…..Fuck this shit. I’m out.
FINAL SCORE – (0/10) WHAT THE FUCK?!
………..Oh if it was only that simple.
My friends, at last we’ve reached the end of the road. After playing Sakura Swim Club, I realized that I was going to lose my mind trying to keep up with the coagulated river of monkey piss that is the Winged Cloud Sakura Series. For those who don’t know, I promised that I was going to do only one more Sakura VN and call it quits to preserve everyone’s sanity. It was that or I’d spin myself into a cycle of rage so hot and consuming that the mere sight of anything above an A cup would devolve me into a mouth-foaming, tooth-grinding bull ready to shove my immaculate Italian leather foot into the nearest talentless anus I could find. I originally intended for that final review to cover Sakura Beach, because it couldn’t possibly be worse than Beach Bounce, but I was in no hurry to play it for reasons I expounded upon on in the SSC review.
So a few months ago, when I was ready to put the money down for Sakura Beach, the split from Sekai Project was announced along with their next big title: Sakura Santa. At that moment, the lights in the ostentatious VNs Now HQ dimmed. The clouds outside parted and the sun shone down in one glorious beam onto the Great One. The Almighty Himself put His hand on my keyboard, stopping me in my tracks, and said, ‘JP, Great One; hang onto thy rage. Hang onto thy righteous fury. And prepare thyself because you cannot, you WILL NOT end this streak with sluts on a beach. You will end this streak on Winged Cloud by ripping to shreds the most insulting Christmas story of all time. You must destroy Sakura Santa and when you do, all men will know the name of the LORD, WHEN THE GREAT ONE UNLEASHES HIS VENGEANCE UPON THEE.’
This day has been long ordained. This could well be my last Winged Cloud VN and I’m going to make the most of it. Here we go with my review of Sakura Santa.
- Genre: Fantasy, Harem
- Release Date: December 21, 2015
- Developer: Winged Cloud
- Language: English
- Platform: PC
- Website: Steam
- Edited By: Ozzytizer
A young man named Koji finds himself alone in the days before Christmas. Wishing for a friend to spend the holidays with, Koji visits the local shrine hoping for a little divine intervention. In subsequent order, Koji meets the guardian spirit of the shrine Akina, his childhood friend Itsumi and one of this world’s ‘Santas’: yeah apparently she’s one of the original Santa’s kids and is tasked to operate on her Father’s behalf to ensure that all the good little boys and girls get what they want for Christmas. What follows are the ‘wacky’ adventures of Koji as he forms new friendships, and maybe something more intimate, with these three girls and I swear to God if you weren’t reading that in a very sarcastic voice you haven’t been reading this site for long enough.
Where in the blue, bloody Hell do I even start with this thing? How about the main attraction: the girls? Let’s face facts, the girls of Winged Cloud were never going to shake the literary world. There was still some attempt at backstory and character development, but the girls they created usually stuck so closely to familiar anime tropes that they never stood out. So, for a split second, I was on the fence about Sakura Santa’s female cast when I realized that WC didn’t go for cheap stereotypes this time around and instead left them completely empty of any characterization at all.
On the surface, this should be a coup for your’s truly. No characterization is an easy target considering this series so I should be able to check that box, rage the appropriate thirteen minutes, and move on. However, while there isn’t any characterization to the three girls, that doesn’t mean they don’t have personalities…and quite frankly that’s where this entire thing gets weird, because they all pretty much have the same personality. All three want the attention of the main character of course and beyond that they’re all dumb and slutty to varying degrees. Think of the three on this wise:
On the far left end of the scale we have Santa herself. Her total incompetence is played up in the name of cuteness, but like previous innocent characters in the WC catalog they have no problem shoving her gigantic rack into the frame whenever they can. Also disconcerting is that this is apparently supposed to be the actual Santa’s daughter, yet the standard uniform the man designs for his children make them look like prostitutes. Great.
In the middle we have Itsumi who doesn’t go into either extreme. She’s supposed to be more deadpan than the other two: showing very little emotion and being matter-of-fact, even when she tries to attract Koji. She’s also willing to show herself off in the ridiculous outfits given to her by her job well before Koji re-entered her life, so her overall look was more practical than slutty even if those outfits where to attract customers to a family cafe. However both of these very reasonable explanations hit the dirt hard the minute she runs back into her childhood friend, after which she’s more than happy to allow him to leer at her naked, gets all warm and fuzzy when Koji acts possessive towards her (yes, this actually does happen) and goes out of her way to be as slutty as possible to keep his attention on her.
