Sakura Wars: So Long My Love is best described as a false start for the Sakura Wars franchise internationally.
Following its release in Japan at the end of last year and the West earlier this week, Sakura Wars on PS4 represents a fresh start for SEGA’s beloved franchise. Called New Sakura Wars in Japan, the game was all but officially a reboot of the franchise. A continuation of the story yet taking place far enough in the future after a world-altering event to be completely disconnected, Sakura Wars was designed as a welcoming starting point for new fans and a proud return for old ones, and with a new anime to coincide with it, signified a major vote of confidence for the franchise.
For many players in the West, this will be exactly what Sakura Wars is to them: a welcoming entry into a curio within SEGA’s vast catalog of iconic franchises. It’s not the first time players have had the chance to access a game from the series in English, however. Released in 2005 in Japan and 2010 internationally for the PS2 and Wii, Sakura Wars: So Long My Love was the series’ first tentative steps into international markets outside of anime.
And it failed.
Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love: A Major Gamble
Sakura Wars: So Long My Love is the fifth mainline entry into this unique franchise, yet the first to make its way outside of Japan. This is understandable: the series combines visual novels, strategy RPG and dating sim mechanics into a single product set in an alternative-reality history with steampunk mecha robots being used to fight against demonic forces as a team of fighters disguised as a theatre troupe.
It’s a unique concept, but one which, even in the late 2000s, was a risky proposition. Visual novels had yet to receive the growth in popularity they now enjoy, while dating sims, even today, remains a difficult sell. Strategy RPGs were more recognizable, but still a relative niche within the grander gaming landscape.
Yet the series had carved its niche in Japan thanks to its unique nature. The first game in the franchise made its debut on the SEGA Saturn to massive success, selling out in many places within hours of its release. The franchise went on to receive multiple sequels and spin-offs on SEGA platforms, including an online tabletop game for Dreamcast and a Nintendo DS dungeon crawler.
The game expanded from its origins over time. New characters, a change in location, and more expanded the universe, while anime adaptations and other spin-offs including stage plays befitting of the source material led to an abundance of material in a franchise that was doomed to failure before release. Almost too much.
A Sales Underperformance
In Sakura Wars: So Long My Love, the game shifted location to New York, with the same general structure of a strategy-visual novel hybrid that previous titles had. Centered around a brand new cast of characters from the city being trained by Japanese naval lieutenant Shinjiro Taiga, the aim of the game was to prove yourself worthy of leading this troupe and prevent Oda Nobunaga from achieving world domination.
The game was well-received from a critical perspective. It was praised for its unique mix of mechanics in a single experience, particularly for how it intermingled character interactions into the fabric of the story and gameplay. While it felt primitive visually by the time it hit Western markets (which came 5 years after the initial Japanese release), it was praised even by those encountering the series for the first time nonetheless thanks to the gameplay at its core.
And this was a fun game! Admittedly it can feel daunting due to how much of a departure the game feels from those players are more accustomed to, but you quickly become enamored by this eccentric cast, while the turn-based strategy gameplay at the core of the experience is rather enjoyable. Perhaps the most accessible explanation would be to describe the game as a precursor to Valkyria Chronicles, which makes sense considering many of the Sakura Wars team were later involved with that project.
In the end, though, this was the beginning of the end. The game sold poorly relative to other titles in the series, and the international release flopped, the title only selling over 10000 units despite NISA, the game’s Western publisher, noting it was their biggest localization project ever at the time of its release. It was the last mainline entry in the franchise for over a decade.
The Sakura Taisen World Project: An Ambitious Mistake
The 2000s were an odd time for the Sakura Wars franchise. It entered the decade with a lot of momentum, at least in Japan, and ended the decade a dormant franchise. The underperformance of Sakura Wars: So Long My Love proved to be the end of the line for the franchise for a substantial amount of time.
There are two plausible reasons as to why the game sold poorly relative to other entries into the franchise, and the first could be placed at franchise fatigue. The Sakura Taisen World Project was an ambitious 7-entry project for a massive expansion of franchise output and an attempt to broaden the series’ appeal to international audiences. While an impressive and bullish move from SEGA when it was announced and a statement of intent from a company finding its place following their move out of the console business, hindsight puts these intentions under much more scrutiny.
The project’s impressive slate of titles included 2 visual novel prequels to this new mainline game, a remake of the original game, the third game in the series being released on PC, an action game, an intriguing action-adventure game known as KOUMA, a historic adventure set in the Sengoku period, and finally Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love. As the name suggests, this project also aimed to change the series’ Japan-only status with a worldwide release for all these games.
This plan fell through quickly. Out of all of these projects, only 3 titles plus one of the planned visual novels, alongside the PC port, were ever released, with the other visual novel, KOUMA, and the historical take on the franchise all eventually canceled. Of the titles which did see a release, So Long, My Love was the only one that eventually saw an international release.
For a series that had was a sales force in Japan but untested internationally, the original plan was a huge gamble for SEGA. The franchise already featured many elements that couldn’t translate internationally which was a major draw for die-hard fans, such as stage shows featuring the series voice actors. These stage shows have always been a key part of the franchise and have seen the characters come to life on stage, and were a key source of the series’ revenue. The chance to see their favorite characters come to life was a major draw and joined other cross-promotional materials like cafes.
That leads to the other issue: characters. While many fans were initially brought into the franchise through the original games, many stayed because of their love and connection to the various characters of the series. All the characters from the first 2 entries, set in Tokyo, and the third game, set in Paris, came together for a grand finale for the fourth entry into the series which concluded the story of the male protagonist and the Imperial Combat Revue teams from France and Japan. Each game had at least some overlap or connection to a previous entry in the series.
Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love has no such connection. Although the plan for a game set in New York was initially conceived for the previous mainline entry before a change in direction due to SEGA’s console production winding down, none of the characters in the New York team were recurring cast members. The connections fans had built up over the years were lost.
This lost connection coupled with the long period between announcement and release in Japan for So Long, My Love (3 years) hurt the game, and the result was the worst-selling title in the series. Similar issues couldn’t have helped the international release: despite a Wii version of the game being developed specifically for international markets thanks to Idea Factory, delays in the localization meant the game never saw release until 2010, hurting sales for the PS2 version and cooling international interest.
Sakura Wars’ Second Chance
Fan demand has driven the series throughout its life. After being doomed to failure before release, high sales ensured the original Sakura Wars wasn’t a one-off project but the start of something special. That demand encouraged the company to keep experimenting with the franchise even after they stepped away from the console business, and the lack of demand for the games released as part of their World Project put the series on ice.
Fan demand also determined the series’ return. In an interview with Famitsu, it was revealed that the series topping a poll at SEGA Fes was what kickstarted development on the new PS4 title and brought the series back from the dead.
Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love was a misstep not for being a bad game, but for being saddled with expectations that it was held back from achieving and from mistakes in the series’ handling that hurt its standing and, in turn, its sales. This new game is a fresh start, and so far has been received warmly.
Those fans will be hoping that they won’t have to say ‘so long’ to Sakura Wars for a long time to come.
EDIT: A previous version mistakenly noted the action game announced as part of the Sakura Taisen World Project had been cancelled, when this had actually been released. A second visual novel had actually been cancelled. This has been amended.