Review by: Kenneth Lee
When looking back at the Sega Saturn’s impact (great games) during the ’32-bit era,’ most gamers in the US would probably have a rather skewed perspective (through no fault of their own), as most of the Saturn’s greatest games never made it over to our shores. Games that rivalled the Playstation’s greatest all failed to make it to the US, courtesy of Sega of America – games such as the epic RPG masterpiece, “Grandia,” or Atlus Japan’s Cyberpunk RPG excellence, “Megami Tensei: Soul Hackers.” And yet another phenomenal game would be Red / Sega Japan’s “Sakura Taisen 2.” Also known as “Sakura Wars 2,” this is the second part in the “Sakura Taisen” series of Mech Strategy / Simulation games. As a sidenote, “Sakura Taisen 2” has sold over 500,000 units in Japan already(!) and it’s only been out for a couple months. It’s currently the number one most popular game in Japan (according to Famicom Tsuushin, the #1 video game magazine in Japan). What Sakura Taisen 2 does is improve upon every aspect of the original game, and provides us with one of the most refreshing, fun, and amazing games ever to have been created!

As an introduction to those who don’t know anything about “Sakura Taisen” and the series as a whole, it is basically a Mech Strategy / Simulation game set in the Taishou Era (1920’s) of Japan. It is an early Industrial period, and the feel of the whole game reflects this – a mixing of Western and Eastern cultures, of traditional Japanese aspects, such as Katanas and visiting old shrines, to fascinating Steampunk mechs and other devices. You play the role of Ichirou Ohgami, who is given command of a secret military defense unit, the Imperial Floral Assault Group (Teikoku Kagekidan), who’s responsibility is to protect Japan from evil. Also interesting to note is that the group you are in charge of is all female. They are ‘secret’ in that most of the time, they must double as the Imperial Theater Troupe (something like that) to prevent anyone from knowing their true whereabouts and headquarters. Their headquarters are actually beneath the Imperial Theater (where they hold their plays)! Suffice to say that in part 1, you were faced with a phenomal story of epic proportions. In Sakura Taisen 2, new events occur and Japan is threatened again. You must take command and lead your group to victory.

Essentially, the game is broken down into ‘Chapters,’ which is then further broken down into Simulation parts and then Strategy Mech Battles. The Simulation part of Sakura Taisen 2 is probably most easily described as similar to those classic graphic adventure games on the Apple / PC. You can wander around the Imperial Theater (or other locations) and explore various rooms and interact with various members of your team (the Hanagumi). During these sequences you’ll sometimes be faced with ‘real-life’ dilemmas such as keeping up the morale of your team members when dire situations occur, or just keeping up good relations with some or all of them. If you are kind enough throughout the game, you will even build up a personal relationship with one of your team members. I think this aspect is what has been given the most injustice by many people on the Net, most notably the ignorant IGN websites, such as Next-Gen, who ignorantly proclaimed this game as “another naked high school girl dating game.” Uh, where did this come from?? To clarify and enlighten, first and foremost, the Simulation section of Sakura Taisen 2 is only half the game. Furthermore, there are no “naked high school girls” in this game. (Gee, and you wonder how these people can even call themselves ‘gamers,’ if they don’t even know what they are talking about.) Essentially, you are faced with situations and are given a choice of replies to respond to these situations, which range from whether or not to attack the enemy from the flank or the front, to just being kind or caring for one of your female teammates. “Yes,” you can even go on a date with one of the girls, but this is no different than Cloud going on a date with Aerith or Tifa in “Final Fantasy VII.” All-in-all, this aspect of the game was quite refreshing and proved to be the primary means to further the plot and add life to the game as a whole, as like the classic graphic adventures on the computer, by visiting certain areas or doing certain things, a plot point would ‘open’ but here, many times you are also treated to a great Anime movie cut scene.

