The Normal LIPS system in action
The Normal LIPS system in action

NIS America was kind enough to grace us with a preview copy of their upcoming title Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love, and we’re here to let you know how it is. The series has been a long-standing hit in Japan, spawning numerous side-stories, anime and manga, and while it is the fifth game in the main series, it’s the first to have an official North American release. This installment of the strategy-RPG-meets-visual-novel game series takes place in a steampunk-inspired New York in the 1920’s and follows the New York Combat Revue, a group of trained fighters who live in Manhattan under the guise of a performance troupe.

The game follows Shinjiro Taiga, an ensign assigned to New York by his uncle Captain Ogami of the Imperial Fighting Troupe, as he gets to know his colleagues in the New York Combat Revue, both in and out of battle. The cast of characters Shinjiro has to work with provide an array of entertaining dialogues and colorful experiences – from Gemini Sunrise, the clumsy and spunky cowgirl-samurai from Texas, to Cheiron Archer, the strong-willed Harlem lawyer to Subaru Kujo, the mysterious jazz musician who speaks in third person, and more. The player’s ability to balance all these personalities between battles can end up being as much of a test as the battles themselves.

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Above: Manhattan Map, Below: Village Streets

The Sakura Wars series is known for its blend of RPG elements with those of visual novels such as Clannad or Ever17, and Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love is no exception. Between battles, there is plenty of dialogue to be had, but via the LIPS system (Live & Interactive Picture System) players get the opportunity to direct conversations as they choose. There are four different ways the player can affect conversation. With the Normal LIPS system, the player is given a chance to read some choices and respond with one of them. Or, by allowing the timer bar around the dialogue box fill up, no selection can be made, and Shinjiro will stay silent. And sometimes, that’s the best, or at least funniest, option. As many a wise person have noted, “Sometimes is it better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.” The second style, called Analog LIPS, allows the player to control the volume or enthusiasm of a response by pressing and holding up or down and filling a gauge. Double LIPS is similar to Normal LIPS but requires multiple answers in a given amount of time. The final type of LIPS is called Stick LIPS and requires manipulation of one or both of the analog sticks, corresponding to a physical action that Shinjiro is doing, such as turning a screw or pulling a lever. Whichever of the four systems in involved, a combination of sound effects and reaction images from the other characters indicate whether your choice was good or bad. These choices are integral to the game as they determine how the interpersonal stories move forward, as well as, how well the team will fight together in battle. This level of interaction adds new life to standard RPG or visual novel fare.

Exploration is another part of the job in RPG’s, and in Sakura Wars, you get treated to a multi-level navigation system. First, there’s the general map of Manhattan, where you can select a district to explore. Early on, there are only three areas available, Midtown, the Theater and the Village, where Shinjiro’s apartment is. Once you select an area, you move to a street-level view and take control of Shinjiro. There is also a clock in the upper left corner of the screen that keeps track of the time of day for you. Interacting at the various stores or talking in the street passes the time in-game, and certain missions have time requirements such as “be at x location by 7:00.” As a result, you’ll need to choose wisely where you go, and how long you wander around in Manhattan. Eventually, you will also receive a camera that can be used to take pictures during adventure mode and a radio to keep abreast of the happenings in the city while you roam the streets.

Giant robot battles, Japan's national sport!
Giant robot battles, Japan's national sport, come to America!

Of course, without battle, Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love wouldn’t be much of an RPG, and while it takes a little time for Shinjiro to get his first taste of battle, the wait is worth it. In battle, you control Shinjiro and the rest of the STAR (Super Telekinetic Assault Robot) division of the New York Combat Revue. There are two types of battles, ground and air. Ground battles are fought in a  turn-based, tactical RPG style where you’re limited by mobility points. Performing actions like walking and attacking use up your mobility points each turn. When you select an enemy to attack, you can perform multiple attacks using more mobility points. Each character also comes equipped with special attacks and skills, including joint attacks with teammates and a “supermove” that has an accompanying video that plays when used. In order to be successful in battle, you’ll have to learn how to use your mobility points and position your troops effectively. Air battles allow the STARs to take to the sky, move horizontally and vertically, and add missiles to the arsenal. The tutorial the game offers is more than adequate when it comes to explaining the basics of battle, making sure that newcomers to the genre aren’t completely lost.

While the copy of Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love that we received isn’t ready for retail release yet, everything seems to be going along nicely. The localization is done well, and the full motion video scenes play without artifacts or skipping. So far, my personal favorite scene is the launch of the Ahab transport ship, a genius and amusing set up. There’s a little more polishing to be done, but it looks like the New York Combat Revue is just about ready for showtime. Look for Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love on store shelves starting March 23rd, 2010 for PS2 and Wii.

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