Broadly speaking Sakura Taisen is to Sega what Final Fantasy is to Square-Enix and Pokémon is to Nintendo – a very special all-eyes-on-this event generating sort of series where the slightest whiff of a new release announcement guarantees immediate media attention and huge fan excitement that you can be sure will translate into an awful lot of sales on release day. So when it was finally time for the first all-new mainline Sakura Taisen to launch on the Dreamcast in 2001 it had not only a lot to live up to for the series’ sake but it couldn’t help but have some impact on the domestic fortunes of Sega’s final box of wonders as well. While it may not have been enough to save the Dreamcast (not that it ever could have done with veritable rookery of albatrosses hanging around Sega’s neck at the time) Sakura Taisen 3 was everything both fans and shareholders could have hoped for and then some, going on to spawn excellent ports of the game to PC and PlayStation 2 as well as stage shows, OVAs, pachislot machines, a spin-off PlayStation 2 adventure game (do check out Mysterious Paris if you enjoy Sakura Taisen 3, it’s well worth your time), and more merchandise than even the most dedicated fan could ever hope to acquire.
There are a few very simple reasons for this: The new Paris-based cast are a very easy group to love even for the most ardent of Teito supporters (I personally dithered for a long while after completing Sakura Taisen 2 because of this worry over the character change – and other series have struggled to cope with this sort of upheaval) and while the setting may be about as authentically French as The Swedish Chef is authentically Swedish the series’ relocation was executed with nothing but love and care – Sakura Taisen’s steampunk retro-tech Paris is a beautiful place to be, effortlessly blending iconic 1920’s tastes with madcap steam-powered mechs and world-famous cultural landmarks. Anyone with half an eye for quality will quite rightly tell you good design is always the true key factor when it comes to the strength of a game’s style but there’s also a palpable sense of lushness threaded through Sakura Taisen 3, from the beautifully animated full screen FMVs to the all-new 3D battle scenes sprinkled with an impressive amount of tiny details and destructible objects as well as the crisp illustrations used throughout the game’s charming story – the writing’s great and the designs are strong, but there’s no denying plain old money went into polishing this up too. All together this effort and attention made the game more than just a well-made new entry in a popular series, Sakura Taisen 3 set a new standard for the entire genre.
But there’s even more to Sakura Taisen 3 than “just” being a perfectly executed and spectacularly polished sequel, something that had always been there but really stuck out to me this time around: The depth to the characters wrapped up in this beautiful French bow. Even though this is a series where ideally a lot of your time is spent making sure the selection of women on offer really like lead man Ichiro Ogami the writing never fails to deliver an extremely well-rounded treatment of the cast found within. It’s true that almost every lady of any significance in the game can be lightly flirted with by Ogami, however the unbreakable rule that runs through the entire series – and indeed much of Sakura Taisen’s tone and personality – means “Ogami-style flirting” is at its most extreme “Nice man might briefly be a little cheeky if the situation arises and the player chooses to do so”. Even if you do try to push these options to their breaking point, forcing Ogami into the shower room when you damn well know they’re already occupied or staring at a colleague’s chest when given the rare chance to do so the only “reward” is a stern telling off and a noticeable lack of whatever you were hoping to see. And this isn’t because Sakura Taisen is yet another thing that’s been “ruined” by hairy-legged sex-hating feminists relentlessly stalking all forms of modern entertainment in a not-so-secret plan to suck the fun out of everything, this is because Sakura Taisen always treats the women within its demon-bothering stories as people.
Yes, Sakura Taisen 3 stands out in part because it writes its women as people: These naturally fleshed-out whole characters – presented in such a way to make perfectly clear that the very nice walking disaster lady with two left feet can also without any contradiction be a nun who takes her faith very seriously, that nobody is too old to be excited at the thought of a trip to the circus, that kindness is not a weakness – are without a doubt a core part of Sakura Taisen’s broad appeal and evergreen popularity. In this game women clearly exist as complete individuals with full past, present, and future lives that do not necessarily include Ogami and by extension, the player. This is further backed up by the timed events system used during the free-roam parts of the series – if Glycine’s in the restaurant enjoying a coffee and a fancy meal at 2:30pm and you walk over there at 3pm – she won’t be there. She’s not waiting for Ogami to “activate” her, she’s out there roaming the streets of Paris on her own timetable just like the rest of the Flower Division, and she is not obliged to wait for or share her whereabouts with you. Likewise a pleasant walk-around with Erica may be cut short when she suddenly remembers she has somewhere else to be – somewhere you can’t follow and somewhere you can’t try to charm her out of going to. This doesn’t mean that the cast are cold or aloof (or that becoming general best demon-destroying buddies with the whole darned lot of them isn’t an inevitability), or that Ogami is expected to creepily force his way into their lives, but that the characters here are (as far as possible within the limitations of the game) living, breathing, humans who have lives and responsibilities to attend to that extend beyond the scope of Ogami’s little bubble.