The Strategy Battles of Sakura Taisen 2 are just as fun, but in a completely different way. While nowhere near as in-depth and complicated as a Koei game or Tactics Ogre, its simplicity belies the overall well-designed battle system. In the Mech Battles, your Hanagumi members each have their own personal Steampunk Mech (very cool designs), and you have full control over where to move them and when to attack or defend. It is turn-based, and the battlefields and mechs are pre-rendered, but overall it works well, with highly-detailed environments. There are also Super Moves for each of the Mechs, and later on in the game, there are newer Supers and even Combination Super Attacks, which are too cool – they are essentially done in a very Anime-esque flair, with a combination of 2D and 3D cuts and plenty of voice. In a word: Awesome! Eventually, at the end of each major battle you also face a Boss, who will try and pummel you with his offensive assault. A new addition to Sakura Taisen 2 is the ‘Command’ feature, that allows you to change the style of fighting for your all your team members. You get to choose between 4 different styles: Fire (higher offense, lower defense), Wind (greater movement, lower defense), Mountain (higher defense, lower movement), and Forest (normal, no penalties). Another nice touch is the inclusion of (nearly) full-screen portraits of your characters when it’s their turn to battle – the 2D hand-drawn, anime art is gorgeous, but that is beyond doubt as Red hired the godly Kousuke Fujishima (creator and artist of “Ah My Goddess!” and “You’re Under Arrest!” anime and manga) to do character designs for Sakura Taisen 2. Perhaps the only downside to the battles are the lack of transparencies for special effects (when you do a massive Super attack, or explosions). But that is a minor gripe compared to the sheer fun of the Strategy Battles.

The music is still as great as in Sakura Taisen 1, except of even higher quality. There are a few vocal songs in the game, and on top of that, all the BGM’s are just well done and exhibit a fitting motif and catchy melodies. But the highlight would have to be the extensive amount of voice in the game. Not only is the voice acting by the seiyuu some of the best I’ve heard in a game (such as by Chisa Yokoyama and Ai Orikasa (Ryoko in “Tenchi Muyo!”), but it adds a much needed extra facet – the characters become more interesting and idiosyncratic. They exhibit little foibles and their personalities and the personality of the game itself become much more meaningful.

“Sakura Taisen 2” is one of those games that are really hard to describe, as they cannot be defined or categorized into a simple genre. From the exploration and simulation aspects to the great Mech Strategy battles, Sakura Taisen 2 never fails to delight the player. With tons of voice, phenomal game design, and a perfect mood and atmosphere, Sakura Taisen 2 covers all the bases. Combine that with some of the most phenomal and amazing Anime and CG movies ever seen on any system (courtesy of Production I.G. of “Ghost in the Shell” fame), and -EIGHT- different endings (!), you’ve got a game that is just the essence of “Classic.” One of the greatest games of all-time for the Sega Saturn (or -any- system for that matter), right next to NiGHTS, Sakura Taisen 1, and Grandia.

[Note: Unfortunately, you need a thorough understanding of the Japanese language to be able to play this game. There are some walkthroughs and translations appearing on the Net. Two places to check out would be: http://users.intercomm.com/hidalgo/ and http://pei.physics.sunysb.edu/~ming/anime/sakura.html]

Final Scores (out of a perfect 10):

Graphics: 9.0
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+ Beautiful 2D hand-drawn Anime art by Kousuke Fujishima.
+ Bad-ass Opening Anime+CG Movie by Production I.G.
+ Plenty of great Anime movies and cut scenes.
+ Backgrounds (for Simulation and Strategy) are well done.
+ Cool Steampunk Mech designs.
+ Sakura Shinguuji ^_^
+ Great Super Moves (and Combo Supers) done with an Anime flair.
– Slight pixellization occurs during some Super Moves (explosions).
– Lack of transparencies.
– Iris Chateaubriand (-_-#) Bad character concept.

Sound/Music: 9.5
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+ Outstanding Voice Acting. The game is filled with voice for the Simulation parts
and even ‘Taunts’ and Winning Quotes in battle.
+ Great vocal songs.
+ Very nice instrumental tracks. Well composed and high-quality.

Gameplay: 9.5
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+ Phenomenal hybrid of Anime, graphic adventure, simulation, mechs and strategy.
+ Well-designed scenarios and battles.
+ Awesome storyline and events, going to epic proportions.
+ An amazing amount of secret events and branching paths.
+ Eight different, fully Anime-ted endings! (too cool)
+ Great Mini-Games!
+/- Bittersweet Ending (for one of the characters [sigh]).
– The flame group, Baragumi.

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OVERALL: 9.5
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“If you ever felt like ‘playing an Anime,’ this is it. Full of super high production values, great story, and a memorable cast of characters, Sakura Taisen 2 is the greatest Saturn games of all time.”

Review Copyright © 1998 by Kenneth Lee (klee@interplay.com). Please feel free to email me with your comments, questions or criticisms about my review. Thank you very much for your time.