Imperial Assault Force
Two years ago, I played Sakura Taisen for the first time.
Sakura Taisen is a series of strategy RPGs fused with dating sim elements co-produced by Sega and Red Entertainment starting in 1996. The first two titles in the series are more standard turn-based tactical RPGs, and the latter three are more along the lines of Sega’s more widely-known Valkyria Chronicles series. This is no coincidence; many members of Sakura Taisen’s staff wound up working on the series.
There’s a lot to love about Sakura Taisen. The character designs feel ripped straight out of 90s anime, the voice acting talent is top notch, and the music is absolutely fantastic. The setting is far-fetched and ridiculous: you are the commander of the Imperial Assault Force, an all-female secret army working undercover as actors at Ginza’s Grand Imperial Theater. The actresses possess unique spiritual powers which allow them to ride steam and spirit-powered mechs called Oobu, which they use to defend an alternate 1920s Tokyo from demons whenever they’re not on stage performing a play or musical. How close you get to the actresses determine how high their stats are in battle, and can lead to some devastating joint attacks by the end of the game.
I played through the first two games on the PSP two years ago and absolutely fell in love with the series. I don’t usually care that much about story or characters in games, but Sakura Taisen’s world is so wacky and well-written that you can’t help but want to hang out in it. It’s also incredibly well-presented; each chapter of the game has checkpoints at which you can save which mimic anime eyecatches, and the end of each chapter has a brief anime teaser of what’s to come in the next chapter, complete with music and voiceover.
I’m currently playing through the PS2 port of Sakura Taisen 3, which takes the formula of the first two games and twists it by introducing the Valkyria Chronicles-like battle system I mentioned earlier, but also by sending you to Paris where you meet a new cast of young women with unique spiritual powers who can ride mechs to defend their city from evil. So far it seems like much of the charm and humour I loved so much from the first two games is present, and in many ways I prefer the characters in ST3 to the ones from ST1&2 which felt too much like caricatures of common stereotypes. Battles in the first two titles felt too easy and the AI was easy to manipulate, so I’m looking forward to seeing if ST3’s revamped battle system will make the game less of a cakewalk and more of a challenge.
Unfortunately, only one of the titles in the series made it out west, and that’s Sakura Taisen V, known here as Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love, which is universally viewed as the worst title in the series. It’s my understanding that the series was meant to end with Sakura Taisen 4 on the Dreamcast, as it brought together the cast from the first three games into one game that feels more like a farewell and thank you to the fans than it does a full-fledged title. Sakura Taisen V just doesn’t look that great, but I’ll probably give it a shot when I’m done with 3 and 4.
If you can read or understand spoken Japanese (all of the important parts of the game are voice-acted) and enjoy that 90s anime vibe, then you definitely should check out the series. The easiest way to play it nowadays is to buy the PSP Sakura Taisen 1 & 2 off of the Japanese PlayStation Store, and I believe it’s even 40% off right now. The series will be twenty years old in September, and as much as I want them to do something to commemorate it (ST4 port to PlayStation 4 or Vita? pretty please?), I have little hope they will.