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Published June 27, 2015

Before we begin today’s session on the rack, I want to address something that has been bothering me for a while, but hasn’t really reared its head until recently and that is the ‘communal positivity’. This isn’t anything set in stone, but over the past few years of watching the EVN community I’ve noticed that the large majority of fans and developers absolutely refuse to be critical on certain projects and, instead, focus on whatever positives they can find in a visual novel. At the very least, they’ll say it was ‘fun’ and leave it at that. Last year there was a small dust-up on Lemmasoft about someone’s idea for critiques on the site, with the repeated refrain focused on the efforts to ensure a ‘positive working space’ for developers. I have been criticized myself for the ‘negativity’ of some of my reviews, especially the ones concerning RWBY (I know it’s shocking: me being negative!). Yet, to be frank, I have yet to see anything good come from this Pollyannaish approach other than it provides a defense for bad games.

I want to be clear here that being consistently negative is just as bad as being consistently positive. Why? Because it flies in the face of probability and reality. Just looking at this small corner of the Internet, it is statistically impossible for every EVN to be bad or have no redeeming qualities. On the other hand, it is also statistically impossible for every EVN to be good or have no faults. It all depends on the subject at hand and accepting the reality that there is a standard, a ideal of good and bad, to measure the game on.

JP shut up! I just want to have fun and play fun games with cute boys/girls and maybe see them make out at the end!

In that case congratulations hambone! You are exactly the type of fans the Call of Duty franchise makes bank off of year in and year out. In fact, that is exactly why the franchise hasn’t gotten any better since Black Ops: no one is willing to engage the series on a critical level, which leaves the developers willing to feed the fans the same game with a different coat of paint over and over again. That isn’t to say there is no place at all for guilty pleasures in gaming and ‘fun’ is up to your own interpretation. However, if this community is sincere about growing, then critical thought is not only necessary: it’s mandatory.

That brings us Winged Cloud.

Winged Cloud is one of a handful of commercially successful EVN developers in this medium’s short history. It has achieved this amazing feat by playing to the absolute lowest common denominator it could and cashing in by getting otaku to pay in both sales and on Patreon for what is readily available for free. On that note, you cannot deny there is a low cunning in how they’ve accomplished so much so quickly, so I cannot say I hate the group. But, all that does is make them the Happy Madison Productions of the EVN community.

So, where does that leave Sakura Fantasy Chapter 1? We know what we’re going to get here. In fact, most of you probably already know how this is going to end. I doubt I’ll change anyone’s mind, but at the very least I can give an honest account of what this game really is in the face of its defenders trying to hide behind a refusal to think critically. It’s what this site is about after all so, let’s get to it.

  • Genre: Fantasy
  • Developer: Winged Cloud
  • Publisher: Sekai Project
  • Language: English
  • Platform: Steam

STORY

Raelin is a young rookie training to be in the military of a medieval city-state. She is also gifted with the ability of astral-projection, here called ‘farseeing’, which constantly gets her into trouble as she has a knack of far-seeing when people are naked. One day, a meteor falls to the Earth causing the immortal ruler of the city-state to send out a contingent of troops to find it and bring it back. I’ve been staring at this page for an hour now, trying to devise a proper strategy to tackle the major issues of the game. The best way I’ve been able to devise is to take each of its three sections at a time and hopefully I’ll be able to cover all of the pertinent points. So let’s start with the beginning of the game and the introduction of the cast.

The game’s central plot focuses on a medieval empire that is apparently in decline thanks to its incompetent government and a ‘blight’ that has ravaged the lands and forced people to remain isolated in separate towns. This state of lethargy is supposed to be the setup for a meteor falling from the sky and landing somewhere in the empire which, in turn, will cause our heroines to shake off their lethargy and become something more heroic. The problem is that this very basic background is undercut during the entire first act because this game thinks it’s enough to just mention the setup without developing it.

What do I mean by that? Well, how many empires on the brink of collapse not only never has a food riot, but also has exotic jewelry vendors and a bathhouse capable of pumping in chocolate to indulge decadence? People do panic when the event does happens and the scene is as dry and lifeless as a near riot can be. However, the panic that can be summed up by a single character, the city’s ruler, playing keep-away with vital plot information instead of being involved. This particular type of story hinges on there being a clear problem or threat that needs to be defeated and during the first act every issue the narration tried to use to build up to our main character’s’ eventual journey feel like an annoyance at best.

