Just in case I didn’t make this point clear during the last six to eight months, allow me to go on the record one more time:
Sakura Spirit sucks the shit straight out of a septic tank.
It is two hours, at best, of the most banal, uninspired, joyless fiction I have EVER read in ANY medium. There is NO redeeming value in it and its existence continues to be a bane on narrative gaming, good taste and humanity in general. Sakura Spirit is on a very, very short list of games I hate and it is only surpassed in my hatred by the fact that I’ve played Nowhere Safe 1 and 2. Fuck this game straight to the deepest pits of an endless Hell where it belongs.
WITH THAT SAID, let’s talk about the sequel.
Considering it made bank on Steam, a sequel was inevitable. The only real question on what form it would take. Despite leaving SS on a cliffhanger, developer Winged Cloud ditched a direct sequel and decided to go with a spiritual successor instead with Sakura Angels. In fact, there is no real connection between SS and SA: which means the title was brought to us by the same genius logic behind titles like ‘The Dark Knight Rises’.
So, considering the masses that defended Sakura Spirit, we can expect a carbon copy of the original right? Actually, to this reviewer’s surprise, that isn’t exactly true. This is still an ecchi title: which means the art direction bends over backwards to provide otaku wank material. However, believe it or not, after playing the game there does seem to have been an effort to improve on the original. Does it make it better for SA or worse is the question for this review and it is a question we will definitely answer.
Kenta is just an ordinary guy living an ordinary life in a far away, magical place called Japan. Despite seventeen years on this mortal coil, he not only has to deal with parents more interested in work than him, but also with perpetual loneliness since he has few friends and zero love interests. One day, his routine life is interrupted by a monster seeking his blood and/or entrails, but the monster is vanquished by the appearance of Sayaka and Hikari: two Magical Girls charged with keeping our dull hero safe AND staying out of sight while doing so. After breaking that last rule, the girls decide that it would be better to protect him out in the open and storm into Kenta’s life, bringing with them a threat that could see the end of the world as we know it.
Believe it or not, we have positives to discuss before we get to the negatives! Kenta himself may be my favorite WC protagonist: barely etching out Ahri from Pyrite Heart and curb-stomping Takahiro into paste. Kenta takes a lot of notes from Tenchi Masaki in the way that both are presented as sympathetic everymen who genetically luck into incredible power and the attention of beautiful (your mileage may vary on this one with Kenta) women.
There is also a marked difference between the Kenta we meet at the beginning of the game and the one left standing at game’s end. This is a reflection strictly of his reaction to the events of the story and the handful of choices you have throughout the game. A lot of this is thanks to something that is going to make me sound like a sarcastic ass for pointing out, but it’s the truth, and that’s competence. Of all Sakura Spirit’s flaws, the biggest one was its flat-out incompetent storytelling and structure. While there are no end credits to thank their team and list the people who worked on this game (again, way to be open and honest WC), the fact that there is a clearly structured, focused story here tells me that either the previous writing team decided to put more effort into it, or it’s a completely different writer behind the wheel.
Either way, while the fanservice is there and is still telegraphed loudly, which we’ll discuss in the next section, the majority of the game is written to advance (SHOCK GASP) THE PLOT. This is the critical equivalent of a parent being happy their child didn’t fall off their tricycle, but let it never be said that this humble reviewer never gave credit where credit was due.
‘JP!’ Some ecchi fanboy is surely thinking right now. ‘Does that mean you think Sakura Angels is good?’ Not in this lifetime amigo.
Chances are, if you are an anime fan, OR if you grew up on the Toonami block, you’ve seen this plot done and done better as that Tenchi crack from earlier wasn’t by accident. While it’s structure ensures a narrow focus that was desperately needed after the last go around, it also removes any potential for the audience to be interested in the story. By the halfway point, it had turned into a sit for me as the running gag of Kenta walking into a closed door under the impression that he was alone resulted in him quickly realizing that he wasn’t had all potential humor pistol-whipped out of it HOURS ago.
The sad thing about it is that, at least for the first half of the game, Sakura Angels didn’t feel like it was one this track. With the introduction of Dark Magical Girl Yuzuki as the primary antagonist, the story hit a relatively high note. Sayake and Hikari had been tossed around like ragdolls and clearly were out of their league: leaving Kenta with little actual protection and a real potential threat to bust up his potential harem. In another writer’s hands, this would have been the set up for the rest of the game as the girls learned how to work together better, exploring their own limited characters in the process, but also exploring a potential relationship between one of them and Kenta. In this writer’s hands it’s one more box to check off on the unholy Shonen/Ecchi checklist WC has made for themselves.
