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Sakura Wars: The Interactive and Immersive LIPS

Interactivity is the core of any game. So, what does the fabled Sakura Wars franchise use to drive this core concept? Why, LIPS, of course!

 

Sakura Wars | Part 3 - Featured Image

Hey, Poor Players! Welcome to another day of Sakura Wars coverage! While yesterday we touched upon what makes Sakura Wars unique, today we’re going to touch upon how it keeps players immersed and engaged with the game. But before we begin, let me define some terms:

  • Sakura WarsThe franchise as a whole.
  • So Long, My LoveThe fifth game in the franchise and the only one to come to the West.
  • (Shin) Sakura Wars – The upcoming game for the PlayStation 4. Its official title is just Sakura Wars in the West, While it’s Shin Sakura Taisen in Japan.

That clarification given, let’s delve into something I think we sometimes take for granted. The fact that games are an interactive medium.

 

When Just Observing Is No Longer Enough

 

Sakura Wars | Eiyu*Senki

While experiencing in-depth character-narrative stories is a blast, sometimes we want a little more than to just passively experience it. Games like JAST USA’s Eiyu*Senki is an example of a title that blends what many people would consider a visual novel with gameplay. Something Sakura Wars has done for years.

 

That’s one of the key differences between anime and games. Anime (and any other visual mediums for that matter) are more passive and don’t require much input from the participant to move things along. Instead, the enjoyment comes from viewing the product and reflecting upon it. I’m not saying this to belittle anime. But, understanding this point is crucial for the discussion to come. Since it leads to what people consider significant criticism when it comes to visual novels, which, some people will claim are not games.

Visual novels are an interesting medium. On the one hand, they can range from being fully interactive with many choices; to being completely linear with none. What makes them work, though, is the immersion. Because visual novels are a much simpler type of experience to design, you can spend more time focusing on things like character development, complex narratives, and even tackling some difficult subject matter. Don’t misunderstand me, though. This is by no means easy.

 

Sakura Wars | Corona Blossom

Front Wing’s Corona Blossom is an example of a kinetic visual novel. Or, a visual novel with no choices. Even still, it’s a fascinating and awesome read. Also, yes, that is a space-pirate-catgirl-maid standing on top of a whale-shaped spaceship and wielding a cannon. I freaking love Japan!

 

The danger here comes from the simplicity. Because you’re not using level design and combat mechanics to distract the player, everything relies on nailing those elements. Immersion is essential here, and this type of storytelling has been proven effective. Many of my favorite franchises use this style of narrative. Neptunia, Senran Kagura, and Valkyria Chronicles being prime examples of this style of narration. But, what does this have to do with Sakura Wars, you might ask. Well, everything. Because Sakura Wars was using this style since at least So Long, My Love.

 

LIPS: Sakura Wars’ Ingenious Way of Keeping the Player Engaged

 

Again I need to clarify that my experience with this franchise really only includes So Long, My Love. So, I can’t state how previous games handled its narration. However, So Long, My Love borrowed heavily from visual novels to create a compelling and interactive narrative. One that kept you engrossed and continuously wanting to see what would happen next. It did this in a few ways.

 

Sakura Wars | So Long, My Love Text

Say hello to both So Long, My Love’s interface as well as Gemini Sunrise.

 

First off, like many visual novels, you had to advance the text. Much like turning the pages of a book, you would advance text by pressing a button, thus keeping the controller in your hand and the player interacting with the title. This sounds like a minor point, but keep it in mind for later. However, So Long, My Love also had something else up its sleeve: the LIPS System.

LIPS stands for Live & Interactive Picture System. In short, these are little quick-time events that would occur as part of the story. Sometimes it was as simple as making a narrative choice. Other times you’d need to input commands to either dodge attacks (Again in-narrative; LIPS doesn’t play into the actual combat system.) or unscrew a panel. LIPS was one of my favorite things about So Long, My Love, because it made the game so interactive and versatile.

 

Sakura Wars | So Long, My Love Battle LIPS

LIPS during a battle segment. Yes, Sakura Wars even marries its choices into the battle system. So you can build your bonds during battle as well.

 

One of the core features of LIPS is that it was so varied. Some LIPS segments were timed with not completing the action or answering the question actually counting as a choice. And sometimes, it was the correct choice. There was a lot of replayability in both the game and just individual chapters. In addition, LIPS was vital to the game because it would raise and lower your affection with the various characters. It was a careful balancing act of trying to make sure you kept the whole team happy. It made you think and really consider these character’s feelings. So, how does (Shin) Sakura Wars live up to its predecessor?

 

From Textboxes to Cinematics

 

Well, LIPS is in the game, though I’m not sure if the acronym is the same this time. However, LIPS is very different and feels very simplified this time around. At least if the demo I played is any indication. The demo takes place during Chapter 2 of the game and is focused around Clarissa Snowflake as she tries to write the script for the group’s latest performance. Let’s start with some positives before I delve into a few of the issues here.