That is a recurring issue with the game proper where scenes happen because WC wanted them to happen, not to actually add to the plot. The best example of this is every time Raelin astral-projects herself. The game comes to a dead stop whenever it happens and you must play through every farseeing scene. The only thing of value, if you stretch the definition, is the fanservice event graphic it unlocks and as far as this site is concerned, those are empty calories at best. And at a certain point, even the most hardcore ecchi otaku will be sighing in boredom as they have to sit through yet another semi-nude CG instead of actually making traction with the story itself. But even then, once said story begins to start, you will punch something or someone depending on what’s in front of you.

This brings us to a character that I absolutely hated: Ardena. Other than sharing more than a passing resemblance to Weiss from RWBY, this character serves as the immortal empress of this city-state and is imbued with a wide range of magical powers; here called ‘gifts’. Unfortunately, someone at WC Central Command decided that since this character has white hair and is all-powerful, she must also be mysterious. This leads to nothing being explained: especially why you have to get this meteorite for her in the first place. The ruling council tries to get an explanation on the audience’s behalf, only for Ardena to throw a magical temper tantrum at the very thought of explaining herself. And when Raelin herself tries to get some rationale for why Ardena insists on being so mysterious, she gets treated like a nosy brat.

As annoying as this is, what makes Ardena the worst character I’ve seen in a while is that her conversations show just how shallow Sakura Fantasy really is. The game isn’t being vague with her because it’s trying to build mystery for future installments. This is just how the trope is supposed to work, so that is how she’s written. Ardena’s empty character is further cemented during a farseeing scene where she talks about the ‘weight of her duty’, which is undercut by seeing her avoid said duties no less than ten minutes ago. But that’s just her role: be vague, appear deep and push her breasts and/or ass out when the event graphics demand it. That is literally it.

The other characters don’t fare much better as they clutter the screen. At the tip of the spear is Raelin who will serve as our energetic young rookie who is destined for greatness. She is joined by her friend and fellow rookie Gwynne who is a bit of a bookworm as well as a blueblood. We also have Keira: the hardass, slightly-tsundere trainer. The strange thing is that these three are not very active in the first act of the game. Stuff happens and they react to it, but those reactions never drive them into doing anything more than stand around and wait for another thing to happen. So many scenes featuring these characters could have been cut out or rewritten, but instead we must endure as they talk about training, talk about farseeing, talk about training some more, followed by a fanservice scene, then more talk about training and can you tell how much of a grind the first act was?

Outside of the meteorite, there is little here of note. Even Raelin’s farseeing abilities are reduced to throwing in more fanservice instead of serving a practical purpose…no: more fanservice isn’t a practical purpose. Although it does lead to an insulting discussion about respecting the privacy of others as the game not only encourages, but requires for you to ignore the privacy of others in order to show off its ecchi material. So instead of trying to ensure a proper storyline, what we have is a lot of padding and plenty of distractions that will hopefully keep you from noticing the story isn’t really going anywhere.

And that was the first act. Now onto the second act and while there is a lot to trim in the first act, there are a few scenes here and there that you’d probably have to keep in order to satiate Big Daddy Sekai. As for the second act, this is the first time in an EVN I truly believe you can cut an entire section out and have it not affect the game at all. The group go into the marshes and wander around for over thirty minutes. That’s it. Keira gets a small bit of backstory and it was so bad guys…so bad. We have to talk about it now, don’t we?

Before the events of the game, Keira went on an expedition into the marshlands before in a bid to revive the land and free it from the grip of the sentient plants. However the plants tried to drive her and her team insane and they were driven apart: including her younger sister. Keira managed to make it back to the city, BUT she has always assumed her sister never made it out alive. Because of this, she claims to be very protective of her rookies and she cries for a bit before we go to the next scene.

Now, directly before this scene, Raelin is attacked by a slime monster that eats her clothes. Keira admits after the attack that she knew of the monster’s existence, but doesn’t warn the girls to be on the lookout for it because, well, WC wanted you to imagine Raelin naked. The event graphic we get keeps her clothes on, so it’s mostly a waste of time other than to show Keira not caring enough to warn them of the potential threat. We have this repeated several times in the second act as a threat comes along, takes advantage of Raelin, and Keira comes behind her to mention that she knew it could happen. That’s a whole lot of love and concern for your pupils there teach.

Well maybe Keira wasn’t concerned because everything she warns about, including psychological manipulation and the forest turning against you to keep you boxed in, never actually happens. The worst thing that frequently occurs is that Raelin ends up in some form of unseen nudity against her will. Other than that there is a slime girl fights them for a little bit but eventually slinks away regardless of your fight choices. So, for all of the warnings and promises of danger and dread, nothing happens. Even if it was written by the best writers the EVN scene has right now, the second act of this game would’ve been boring as Hell. With what WC is bringing to the plate, it’s unbearable.