All of the actual character development points are done off screen while the reader gets to endure the game constantly teasing them with an explanation of the plot before one of the girls states that they cannot explain anything further. Gee, you seem to have no problem showing off superhuman strength, speed and stamina and your literal presence in his life would attract more than just the attention of monster’s in a well-written world Sayaka, but actually telling the TARGET of all of this other-worldly violence what the Hell is going on? On no, that’s a line too far to cross! This is especially rendered idiotic when the end of the game reveals that the girls would need Kenta’s help to stop Yuzuki’s mistress from returning to Earth. So, basically the plot could have ended fifteen minutes in, yet it is stretched out thanks to total, canon incompetence.
Fine job ladies: really.
Speaking of the girls, I hope you were expecting anything special. They don’t fall into the insulting characterizations we saw in Sakura Spirit, at least from the plot’s point-of-view, but they don’t step outside of the writer’s clichéd comfort zone. Sayaka is the bubbly genki girl you’ve seen a million times before and Hikari is the all-business tsundere you’ve seen a million times before. It isn’t interesting, but the story apparently understood this as there are very few one-on-one scenes between Kenta and the girls. This not only doesn’t allow for the girls to get any of the growth that Kenta receives, it also shoots any potential romantic subplot right in the balls. And considering the entire choice structure is to promote a relationship with one of the girls over the other, guess what is now rendered useless?
We’ll cover that in the P&G section; let’s get back to the plot.
The character who comes out on the low end of the totem pole is Yuzuki. We don’t get many proper antagonists in the EVN world so I like to point them out when we get them. Unfortunately, again after the first half build-up, we spend a little time with Yuzuki because after being full-blown psychotic in their earlier confrontations, she can be alone with Kenta without killing him! LOGIC! Anyway, do you know why she has gone evil and is determined to kill a completely innocent person in order to resurrect an ancient evil and condemn the entire world to a never-ending nightmare?
Because she doesn’t have any friends.
What makes this particular trope-riffic characterization so bad is that it telegraphs Yuzuki’s ending and removes her as a threat to our heroes because there is no way she’s going to die or is otherwise punished for her crimes. NOPE! Because all she needed was a hug! And friends! And friendly hugs! How could anyone want to harm that poor defenseless, innocent creature?
After the midway point the game simplicity and formula falls complete apart and everything left drags its sorry ass to the finish line in a whirlwind of exposition dumps so that we can rush into the final battle! And how that final battle burns all the good will I had for this game. First off, while I knew Yuzuki would survive and join Kenta’s group at some point, a proper final battle would have at least soften the blow. Yuzuki went from a villain that both girls couldn’t beat in a two-on-one in their first battle, to one they could force into a draw in a two-on-one battle by the midway point, to getting her ass handed to her in a ONE-ON-ONE BATTLE by the end! Oh, forgive me: a one-on-one OFF-SCREEN battle.
The evil entity is dispatched with minimal effort all things considered and the day is saved. Depending on your choices, one of the girls will flirt with you in the aftermath and Kenta will be completely oblivious because of anime clichés. And in all of that, outside of Yuzuki’s ludicrous confession of her own evil intent, there’s nothing here that really stands out to separate Sakura Angels from any other anime-inspired visual novel. I referenced the formula used in Pyrite Heart earlier and this feels like the ecchi version of that game right up to the end. Its literary junk food: consuming it won’t kill you, but that doesn’t make it good.
PRESENTATION & GAMEPLAY
The Presentation for this game follows the exact same vein as all WC works. Clearly the artists are capable, but what they’ve chosen to draw is so ridiculous I am becoming legitimately concerned Wanaca’s brain is rotting from trying to find new and exciting ways to deliver fanservice. I’m not even talking about the Magical girl outfits at this point. I’m talking about the female school uniforms that feature some kind of boob sock/boob window combination andgarters. I’m not asking for something out of Louisa May Alcott but, honestly, the three girls would probably feel more at home at one of Chairman Tadokoro’s parties dressed like that rather than going to class. And extra points to you if you got those references.
I’m not even going to bother with the Magical Girl outfits because, really, if you weren’t expecting something ridiculous you don’t know WC. However, I was stunned by how uninspired the character designs were yet again. It’s a pretty low bar Wanaca has set for themselves’ creatively and as long as the bust and panty lines were in the right spots, they were going to hit that bar. But it remains a waste to see people settling for this boring design work.