Like with other games in the Sakura series, if any real thought had been given to this character she might have been entertaining at least. However, since it wasn’t, her position in the middle only highlights how bad the writing for this series can be. Not only does she manage to hit all of the harem schlock buttons by including both extremes, her obsession with Koji becomes frustrating as the game wears on since it is abundantly clear she doesn’t need him, or wouldn’t need him if the game didn’t dictate it. This gets even worse in the third act but that’s for another paragraph. For now, her middling position is as frustrating as any other middling position is.
Finally we have the far right end of the spectrum with the absolutely shameless Akina. She exists solely to flirt with Koji. There is literally nothing else to her character than being a slutty tease and what makes it so much worse is that you can argue that Akina is wholly unnecessary to the game at large. Santa is here because of Christmas and Itsumi is her thanks to her childhood friend role. There is no real reason to have a fox girl here other than WC’s raging kemonomimi fetish and because giving otaku blue-balls is an entire subgenre in anime and manga.
As for the boy himself, I’ve talked at length about the Generic Male Protagonist and their prevalence in WC’s works. Koji eschews that by not even filling a GMP role and having their base characterization formed around being pathetic. That is a word I rarely use when it comes to the main characters in Winged Cloud games. They can be obnoxious, arrogant, stupid, over-idealized, annoying douche canoes but Koji may be the first in the long line of WC protagonists to have the distinction of also being pathetic. This gets even more sad when you realize he’s following in the footsteps of Kaede from Sakura Swim Club.
If you’re just now reading these reviews, Kaede from SSC has the distinction of being the first notable example of a surrogate in the Sakura series. Whether or not he was supposed to be an audience surrogate or an author surrogate is something that I still debate in my head from time to time. Either way it wasn’t an insulting portrayal of someone who, according to the story, just wants to enjoy what they want to enjoy without the pressure of outside expectations. It just read as him being more of a brat and your annoyance from there will vary.
Koji is another surrogate and again I’m on the fence on who he’s supposed to be a surrogate for. My gut tells me it’s supposed to be the audience and there are a couple of reasons for this. The fact that so much of his character has been intentionally left blank allows the audience to superimpose their own experiences in life into the blank space. The other is that the only rationale given for Koji’s sudden luck is that he’s nice. Using Koji’s kindness as the only tangible reason for the events of the story to occur eschews the wish-fulfillment idea WC has flirted with before and leaves more than enough room for the audience to interpret the rest of Koji’s character with their own personalities.
Finally, there’s the coddling. This did not used to be a problem with WC. Up until Fantasy, their protagonists were idealized but the story didn’t bend over backwards to comfort them. Swim Club, however, introduced a power fantasy that required the narrative to vindicate the protagonist even when he was either wrong or was reveling in negative character traits. I have not played Sakura Beach, but I’m willing to bet we see a similar narrative approach where the protagonist is supposed to be an audience proxy and the narrative has to constantly reassure him, and thus the audience, that his behavior and desires are fine regardless of what they are.
In Santa it’s far worse because at least the narrative coddling in Swim Club was there to reinforce the power fantasy. Here when the girls support Koji’s possessiveness, or muse that they dislike change, or even fight over the little moron, not only is it forced, but it is completely unnecessary. Most of the reassurances that come from the narrative aren’t prompted by anything that happens in the story. It’s just dumped in the middle of the conversation with all of the grace of a horse relieving itself in the middle of the street. And it only makes Koji seem like he cannot exist without the constant positive reinforcement of the eye candy around him. I’m sorry, but being told every little action and thought is not only okay but also attractive is infantilizing and makes Koji look pathetic. And while it doesn’t necessarily say anything about how WC views their audience, it does say a lot about what WC is comfortable putting out now that they know they have a dedicated following who will excuse whatever crap they ship out.
‘So where does that leave our story?’ One might foolishly ask. Anyone hoping for a nice Christmas story is about to get kicked in the balls because these four terrible characters are promptly shoved into a lifeless, formulaic plot that wouldn’t have made it to the Hallmark Channel. Each storyline is identical: Koji spends time with the girls and fanservice occurs in the first two chapters. I’m sure you were expecting for some semblance of a storyline to get forced in there, but the closest we get is with Santa who is directly tied to the Christmas theme. The wisps of this potential storyline, however, are continuously smothered by the need to exploit her stupidity in the name of more fanservice. I’m not even remotely joking. The game takes a verbal detour in the middle of a conversation about Christmas so that we can get an Event Graphic of Santa trying to place her incredibly phallic candy cane wand in between her tits. Yay.
