When you have a huge hit on your hands the inevitable sequel becomes as much of a problem as it is a chance to expand on the ideas and story you so carefully crafted the first time around. Do you play it safe, and run the risk of being accused of reheating previous experiences? Or do you give it your all, knowing that to do so will no doubt anger those who loved the original exactly as it was? And this is before we consider that something as popular as Sakura Wars had already generated significant quantities of merchandise, goodwill, and frankly money – all of which only put further pressures on a team that were already bound to upset some group of Sakura Wars fans no matter what they did purely due to how many of them eagerly awaiting the next installment in their new favourite franchise.
So, how did they solve this problem?
The first thing they did was simple enough: Throw money at it. Sakura Wars 2 was an extravagant tale released mere months before the Dreamcast appeared in Japan, one that used its sprawling three discs of data not to greatly elongate a proven successful formula but to cram as much of everything in there in as high a quality as possible: Character art was not only expanded to include more expressions but also completely redrawn, even though some of the improvements are seemingly minor adjustments to posture and posing. There were plentiful costume changes, characters changing into evening or summer wear or being seen in a new outfit for a one-off event just because it suited that particular moment in time better (there’s actually a funny question from a fictitious fan in the previously released Steam Radio Show asking the fashionable Sumire why she only wears the one outfit all year round when it’s not a uniform). The isometric battles returned with a few new ideas and impressive 3D models of the koubu (steampunk-ish mechs) for their special attacks, each new tier – and there are three koubu changes this time around – more spectacular than the last.
And if that had been the pretty new bow wrapped around a predictable experience then Sakura Wars 2 would have been nice enough. But that was not the end of the game’s ambitions. This new entry wanted to take the series forward, do to something meaningful with its second shot.
It did this by building everything upon a much darker foundation than the first game ever had, resurrecting the first game’s last boss only for someone even more powerful to kill them swiftly, easily, and for good. Aoi Satan – once known as Shinnosuke Yamazaki, the previously unnamed man in Yoneda’s pre-Flower Division group, the same one that included Sakura’s father – is run through with little effort by the Demon Lord at the end of the first battle, the story making clear that all of your past struggles were insignificant compared to the challenges that lie ahead. Keigo Kyougoku, the true mastermind behind both the earthly and unearthly challenges the Flower Division face, fakes his own suicide using a body double after a failed coup, Sakura Wars 2 taking the time to share a unique event graphic of the grim scene, gun in hand and his head slumped in a pool of blood on his desk. It’d be shocking in any game, but here it feels almost sacrilegious. There are even realistic problems for the group to content with, questions about duty, sacrifice, and financial support. In isolation this could be taken as the usual gaming stab at maturity, a cry to take a series seriously, as “art”. But here the changes run deeper than violence and death, and are perfectly captured by its two new stars, Orihime Soletta and Reni Milchstraße.
They’re conveniently “others” brought in from the European Star Division, and initially operate differently designed koubu and wear different uniforms. For the first time ever we are put in the position of not just supporting people already knowledgeable of and committed to their roles, but true newcomers to the team. And so the only thing to do is to make sure Ogami is as thoroughly Flower Division as possible, offering unwavering trust and friendship backed up by constant affirmations that if only we support each other and ganbatte the heck out of everything then it’ll all turn out fine. Except… what do you do when the newcomers aren’t interested in playing along with the usual positive mood? When Orihime storms out during her own introduction; already bored with everyone, dissatisfied with the theatre, and vocalising a dislike of Japanese men? When Reni responds to every attempt to speak to them with a conversation-killing “…” and “…yes.” and won’t even play with the Flower Division’s newly adopted adorable puppy?
These traits aren’t endearing, they go against the camaraderie that lies at the series’ heart, and you have nothing in your Ogami tool box to combat them. If you’re nice then they’re supposed to be nice back. That’s the rules. Orihime has got no business shouting at Iris or behaving like she’s above everyone else and Reni isn’t even making an effort to engage with anyone unless conflict’s involved, and then it’s all targets and orders. The contrast between the old favourites and these new upsetters is felt all the more keenly thanks to an impeccably timed lively group chat with Kohran, Kanna, Sumire, and Maria via kinematron (a portable steampunk-y video phone housed in an attractive wooden box about the size of… let’s say a small briefcase), and you end up pining for old friends and resenting these newcomers who won’t even act like they’re in the same game.
And it’s all by design. Both have valid reasons for their behaviour: Orihime views Japan and the people within it with such disdain because her Japanese father left when she was young, leaving her Italian mother alone (and it turns out he was made to leave, he didn’t want to). Reni grew up surrounded by scientists experimenting on her, her lack of social skills and interest only in battle very much part of (someone else’s) successful design. The answer to both of these “problems” is not that these people need to be nicer but that Ogami’s got a lot of work to do: He’s here to make the Flower Division a functional team, and he was nothing more than lucky when everyone was so compliant and willing to work with him last time.
And so the emotional lows are lower, but by giving you real struggles to overcome the highs are also so much higher, and those bright, brief, moments when everything’s fine, when it feels like maybe the series’ central message that anything can be achieved with hard work, bravery, and good friends hasn’t been thrown out the window after all, like there really isn’t anything that can’t be done with good friends and courage, feel so much more precious. Sakura Wars 2 wants to – and does – prove that its characters are strong enough, as people, as a writer’s creations, to be more than colour-coordinated merch-hangers beyond all doubt in chapter nine, which concerns the Flower Division’s Christmas play and nothing else. This section does everything I’ve said before on this site I want story-led games to do, which is show that the peace you fight so hard for is something worth experiencing for yourself, that these characters have lives to live, feelings to feel, birthdays to celebrate – and they don’t need a demonic presence to clash with or a problem to solve for them to be worth watching.
The confidence demonstrated by Sakura Wars 2 is absolutely extraordinary. In spite of the expectations weighing down on the game’s shoulders it’s happy to keep its cards close to its chest and not reveal anything until it’s good and ready, not even when it seems to be upending everything the first game – and you – held dear.
🌸Sakura Wars 1 and 2
🌸Fan Discs and related frippery
Sakura Wars Hanagumi Tsushin (Saturn)
Sakura Wars Steam Radio Show (Saturn)
Teigeki Graph in Sakura Wars (Saturn)
Sakura Wars Denmaku Club 1 & 2 (Windows)
Ogami Ichiro Funtouki (Dreamcast)
Sakura Wars Online (Dreamcast)
Sakura Wars Kinematron Hanagumi Mail (Dreamcast)
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