That especially comes through when you get to the Event Graphics. I was told last year when I was reporting on the voice actors in The Guardian’s Spell that Winged Cloud often has its art done first, then fills in a story to correspond with the art. I can see that clearly here because the tone of most of the graphics and the tone of the story are night and day. I mentioned this is another location, but it’s kind of hard to take the threat of Yuzuki seriously after she beats our magical girls down so hard they land in the combination boob/ass/crotch shot you see up top.
This continues in most of the graphics as they are more intent in delivering fanservice than following the tone set by the story. For the rest of the graphics, the fanservice is telegraphed from a mile away and more than often feels completely unnecessary. There is no need to have Hikari groped by a tentacle monster or an Event Graphic of Sayaka’s uniform being ripped to shreds during a monster attack other than WC had a fanservice quota to meet.
Here’s the interesting part in all of this. There’s a running gag where Kenta constantly walks into the bathroom and catches one of the girls in a state of undress and, if the writing was done AFTER the art was done, I can honestly see this being the main source of fanservice through the game. It certainly fits the original meaning of the phrase and, as someone with known opinions on fanservice, if this would have been the methodology behind it, I could’ve embraced it. The same goes for the picture for the beach episode. It’s ludicrous, but fits the scene they’re in. Everything else feels forced down your gullet because, Hell, that’s why you’re presumably buying this game.
I will say that the backgrounds are beautifully done and show a huge step up over the past few WC games in terms of animation effects and general composition. I’m not sure who did that but a shout-out to them.
The Gameplay is, to put it nicely, a mess. As I stated before, there is a choice system here designed mostly to choose between Sayaka and Hikari. As stated before, the story doesn’t lend itself to build up any potential relationship between Kenta and the girls, which means despite reports to the contrary it has the exact same value as the singular choice in Sakura Spirit did. Well done.
Outside of the meaningless choices we have general incompetence. This is best scene with a strange issue where the sprites overlap with one another during certain transitions and gets stuck that way for a while. My favorite is during a scene that was supposed to be set during a rainy day, where you have Kenta loudly describing the terrible weather only to go outside into bright sunshine. This is what I meant when I talked about WC’s tendency to finish the art before the script and, frankly, it just smacks of laziness.
Interestingly enough, the game doesn’t have a credit section or even an end roll. If only one person worked on it out of their own pocket, I could kind of understand why this is. But WC’s regulars are pretty well known by now. Especially considering this is a commercial endeavor it feels a little off to me NOT to give credit where credit is due. It isn’t a knock against the game itself, but it was bizarre to have the game end and cut straight back to the menu screen.
Other than the useless choice system and overall laziness, the game didn’t have any fatal breakdowns or bugs.
I knocked out Sakura Angels in under an hour and thirty minutes and, really, that’s more than enough time to take care of everything this one has to offer. The current asking price is $9.99 though and I’ll let you decide if that’s proper market value. For me, it isn’t even close considering what a game like Dysfunctional Systems got you for $5 or what Planetarian got you for the same price.
Of the two ecchi titles released by Winged Cloud, Sakura Angels is far more bearable. The beginning has the light-hearted, comedic feel you’d expect in this kind of work. But it cannot maintain that humor thanks to its bland, underwhelming tale and sparse interest in the overpowered Magical Girls that have invaded Kenta’s life. After the fun and interesting first half, it gets back quickly to what WC has sadly become known for: fanservice. It actually gets back to it immediately as Yuzuki summons a tentacle monster to grabs Hikari for an Event Graphic. And that’s what’s so sad about this: there are competent people behind the wheel here in putting this thing together, yet it’s a well-made vehicle for delivering fap material.
This is why I repeatedly say in the podcast, ‘Once you lower the bar, you cannot get it back up’. Sakura Angels may have never been great, but it could have been decent. Hell, it could have been Pyrite Heart…yeah I cannot believe I said that either. This forces so much fanservice through your eye sockets after the midway point that it overrules the admittedly mediocre twists and turns the story takes so that they can squeeze one more hint of cleavage at the screen. It almost feels like the directors and leading team members were afraid if they didn’t add it on, they’d disappointed their fanbase, because apparently that fanbase cannot handle a game that doesn’t show off some part of the female anatomy at every opportune moment.
It’s bad. But it’s bad by choice this time around, rather than by ignorance. Still though, at least it’s not a complete insult: so I’ll take the progress where I can get it. In the meantime, if you have to have massive, shiny anime boobs in your life, you can do much better than this.