By Pepsiman 27 Comments
Having recently completed Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love for the PS2 and posted a corresponding review of it, I've come to the realization that by sheer luck, I've been playing more SRPGs this year than I ever expected, let alone ones made just by Sega. It's an interesting turn of events for me, mostly because I've typically had disdain for the genre in general. Save for the rare gems like Devil Survivor, SRPGs and I have never really been on friendly terms since I've found most of the standouts to be too overtly complex and math-heavy for my liking. Disgaea was probably the most unfortunate case for me; I wanted to really like that game since I can appreciate something deliberately stupid and insane and yet the gameplay just didn't click with me. Maybe it was just my inexperience with the genre, but it felt like more often than not, I was being punished for making certain moves because of entirely unforseeable consequences later on. Perhaps if I went back and tried it again now, I'd have a better grasp of the mechanics and find myself actually liking it, but as it was, prior to this year, SRPGs were among the few types of games I rarely, if ever ventured into.
And yet this year found me completing Valkyria Chronicles, its PSP sequel, and Sakura Wars: So Long My Love. All of them were games I enjoyed to varying extents. They all have their problems, but as someone not really expecting much out of any of them when I started down this trend, it's still a surprising accomplishment that they actually managed to hold my attention and, more importantly, be fun. This is probably because all of three of the games are fairly unusual for the genre, or at least how I understand. The one thing I've wanted more RPGs to do for a long time is actually incorporate teamwork dynamics into the fundamental gameplay. Since most RPGs have storylines revolving around you forming a group and working towards some common good, it only makes sense to me that the gameplay should accommodate that to some extent. Thankfully, a lot of developers, not just ones from Japan, but all over the world, seem to be thinking the same thing and slowly teamwork is becoming something that's just as important to the gameplay as it is to the story. For me, the inclusion of that feature isn't a guarantee that I'll automatically enjoy a game that has it, but it nonetheless makes the proceedings feel that much more real and consequential when it's done right.
It's also interesting that I played Valkyria Chronicles 1, 2, and Sakura Wars in particular, as it provides a sort of illumination about how Sega is trying to shake things up in the SRPG genre in its own way. Sakura Wars is obviously the oldest and least refined of the bunch, but a lot of the fundamental elements that would help greatly define the tone and gameplay of Valkyria Wars are clearly inherited from it. The idea of character relationships having significant implications on the battlefield is something all three games share. Welkin and his crew can't survive without good coordination between friends and teammates in Valkyria Chronicles and likewise, Sakura Wars' Shinjiro Taiga has to befriend (or possibly date) his teammates in order to maximize their potential on the battlefront. Although all three games treat the underlying mechanics very differently, with Sakura Wars relying heavily on dialog choices and Valkyria Chronicles favoring pre-defined relationships in tandem with malleable character potentials, the underlying mentality still intrigues me greatly. The idea of teams being treated as quasi-living, dynamic units of people in the games lends the proceedings a great sense of humanism, something most games don't even attempt to achieve to begin with.
Although I didn't mention it in my review, I actually played through Sakura Wars twice in my time with the game over the past two-ish weeks. While part of that was just motivated by the ability to fast forward through the text on consecutive runs to view other endings, I had also come away from completing my first playthrough of the game with a respect for what it did in its narrative and gameplay. There were certainly things I still found at fault with it, hence the three-star rating, but it still did enough things right that, just one more time, I wanted to see what new sides of the characters I could unveil in new plot and dialog paths, even if they're based in very time-tested archetypes. Was there more to the sexually ambiguous (potentially even transexual?) Subaru than what I found during my pursuit of another character? What if I actually got off on the right food Anri, the eternally stubborn clerk behind the souvenir store's counter? It's that sort of personal hook into a game that makes me hope that camaraderie and teamwork-centric gameplay becomes more standard in RPGs as time goes on because it's when a game pulls that off that the characters you control on the screen actually start to feel more genuine and developed and not just pixels and polygons like everything else on the screen. That notion excites me to no end.