It’s not a shallow case of ladies playing “hard to get” counting as some twisted form of equality either: Women are shown – without any “Look how progressive we are!” fanfare – to be in positions of recognised authority: Consider Grand Mere; owner of Les Chattes Noires, commander of the Paris Flower Division, and also known by many as Countess Lilac – she’s a formidable person who easily fills all of her social and professional obligations with skill and grace. She’s not there to artificially make up a quota or to stand aside the instant a man shows up to do the job “properly”, she’s there because she’s the best person for every single one of role she fills. Grand Mere is also older and heavier-set than your typical game-lady-with-an-actual-name (and by which I mean she’s allowed to be over twenty and have more than 1% body fat), yet she is always drawn to look like the classy and attractive woman she is. Sakura Taisen 3 quietly reminds us that women do not have to be law-abiding citizens (Lobelia), sweet and demure (Glycine), or that cute kids don’t necessarily go home to loving families (Coquelicot). This fictional Paris is a place where women wield machineguns and axes and chains with ferocity and finesse. A place where women heal the sick with holy power. A place where women can be old, young, run their own businesses, and be the unapologetic villain-of-the-chapter. They are people that have skills the playable character, the leading man, doesn’t have and can’t ever acquire.
This care isn’t reserved just for the sort of characters who end up with a poseable figure or their face printed on a promotional poster either; in Sakura Taisen’s world there’s a very good chance the office ladies and gift shop staff you meet are also highly trained specialists in extreme fields, operating advanced machinery and performing complex tasks under deadly pressure with ease – nobody is less of a person here, not even secondary characters outwardly working in typically “invisible” service jobs. But the setting never confuses these hidden talents for innate worthiness either – finding joy in buying flowers, dancing, working hard in a normal job, or getting excited about something a character loves aren’t written off as the preserve of the stupid or the vacuous.
It’s important to keep in mind that this setting isn’t some misguided stab at creating a “Girl Power™” game either – none of this lady-centric positivity comes at Ogami (or any other man’s) expense; he is never portrayed as the comic relief butt of every joke or an incapable moron blundering through the game like a ticket-clipping Mr Bean. He’s never going to be mistaken for a perfect male power fantasy hunk either – he gets put-upon, bored, and readily performs menial tasks that do not glorify him or award him anything more than the satisfaction of knowing he’s done the right thing, but there’s never any doubt that he’s also a respected and capable leader who, just like the ladies, is capable of being more than just one flat personality type – the fearless Ogami of the battlefield, all righteous conviction and dual-wielding katanas and electric wolf mofits, is the same Ogami who wakes up with a rumbly tummy, spills coffee all over the table, and gets scratched by Napoleon, Les Chattes Noires very own chat noir.
Unlike TokiMemo and similar dating sims where the relationship being a success is meant to be absolutely everything to the game and the person playing it, in Sakura Taisen 3 no matter what you do or don’t do Ogami and friends will always at least be very good pals more than willing to heroically sacrifice themselves for each other if it means saving the world, and this means you and the game’s script has the freedom to go in for a little emotional push and pull without it being seen as a personal disaster or a failure state – a friend may not always be bursting with happiness to see you if you bump into them on your wanderings, but that’s just people. Everything comes back to the idea that Ogami may play a crucial role in the plot but he’s not the sole catalyst of everything, and that the good people of Paris aren’t one-dimensional automatons waiting for him to acknowledge them before they do anything.
When it comes down to it… it’s just nice to see ladies in games doing things that aren’t sexy (I should clarify: “Performing for the benefit of straight males” sexy) or being violently assaulted “because that’s how you empathise with female characters”. This game is the sort of thing I’m thinking of when I say I wish for more balanced representation in the medium: Not super-strong female leads desperately trying to prove they can out-men men, not role-reversal revenge fantasies where virtual guys finally get a taste of their own digital medicine, but titles where people of all shapes and sizes and every other pigeonhole you can imagine are allowed to be people. Sakura Taisen 3 is a lot of things – a hugely enjoyable adventure with wonderful characters in a picture-perfect setting, for one – but it’s also a glimpse into a worldview we could all have without any fuss or whinge-inducing compromise, and it’s pretty sad that something as controversially mild and inoffensive as “Everyone gets to be treated like a human being” still feels like quite a radical concept.