Sakura Taisen 3. It’s the third game in a series about Captain Ichiro Ogami splitting his time between socializing with an all-female theater troupe and fighting alongside those same women in giant mechs, and the first of these games made for the Dreamcast. Guess which one of them shines more strongly? Every feature and every design choice that went into this game was made to show off what the Dreamcast was capable of doing. However, I’m not so sure that always plays out in the game’s favor. The battles come out of this just fine, but the story falls short of where it needs to be. Sakura Taisen 3 succeeds at demonstrating what the Dreamcast can do, but outside that, it’s a much more uneven experience.
That doesn’t mean the game is just a collection of cheap technical tricks lacking in purpose. Far from it; the game demonstrates a strong interplay between those tricks and some kind of artistic vision. Time and again, the game uses those tricks to create its vision of a believable world. Not in what that world holds, mind you, but more in how it presents that world. The story transitions into specially animated cutscenes very quickly, like they’re a natural part of the action. In addition, Ogami is no longer limited to exploring just the theater. He now adopts a more metropolitan life as he meanders the streets of Paris. The game ends up feeling less like a TV show and more like a vignette of Parisian life, as corny as that sounds.
Granted, none of these new developments change what you’re doing in the game, but I don’t see that as much of a problem. If anything, they’re a natural of extension of what previous games in the series had been doing up until this point. Sakura Taisen games were always about stepping into Ogami’s shoes and living a day in his life; deciding how he’d approach a given situation or how he’d spend his free time. So at least in that regard, these changes are more than welcome. They’re a smart mix of series tradition and contemporary development trends.
Yet these changes also bring more focus onto the world. That’s a weird direction to go in, considering how disappointing the world can be at times. Not bad, mind you; more misguided than anything else. This is 1920s Paris we’re talking about. France was at the height of its colonial power, and exerted an enormous cultural influence. And even ignoring France’s history, the game raises a host of other topics it could potentially dive into. The powers given to a paramilitary/police force like the Paris Assault Force, for instance. Or maybe Ogami’s fish-out-of-water status in a country known for promoting Orientalist views. This isn’t even getting into what happens to a Vietnamese orphan within this environment.
But at best, the narrative pays lip service to these topics, and at worst, it eschews them entirely so it can indulge in much safer slapstick humor. Not that there’s anything wrong with that kind of humor. I’ll admit that it’s pretty funny to see what happens when French teenagers run around a prison packing heat. However, that doesn’t have to preclude the social issues the game constantly ignores. If the game paid any of those issues a greater amount of attention, it would have a significantly richer narrative for it.
And while I appreciate that the game’s current attempts to become more nuanced, its efforts are inconsistent and misguided. Sometimes, those efforts pay off, as is the case with Erica Fontaine’s character arc where she faces the consequences of being a clutzy comic relief. Other times, they don’t. The flimsy bickering that is chapter 7 immediately comes to mind. The Sakura Taisen 3 narrative is a bumpy ride, and one that I really wish the game didn’t have to suffer through. It could really use some sort of centralized plot to tie things together, and examining the social/historical issues like the ones from before would certainly fix that. That’s not the only route the story could take, mind you, but it remains one of the more obvious and interesting ones. Yet without any kind of strong plot, the game ends up a flatter experience.
The villains demonstrate that well enough. Because the Paris Assault defends the city of Paris, their targets are mostly criminals threatening the citizens. Examples include a serial killer rabbit man, a jewel thief snake woman, a plague doctor with a penchant for the theatrical, and a mob-boss squid in S&M duds. (No, really.) As dark as some of them sound, though, they exist largely to facilitate the humro. In fact, they only exist to facilitate the humor. The villains lack any character beyond their desire for senseless destruction, and that criminal intent doesn’t lend the game an overarching plot. They’re more like villains of the week, if anything, which would make sense if the game framed itself like a TV show. But with the game already moving away from that framework, the villains just appear uninteresting and shallow.
I suspect the writers knew about this, given the late-game villain that takes their place. She’s a French clown who more or less enlightens the Assault Force on Paris’ neglected colonial past (and not the one you’re thinking about). Although this sounds like just what the game needs, it’s unfortunately too little, too late. Had the clown (or even the themes surrounding her been introduced earlier in the story, her presence would have been grounded in something, and her introduction would have meaning. Yet she lacks that, and as a result, creates a few problems. This new villain has no presence. Her motivations are no stronger than the villains she replaces. The narrative reaches its conclusions too easily, like it hasn’t paid them due attention. Without anything grounding her in the story, I have to wonder why she was introduced in the first place.
Fortunately, the game’s battles succeed in ways that the narrative simply cannot. Sakura Taisen 3 is a turn based strategy game that plays out like an early predecessor to Valkyria Chronicles. The Paris Assault Force fights criminals with their giant mechs, and each member only gets a limited number of actions per turn to do so. Once they drain the bar at the bottom of the screen (by moving, attacking, defending, etc.), they can no longer do anything. Yet I’m not so sure the mechanics themselves are that important, at least in light of what the game does with them. It often has to pull the camera in real close to the action. This is where the game can really flex its technological muscle, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. The strong environmental focus naturally leads to battles with distinct personality, largely because you’re never doing the same thing twice in battle. One fight has the Assault Force jumping up a sinking ship, where another has them fighting in some kind of sci-fi wrestling ring. And on top of that, the close camera means that you feel like you’re actually there on the ground, fighting these battles rather than dictating strategies at a distance. The battles succeed where the narrative and the socialization aspects flounder. They build a strong world that you want to engage with.
That said, these design choices still come at a price. While the battles are very good at establishing an engaging world, I remain more ambivalent about how they establish character. While the close camera makes fights feel dynamic and unique, it also makes the levels tight and claustrophobic. And because members of the Assault Force can’t pass each other, it becomes all too easy for them to trip over each other. Similar problems arise with each character’s abilities. Although everyone has their own unique fighting style, the free-flowing levels obscure how unique each fighting style really is. Perhaps that’s why each boss battle devolves to the entire Assault Force crowding around the villain du jour and chipping at its armor while everybody charges up their special attacks. None of this sends the message of a specialized team of comrades working together, yet all of it stems from the decision to show off the underlying technology.
I don’t want to needlessly malign Sakura Taisen 3 for what it does. After all, there’s still a fun, enjoyable game beneath all these decisions. Yet I can never quite shake the feeling that the game is always one step away from realizing its full potential. The battles are great at establishing a world, but work against establishing the kind of character that a heavily character-driven story like this requires. And while the game seems aware that there’s an interesting world it can engage with, it doesn’t ever appear to act on that knowledge. A stronger, more unified direction could have corrected some of these problems. As it is, though, the game falls well short of what it could be.