could bloom again.

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