It would not be untrue to say the battles found in the first two Sakura Wars games could be described as simplistic and easy – so easy I genuinely couldn’t tell you even after all these years what happens when you lose a fight – but to leave it there would miss the purpose of these colourful clashes. You see, while their isometric SRPG-style conflicts in mech-like “koubu” may superficially resemble the likes of Front Mission and similar the fact is these segments do not exist to be tests of your strategic mettle but to be dramatic duels between the brave Flower Division and the nefarious enemies standing before them, a chance for you to act the hero, save the day, and sweep away everyone before you through flashy moves and positive thinking.
The number of fights you face is extremely limited in both games, a deliberate choice which not only naturally lends more weight to the adventure side of things but also creates a situation that doesn’t happen enough in games featuring a battle group being clicked around a gridded location – purpose. Every battle is part of the story, every battle has a reason for existing, and it’s this successful blending of two traditionally separate gameplay devices that transforms Sakura Wars’ skirmishes into something more than SRPG-lite affairs. You can find this combination of guts and gameplay in every facet of both game’s battle design: Ogami can protect a member of the Flower Division regardless of how far away he is, and koubu attacks and abilities always reflect the personalities and preferences of their pilots; martial artist Kanna uses punches and kicks, Iris is so psychically powerful she doesn’t walk anywhere at all but teleports instead (allowing her to ignore virtually all terrain height/block issues), and the tech-loving Kohran unleashes missiles and mechanical doohickeys on her foes. Characters may cheer Ogami on when it’s his turn or take time in battle to ask him questions, triggering a LIPS choice. Their portraits smile when they’re pleased with Ogami and visibly wince if their health falls too low.
This desire to meld two halves into one cohesive whole goes so far that there’s neither equipment nor experience points to worry about – all stat boosts (and there are only three stats: attack, defense, and movement) are derived from the character’s current happiness and the strength of their bond with Ogami, and before the inevitable clash with the chapter’s uniquely designed boss character – always one member of a catchily-named organisation hellbent on bringing destruction to the world – the Flower Division’s health as well as their special attack gauge are completely refilled for free (bar a few very rare exceptions). The game does that because you’re here for the fun of it. Because you’re here to win. Because you’re here to shout catchphrases and enjoy watching elaborate special attacks play out in full. Because you’re here to stand Ogami next to his – your – favourite Flower Division member just so you can watch the two unleash a devastating united attack, again with its own unique battlecry and special animation and all accompanied by music that has an unmistakeable “Yeah, let’s do this!” quality to it.
So it’s all just sound-up-brain-off fluff, right?
Well, no. Battlefields may be easy to clear, but they’ve all been crafted with care and often offer several routes to the boss’ location/key battle target, all of which offer their own benefits and hindrances. Do you pick the quick and dangerous path? Slow and steady? Do you consider the restorative steam vent somewhere out of the way or if a potentially shorter route blocked by destructible scenery is worth pursuing? Is there something you need to protect or reach quickly?
There’s a lot of flexibility in how you approach these situations too, as right from the start the battle system has always allowed you to perform your actions in whatever order suits you best (characters must however take their turns in a set order). It’s possible to attack then move, attack then heal an adjacent unit, or charge up someone’s special move gauge before moving away – anything’s fine so long as you’re not trying to perform two actions that are part of the same sub-menu (ex: heal and defend, or charge/attack/special attack). The PlayStation 2 remake of the first game, Atsuki Chishio Ni takes its cues (OK, outright lifts) from the later Sakura Wars 3‘s grand overhaul of everything to create an even more malleable battle system where every character has a pool of points to spend each turn across all actions, making it possible to move a little and unleash a long combo (more than one, even), move a lot at the expense of doing anything else, or perhaps choose to use a new status-inflicting attack on the enemy. The only freshly-introduced downside to Atsuki Chishio Ni’s flexibility being that friendly units can now block the path of others, as you can see embarrassingly happen to me during the example video below.
Sakura Wars 2 made an effort to introduce far more new tweaks and ideas than any Saturn game released in 1998 was expected to, from relatively minor visual touches – koubu renders are new and now more than similar shades of a single colour, giving them better definition and visual interest, and special move sequences now show animated 3D models – to significant new strategic options, including the “captain’s command” system (this also appears in Atsuki Chishio Ni). This enables Ogami to switch between one of four battle strategies on his turn (at no action cost), each one bringing their own strengths and weaknesses to the team: Wood (standard), Wind (speed up, defense down), Fire (attack up, defense down), and Mountain (def up, attack down). There are often pre-battle tactical decisions to make too, such as in one instance whether to rush in and attack everything in sight or pause for a moment and risk waiting for the stealthy Moon Division to get back to you with additional tactical info – and if you allow them to they’ll reveal that the only materials on the battlefield you need to destroy are the ones with a distinctive blue mark on them, making what would have been a long battle on difficult terrain much easier. There’s a general sense of pushing the creative boat out, everything more in all the best ways – including the final boss, which is now an animated 3D being for the Flower Division to slowly beat down piece by piece.
Both games (in any form) have a few tricks up their sleeves to keep things fresh, with one of the main ones being the koubu upgrades that occur at set points during their respective stories. As you’d expect from this style of adventure there comes a point where the enemies get a big boost in power and a brand new look, which causes the heroes to get battered for a short while before coming back stronger than ever in their newly redesigned mechs and resetting the balance the power. These always come with their own new batch of attack animations and sometimes truly overpowered special moves, because as we’ve already established the most important thing here isn’t how many numbers you take off the other guy, it’s whether you look heroic and feel good when you do it.
How these things look and feel applies equally to the people you face: Bosses are always acting as part of a world-ending group and have some specific themed gimmick of their own (mastery of fire, spider-like arms, razor sharp claws) that translates into a distinctive battle mechanic. Death for these beings can be anything from a minor inconvenience to their final defeat – as with everything else, whatever suits the story and mood of these self-described “Dramatic Adventures” best is the only rule worth following. It sounds inconsistent but in reality Sakura Wars is doing nothing more than believing its own message – that fighting bravely with your trusted friends at your side, everyone working together to help each other out, is all that’s needed to ensure victory. You’ll win (eventually), you’ve just got to have as much faith in the cast as the script does.
Battles in Sakura Wars may be simplistic and pose little challenge, but that just means they’re working as intended – the Flower Division’s success was never in doubt, so why waste everyone’s time pretending otherwise?
🌸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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