 

Sakura Wars | (Shin) Sakura Wars' Storytelling

(Shin) Sakura Wars’ storytelling is done through cinematic cutscenes. As you can imagine, this does allow the characters to be more dynamic and emotive.

 

First off, one thing (Shin) Sakura Wars does differently is it replaces the standard VN interface with cutscenes. Lots of cutscenes. This has some significant strengths. We can see the characters interacting with each other and being very expressive. Match this up with some quality voice acting, and you have the potential for some really powerful scenes. LIPS also plays a part in this.

This time around the LIPS system is a series of choices. If I recall, all choices during the demo were between four options. Left, Right, Up, and letting time run out. Like most choice-driven titles, the choices range from good, to snarky, to ‘why are you being such a jerk.’ While sometimes the correct choice is obvious, other times you’ll need to use some logical reasoning, which is good. However, while the focus on cutscenes and decisions can be good, much like a double-edged sword, it cuts both ways.

Sakura Wars | LIPS in Shin

LIPS from (Shin) Sakura Wars. This time around, you move the control stick to select your option. Though, you still have the option of not picking as well.

The primary problem here is the focus on cutscenes. There’s not a lot for the player to do. Several times, I found myself putting my controller down because I was waiting. Of course, then when a LIPS segment popped up, I had to frantically grab it again and input a choice. On the one hand, if I’m engrossed in the game, that’s not a bad thing. The game is doing its job. But, in this case, there’s also something else that’s distracting. The game isn’t fully voiced.

Let me be clear on this, (Shin) Sakura Wars does contain voice acting. There’s no English dub sadly (definitely a missed opportunity since Clarissa and Anastasia Palma aren’t Japanese) but, there is a Japanese voice track. The problem is that not every cutscene is voiced. So, many cutscenes will have characters moving and speaking to each other, and you’ll have nothing but subtitles. It’s hard to explain how weird this feels in text, but in short, the lack of voice lines here robs these scenes of a lot of emotion. My brain is expecting voiced dialog. Not having it really takes me out of the experience. Which doesn’t help when coupled with how simplistic LIPS is this time around.

 

Sakura Wars | So Long, My Love - LIPS

A timed LIPS segment from So Long, My Love in action as Shinjiro makes an important decision. While we only have one choice here, see that meter at the bottom? If it fills up (and it fills fast here), you basically make no choice and something else occurs. Also, I really love the steam aesthetic here of the interface. It really meshes well with the Steampunk theme of the world.

 

This simplified version of LIPS isn’t nearly as fun as So Long, My Love’s. The goal of LIPS is to keep the player on their toes and engaged with the game. It was varied and fun! Sure it was frantic at times, but that was part of the charm. This is simply a multiple choice. There’s nothing substantive here. To be fair, that could just be me, though.

Remember, I’ve only played parts of Chapter 2. So, the LIPS system could get better as time goes. However, this what SEGA showed me, so that’s what I’m judging it by. Really, in short, the problems I have with (Shin) Sakura Wars seem to stem from its attempt to distance itself from its visual novel roots.

Sakura Wars | LIPS in Shin 2

Conversely, in (Shin) Sakura Wars, we still do get those critical choices. However, you have quite a bit of time here to make said decision. Also, while you do have a much cleaner interface, it’s a bit… blander.

Let’s be clear, per the Japanese definition, the mainline Sakura Wars games have never been visual novels. Then again, neither is Danganronpa, and many people in the West would consider that a VN. Because of that, in the West, we would find So Long, My Love to be a VN, I believe. And, at the least, you can’t deny that the franchise borrows heavily from elements of VNs. It’s in its roots! However, (Shin) Sakura Wars wants to go another direction. If that’s because it wants to try something new, that’s fine. But, it almost feels like it’s trying to hide the fact it’s inspired by VNs rather than embrace it. And the demo suffers from it.

If I were sum up my issue with the demo very simply, it’s that it’s a very passive experience. Outside of combat and moving from place to place, there’s not a lot to do. Sure, So Long, My Love was a text-heavy VN experience. But I kept pressing the button to advance the text because I wanted to continue reading. I wanted to know what happened to these people. Heck, I wanted to see the next LIPS segment and how my input would affect the story! That’s… kind of missing here. It’s very passive. But is it all bad?

No, thankfully, there is one thing about (Shin) Sakura Wars that I find very interesting. And that’s the combat. Come on back tomorrow, and we’ll delve into what (Shin) Sakura Wars does differently from So Long, My Love’s ARMS system.

See you then!

Sakura Wars | Shin's Combat

Combat in (Shin) Sakura Wars is different from its predecessors. But how? Come back tomorrow to find out!

Benny Carrillo
A gamer since the days of the NES and SNES and a reporter since 2015. This hat-wearing otaku loves niche Japanese games, but has a soft spot for visual novels, Super Robot Wars, Mega Man, yuri, and Nepgear. Benny has covered E3 and Anime Expo since 2015 and served as Operation Rainfall’s Visual Novel Manager. Now, this seasoned reporter spends his days trying to clear his epic backlog in between writing analytical articles and reviews.

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