I know I sound like a broken record, but it is amazing how little actual story is here. Even if you wanted to keep Keira’s tired backstory in the game, which isn’t necessary but if you just HAD to do it fine, you could easily include it in either the first or third act and not miss a beat. The second act is just their walk through the swamp. It is the worst form of padding and I stand by my verdict that you can completely delete the entire second act and nothing would be loss. And that’s not even taking into account how much time it actually takes to play this game, but that’s another section.

The only actual necessary part of this game comes in the third act where our merry band of dumbasses find a small tribe in the middle of the forest. Not only does the story try to make the plot work here, it tries to make the characters competent. Raelin wants to get a tribal girl to join them to help navigate the marshlands: which makes so much sense that Keira acts like a moron and shoots her down. Eventually the three have to stand again a giant ‘siege beast’, who might as well be one of the Titans from SNK as Raelin has to scale the thing’s body in order to attack the weak spot on its back. I’m not going to lie; it isn’t the train wreck the rest of the game is. It actually is quasi-independent from the events that came before it as the jungle girl, Etsy I think her name was, and her tribe’s issue actually give Raelin and the others something to actively do instead of react to. It stays strictly on its shonen-inspired rails and never gets to a level that rewards the reader for not turning it off, but it also never outright insults the reader by dragging its ass. And while there is some minor praise in there, it doesn’t change the fact that the best way this story has to end is on an, at best, washed-out anime plot.

There are other details to go into, but they tie into the larger issue of nothing really happening. Since there is so little plot here, the cast shifts to fit whatever situation the game throws in next. When they need to be dramatic or comedic butt monkeys or competent heroes, that’s just what they are. But there is no reason for the reason to care for them and, frankly, the game itself doesn’t care. No matter what happens, Raelin in the others never act on their own accord. They always react to whatever insanity the plot has for them next and because of this, they never fit into one of the many boxes WC keeps chucking them into on a whim.

There is one more thing that has to be dealt with before we move on. When I first reported the news about Sakura Fantasy on Twitter, the first people out of the gates to defend it where a couple of ‘yuri fans’. If I recall the conversation correctly, they knew Sakura Fantasy was going to be crap. But because it had the yuri label on it, and more yuri needs to come to the West, they decided to support it anyway. And that, I have to admit, is a sign of dedication to a subgenre that is rare in gaming as a whole and is, I’m sure, one of the reasons WC promoted this game as a yuri game.

So, how does Sakura Fantasy do as a yuri game? I bet you’re dying to find out.

There no romantic relationships in this game: none. All of the kissing CGs you’ve undoubtedly seen by now are technically dream sequences from Raelin projecting herself into the consciousness of the girl she’s making out with while she’s asleep. After said dream, the girls push it aside as just an embarrassing erotic dream and it is never brought up again in the game. The only other time same-sex attraction is brought up Raelin mentions it under her breath and the girl in question, Gwynne, doesn’t hear her. It can be argued (I’m sure) that this is just to set the wheels in motion to a potential relationship in future chapters of Sakura Fantasy BUT it doesn’t negate the fact that this game is not ‘yuri’ at all.

Yeah, I’m going here. Just like having one relationship between a boy and a girl in a game doesn’t make your game otome, having a scene where two girls kiss in their dreams doesn’t make your game yuri. Scenes like this were included in the game because guys think two girls kissing is hot: period. So I want all of you yuri fans that thought or tried to defend this game as a means to end to really let the fruits of your labor sink in. Really let it filter down how same-sex attraction is portrayed here as titillation for the reader, but otherwise ignorable and non-essential for the characters in question. It’s just another sexual fantasy on the checklist: a fever dream  to be exploited for cash.

Just marinate in that one because before today, I wasn’t aware that ‘yuri’ was code for ‘lesbian fanservice for male otaku’. BUT I for one am glad that we’ve cleared that up.

 

Life Is So Much Easier When You Don't Think!

Life Is So Much Easier When You Don’t Think!

 

PRESENTATION & TECHNICAL

Luckily for everyone, this section will be mercifully short because I have very little to say at this point. I said the very moment that presentation-wise, Sakura Fantasy looked bad. And, surprise surprise, the presentation is pretty bad; even for Sakura series standards. I’m willing to give the art team a slight break because even if the art had been done months before the announcement of Sakura Fantasy, the chances are high that they were working on at least three of these crap titles at a time. So a fraction of the fault for this eye sore can safely go in other hands.

