Phoenix Wright with Wanzers is a surprisingly enjoyable experience.
At first glance you would be excused for laughing at a game that can be neatly described as "A dating-sim/tactial RPG (WITH MECHS). The fifth title in the long-running Sakura Taisen franchise, it is the first to leave Japan.
A Wii port of a 2005 PS2 title, it seems odd that Sakura Taisen V (as it is called in Japan) made its way to Western audiences in 2010, and on a new console (a PS2 edition was released outside Japan alongside the Wii version). Efforts to publish previous games in the series outside of Japan were all met with failure. Sakura Taisen V was designed to be more Western friendly to increase the odds it would be picked up for foreign release. Nippon Ichi Software America (NIS America) finally decided to roll the dice with this port/localization project. They worked with Red Entertainment (the original developers) to handle the port to the Wii, and in doing so introduced the West to the last major Japan-only RPG series to have never seen international release.
Before I continue, let me summarize how I feel about Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love. Sakura Wars is a silly, goofy, and profoundly bizarre game. Much of it is more akin to watching a monster-of-the-week cliché anime series than playing a game. There's a lot of exposition and dialog choice. There are a fair number of video sequences. The battles are in many ways pedestrian compared to some more intense fare available in the SRPG market. This game is so thoroughly Japanese that its improbable route to international release seems all the more shocking.
With all that said, I couldn't be more pleased with it. Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love has some technical flaws that should be totally inexcusable, and yet I excuse them because the game actually makes you care about your friends. The closest analog that most players will have experienced are the games created by BioWare, but I'd argue that Sakura Wars rivals or even exceeds BioWare's accomplishments in this field. If you think you can stomach the anime-ness of the game, and it to be clear it is a tongue in cheek, keep reading.
Set in a steam-punk 1920s, you play as Lt. Shinjiro Taiga, a recent graduate of the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy. He expects to be assigned to his uncle's Imperial Assault Squad's Flower Division (the subject of the first three Sakura Taisen games). Based in Tokyo, the secretive organization hides as a theater company, but their primary objective is to use steam-powered mecha to defend the city of Tokyo against demon attacks. Shin is mortified to find that he has actually been assigned to the newly formed Star Division of The New York Combat Review, modeled on Tokyo's unit. When he arrives in New York he finds that the Star Division members are disappointed with their newest recruit, having expected his famous uncle.
Shin is tasked with winning over his new team and assembling a fully functional Star Division. As captain-in-training he has to deal with demon attacks on New York and the personal crises his crew members face.
The game is played in two modes: battle and adventure. You probably already noticed the score I gave the game, the words "dating sim", and have begun to draw conclusions about me as a person. It's more a label than an accurate description as many of the romantic elements are naïve and innocent, and the label doesn't fit the gameplay mechanics of the adventure mode either. You control Shin and he makes his way around New York, interacting with the characters of the city and, most importantly, the members of his division. Most of the interaction comes in the form of animated stills, where you can select dialog choices or actions in response to the flow of the conversation. If the people you're talking to like your response then your relationship will improve, or get worse if they disapprove. Sometimes you'll have to perform a simple mini-game as part of the interaction.
Occasionally you'll get the opportunity to lead one of the women around town on some kind of mission. These extended interactions allow you to get a better idea of what motivates each member of your crew, and makes the bizarre lot you've assembled feel human. Even though every character in the game is weird, I didn't find any of them to be unlikeable, which is a pretty impressive accomplishment.
Battle mode is a tactical RPG style series of fights. The “on-foot” battles allow you to take your mechs into diverse battlefields, and aerial battles allow your mechs to turn into aircraft and move in three dimensions. Sometimes both modes are mixed. Most battles present you with an objective: destroy the generators, protect the theater, reach the goal, etc. The game's bosses are the highlight, as they're huge and often need to be picked apart strategically.
In battle you can move and attack using the same gauge (dubbed pneuma). Joint attacks between two characters, unique special attack skills, and healing all consume MP as well as pneuma. Each character has their own specialty, for example, Subaru Kujo (a graceful, martial arts trained possible woman) has the ability to pass through solid barriers and Diana Caprice (a frail doctor in training) isn't an offensive force but is capable of healing multiple allies at once.
