Sakura Sakura Review – The Duality of a Love

    Title: Sakura Sakura
    Developer: Hiqosoft
    Release Date: November 19, 2018
    Reviewed On: PC
    Publisher: Sol Press
    Genre: Romance/Eroge

When a game touts itself as ‘a romantic comedy about two overbearing girls and their light-hearted love triangle’, I’m just going to expect a stock dating sim. When the same game has an R18 patch to download, I start thinking ‘yeah this has all the hallmarks of a classic alone-on-a-Friday-night eroge’. Then when our main character shows himself to be a perverted fool early on, I feel that I’m right on the money. As it turns out, there’s nearly nothing stock about this game and I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Sakura Sakura is a Japanese visual novel, originally developed by Hiqosoft back in 2009 now recently released in English through Steam thanks to Sol Press. You take the role of new transfer student Tohru Inaba, enrolling at the prestigious Rintoku academy. At least, after about twenty minutes of establishing interactions between other characters before Tohru gets a few scenes of his own. Upon his first arrival to the foreign campus, the student finds himself lost, unable to find his dorm in the wide expanse of school buildings.

Unfortunately for him, due to a paperwork error, he won’t be staying at the 5-star hotel of a dorm, The Maison Lune, instead he is relegated to the almost run-down shack in comparison, The Tsukimi Dorm. Tohru, immensely disappointed, changes his tune when he encounters the dorm mother, Nanako Sakura, who saves him from currently attempted blackmailers (and soon to be friends) Naoki Fuse and Akira Nitta. Tohru falls for Nanako faster than a speeding bullet and Naoki, in turn, changes his tune (slightly) so he can be that best friend in romance games who tells the protagonist all about the girls. Tohru, in his infinite wisdom, also falls for Sakura Kirishima, the cold class rep, and artistic legend.

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Notice how I haven’t actually gotten to the game’s initial tout of the ‘love-triangle’? This visual novel is a monster in terms of its length, I mean, the game’s opening cinematic doesn’t play until practically two hours in. I’d like to think I’m a fast reader, and I didn’t get my first ending for about fourteen hours. The expected route split in the game is toward the latter half of the title and thankfully comes down to a single decision. Thankfully, because this game lets you save before you pick, it’s possible to play one ending and then reload for the other one. I likely make that sound very simple but the endings are meaty, each taking around four or five hours apiece.

Then once you’ve finally finished all that, it’s still not over. That’s when you unlock another story starring Naoki, and you go through this all over again. Also scattered throughout the game are points where you can freely move a chibi version of the player character around the dorm and interact with other characters and objects. Doing this will allow you to unlock subroutes; sidequests with their own unique chains of interaction, that are an utter blast to find and add more entries to your records and CG gallery. It’s a huge title make no mistake, Sol Press even posted an official 100% spoiler free guide on steam just to help you manage everything.

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It was after the opening credits I realized, Sakura Sakura wasn’t held back by my preconceived notions about what it was, instead, the game played out a great and hilarious story of the misadventures of a ragtag group of friends, and it just so happens to be an eroge.

The art may feel a bit dated to some people, given the game released in 2009 but I thought it was of consistently good quality across the board, even with some exaggerated anatomy at points. There are H-scenes in the game (provided you download the R18 patch) but I wouldn’t play this game if that’s all you’re looking for. I’d like to compare these to the small whip of cream on the edge of a delicious slice of cheesecake. It adds a little, but they aren’t necessary for the grand scheme of the story.

The cast is filled with quirky and vibrant characters with major players like Naoki, an ever so foolish yet far too genre savvy friend, and Masashi, a rough and tough looking dude with a gangster streak pretty much Stockholmed into joining the group. And even minor characters like Moe, the strict perfectionist art club president, and Sabu, an everyman who has accepted his fate of mediocrity, get time in the limelight and the interactions that transpire between all these characters are loads of fun. Especially with some of the fantastic portraits some characters have.

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There are a lot of minor characters that lack full body sprites, instead sporting low detail portraits. This is totally fine though because the voice acting, their interactions with other cast members and the frequency of which these characters recur more than makes up for it. The game also uses cute chibi graphics for repeated actions like Akira kicking something or characters bowing in shame and they are really nicely done. The consistent use of small on-screen CGs for depicting phone logs, items, and various notes is also fantastic. The UI is rather standard for the genre, but it comes with all the expected bells and whistles so that’s nice. I often forget the game is basically ten years old because it holds up just so well.

My sole gripe with the game is how it deals with protagonists. The protagonist is given a blue silhouette as their portrait and lacks voice acting. Whilst this has been a popular design choice for visual novels for years, to apparently assist with immersion, I think it hinders more than it helps here. Tohru is a solid character in his own right but feels kinda generic for a while longer than he should have, thanks to this choice. And this choice was made despite having a full set of sprites and a voice actor. It may be more cost effective, but I don’t think it works well for this game in particular.

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That all being said, it means nothing in the long run, as Sakura Sakura is easily one of the best visual novels I have played this year, and I’ll probably want to play it again before the year ends. Sol Press did an absolutely amazing job at translating this title. With great art, characters, and a fantastic story, this is a must-have title for visual novel fans. If you aren’t well versed in this style of game, it can also serve as a great starting point into the genre for a largely stress-free and enjoyable story to sit down to.

Score:
9/10
A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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Jacob Kavanagh

Staff Writer - Illusions to illusions. Will solve murder mysteries for money so he can buy more murder mysteries. @JacobPFZE on twitter