However, it doesn’t change the fact that they’re not even trying anymore. And I’m not even talking about the character designs themselves; although the character’s heads are getting smaller and smaller with each release. I’m talking about the only art that has ever been noteworthy in these things: the backgrounds. It is clearly rushed 3D work with badly mapped textures at best for inside furniture and fixtures. The lighting effects never feel natural and things like food and fire clearly are copied and pasted and just looks bad.

That isn’t to excuse the character art as this is as bland and basic as their characters have ever looked. But what gets me isn’t the designs themselves: it’s the event graphics. So many of them look like pin-up shots and it feels better suited for a completely different project. And since this is what people play these games for anyway, why not just sell a PDF of the CGs? It would give the fans what they want and get WC off my radar! That’s a win-win!

The soundtrack is bad. By itself it’s a synthetic take on fantasy-style soundtracks. It never feels like a compliment to the game and, in several scenes, the soundtrack actively clashed with what was going on. I found myself muting the sound so I could piledrive through a scene. Luckily for me, the tracks kept looping so I never missed out on the musical selection Sakura Fantasy had to offer. Soundtracks like this really make me more appreciative of the good musicians in this community and if whoever did this soundtrack wants to be counted in that group, they have a ways to go.

Technically this game lies. I know that’s an odd statement to make, but the choice system here is a lie. Many choices are illusory in nature and, regardless of what you choose, the game will follow a strict path. This is best seen during a Let’s Play by a friend of this website, Chris Tenarium, and he kept running into non-choices. You can see him run into that issue during this video here. And yes; it is this frustrating. Most of the choices presented in this game can, and should’ve been taken out. The only option that has any real meaning is deciding who you want to have your dream make-out session with. So set off the fireworks for that one!

While there are no bugs I caught and not as many grammatical and spelling errors, this is the most overwritten game I’ve played. So much dialogue is repeated not only through the game, but often minutes after it had just been repeated, it is a completely useless device used strictly to increase the length of the game. As the game move forward, the repetition calms down some, but much like much of the empty, useless scenes those repeated lines take place in, the damage to the game as a whole has already been done.

 

Annnnnnd Fuck You Raelin

Annnnnnd Fuck You Raelin

 

REPLAY VALUE

Sakura Fantasy takes about three hours to complete taking your time. Because you can unlock most of the event graphics in repeated playthroughs, unless you’re just a completionist even the hardest of the hardcore ecchi fans will only play this one once. But there is something else that needs to be addressed that I feel directly affects its value.

I’ve talked at length in this review about the amount of repeated lines and useless padding in this game. Using a stopwatch, some basic math and conservative estimation, if you removed everything that is used to pad its runtime and just told the story straight out with a handful of fanservice scenes here and there, this game would be roughly an hour and thirty minutes long: that’s the conservative estimate. If you’re like me and go hardcore, you can easily cut all of the fat off, still leave enough fanservice to keep the fanboys rolling in, and clock this game out at just under an hour: I shit you not.

This is an embarrassment. The length of their games has been a pretty common critique point for even the most favorable reviewers of WC’s work. But the answer to that critique isn’t to artificially make the game longer; it’s to make what you’re saying count. Actually tell as story with actual characters and something to actually pay attention to other than yet another CG of a barely naked anime girl. It takes work and actually effort: not this. Even if you love what they do, the fact that Winged Cloud padded Sakura Fantasy to this extent and then publicly proclaimed ‘we tried to add a story this time’ is insulting.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

You can make ecchi fun: Hell, I name-dropped Joji Manabe a few months ago for a reason. Winged Cloud just don’t give a damn about any of that and it shows in their work. Sakura Fantasy is right next to Sakura Spirit in terms of  quality. It is incompetently written: using repetition and padding to try and hide its inability to tell a good story.Hours of this game can be removed as they simply have no reason to exist outside of falsely extend the game’s length. The characters are chameleons with no clear direction or goal outside bending their bodies into the perfect shot for those beloved event graphics. And speaking of said art, this is the worst it’s ever been. At least in Sakura Angels everything looked like it belonged in a commercial project. The presentation here looks like it was slapped together for a game jam…and considering the presentation in some of the games we get from game jams, that’s damn near an insult to game jams.

The pain in the ass about all of this is that, in retrospect, Sakura Angels was’t terrible. It wasn’t good, but it wasn’t terrible. There was just enough there to learn from and use to create something better the next time around if anyone at WC actually cared about quality work. Sakura Fantasy Chapter 1 is yet another installment in their commercially successful yet creatively bankrupt library. And no, I’m not done with them. As long as WC pump these out, I’ll be here to deliver the brutal reality one way or another. So start the office pool now folks for the day they either create something good or the day one of their games drive me so mad I run down I-20 naked.

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