While much of the relationship building is done in adventure mode, the theme of building friendships filters into battle as well. Joint attacks are more effective if the characters like each other. You can even build relationships by executing joint attacks, having party members heal each other, and by placing two units next to each other at which point they sometimes engage in a dialog aimed at encouraging each other.
Given the game is basically an anime that you occasionally play, the possibility that the game could prove... embarrassing is very real. However, with a unique set of flawed characters, whose development legitimately feels like a product of your own doing, the game really manages to absorb even when you're not "playing" it. Certainly, I can no longer mock games with extended non-play sequences, as this game has many of them used to effect. That said, it does give the gameplay a more relaxed feeling. Except during the most intense battles, it was a very casual, relaxed experience, which in turn allowed me to engage in extended play sessions. While the game can be very silly at times it feels just fine, and never does the game cross the “creepy” line that I feared with a game about making five women (and a young girl!) like you.
Given the nature of the game the technical categories seem somewhat less significant, and I might be inclined to gloss over them if there weren't issues with the port.
Graphically you might expect a game from 2005, on the PS2, to look pretty poor. While this game certainly will not be winning any graphical awards, it's not ugly. It's colorful, thematic, and while much of the game's content would be considered anachronistic, the visuals match the spirit of the Roaring Twenties. Keep in mind, much of the game is hand-drawn stills, with a large number of fully animated sequences. When exploring the city the edges are a bit harsh, but the bright and detailed world matches the anime style of the hand drawn sequences. The biggest issue with the game is that it doesn't feature 480p support or widescreen, an issue driven home with my crazy Chinese-made VGA Wii cable that could not resolve the non-480p signal. I will say that despite not supporting widescreen, the game actually looks just fine if you stretch it, as if it were designed this way.
The audio production really shines. There is seemingly endless dialog, acted out by a group of well-cast voice actors who deliver mostly effective performances. Some of the work is downright impacting. While the music is less impressive than the voice work, it is a competent effort. The character theme music (this is basically an anime you play after all) is very fitting, and all the music does a good job tying into the game's 1920s theme.
The controls, however, are not great. The standard controls are Wii Remote and Nunchuck. This works fine except during some of the mini-game sequences that ask you to execute moves clearly designed with dual analog controls in mind. The D-Pad on the Wii Remote is simply not up to the task, and since these events greatly influence your relationship with the ladies, I adopted the Classic Controller. This works fine except that all the control prompts still display the Wii Remote + Nunchuck buttons and the game sometimes still asks you to use the pointer functionality. Barring having three hands this clearly does not work well. It seems so bizarre that they couldn't rework these controls for the Wii and yet still managed to cause problems with the Classic Controller, which is basically a perfect copy of the PS2 controller the game was built for.
The game runs around twenty hours in the first play through and does not overstay its welcome. Even after pouring in 5+ hours a night for four nights (and thus completing the game) I wanted to start playing over again (to be clear, I did a couple days later, beat it in 15 hours). The game features six endings, based on the choices you make throughout the game, and I was left wanting to see them all (I cheated, making a save before a critical decision to see some of the endings without replaying everything). The game also features a "game+" mode that allows you to keep the skills unlocked on your previous play through and the relationships between the girls (although you still have to build your relationship with them over again).
Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love is an odd duck. It's an old game, from a dead console, made for a market that has seemingly (based on the weak sales of the title FIVE YEAR AGO) moved on from the franchise and is now being sold in a different market. It's a unique concept, layered in a weird and anachronistic mythology that is more like something you'd expect from a Japanese cartoon than a game. All that said, it's a fantastic game. It has some very solid writing, a great set of characters, interesting (if easy) battles, and great replayability. Strange artifacts from the porting process dog the game, but not so much as to greatly affect my feelings towards it. Add on the fact that it released at a price lower than many DS titles and it's also a bargain.