The nonsense is interrupted in all three storylines the exact same way: forced drama. Expecting some sort of build-up to any sort of drama in a Winged Cloud game is a fool’s errand at this point, but this goes beyond lazy and just become sad in its formulaic nature. Akina is suddenly recalled to the Spirit World for no particular reason, she’s just recalled because the higher gods decided to recall her. Santa manages to trip and break all of the toys she made for Christmas because if you haven’t figured it out yet, she’s a dumbass. But the most infuriating dramatic turn goes to Itsumi who confesses her feelings to Koji and when he says ‘I knew it’ she gets pissed at him because he didn’t tell her before she moved away years ago.
I could go into an angry rant for each individual route, but the larger point is that all three nonsensical. There is no reason for any of them to be there other than the ‘traditional Christmas movie’ has some sort of dramatic point where the cast has to suddenly get the sads only to reconcile and experience ‘the true feeling of Christmas’. And while I have yet to see it done well, this is borderline depraved at just how abjectly idiotic it is. Even the hardest of the hardcore ecchi fans had to flinch a little as he forced himself through this rambling nonsense, only for it to solve itself in the most incoherent, bullshit way it can.
The only path in this game that even remotely makes sense is the harem ending and that just follows in the same footsteps of the last three WC games. The girls compete for Koji for all of five seconds before calling a truce and splitting him up because he’s Koji, and he’s nice and he deserves a harem because the pathetic worm is nice and GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH
PRESENTATION & TECHNICAL
Okay, I lost my calm there for a second. But the calm is back: moving on
The Winged Cloud Machine strikes again when it comes to the Presentation. I swear to you no matter what artist works with them, WC will make them follow their character template to the letter. We’ve seen it happen to Wanaca to the point that her characters are pretty much indistinguishable and it looks like Inma is on the way to suffering the same fate. With some minor accessory changes, you could swap the cast of Beach and Santa. The term ‘same face syndrome’ is tossed around a lot now and usually just serves as blanket criticism for anything where the characters appear similar, but in this case really look at this. These are six characters for two different games and they all have the exact same fucking face with different hair colors to denote what moe flavor they are. It is haunting to look at; especially when you realize they all share more than just a face. You can (somehow) explain six different characters having the exact same face, but same body type? Same height? Same proportions? Seriously guys, it’s like they were all melded together in an ecchi factory whose sole purpose is to crank out as many anime tits as the world can stand without burning it to the ground in the process.
I rarely talk about the backgrounds because usually Badriel does the job, but you can tell when a job is rushed because everything in the background takes on a plastic quality. It’s like they were told, ‘We’re doing something for Christmas, so make it look Christmasy! Oh and you have three months MAKE IT GOOD!’ It’s very garish and artificial; neither blending in with Inma’s art or standing out on its own and elevating the character sprites with it. It just sits there like a tire fire: slowly melting and filling the air with an oily, processed stench.
I don’t know who Rem from Bastat Tail is and Google has not helped in that search, but Lord help me if I ever find out because they have not produced a single decent piece of music in their collaboration with WC. I know it’s a low bar to reach for but the absolute lack of talent in this musician is almost an accomplishment in and of itself. It’s like making a ten on a grammar test: you have to work to suck as hard as these guys do. Someone please help me out on this one because it is statistically impossible to have this long of a track record of total failure. There has to be at least one decent sound Bastat Tail produced. SOMEONE help me find it.
Technically this game manages under the care of MangaGamer’s quality control. It actually has a functioning choice system that is used to determine each girl’s romantic path. After so many WC titles where the choice system was used to actively mock the attempts of the player to have a voice in the story, it’s nice to see one actually work. There were a handful of grammatical errors, but it too has mostly been brought to heel.
So I guess the only real lesson we can take away from this is that MangaGamer has a better quality control apparatus than Sekai Project. Who knew?
Sakura Santa is currently retailing at $8.99 on Steam and MangaGamer. You can realistically knock the entire game out (that’s all four paths) in under three hours. There is no replay value and once you’ve played this Christmas tale, there’s no reason to pick it back up again; especially when you consider that it is thematically and narratively no different that any other Sakura series game.
So no, there is no replay value here. There is no value even if you are morbidly curious.
This is where WC, its fans and I part ways. Again, I’m sure there are those that are ecstatic because one of the few people to actually hold WC to any standard and not just go ‘lol boobs’ whenever they released something is out of your hair. And trust me, I’m pretty psyched as well. Even though I still feel like the series needs to be held to a standard, being angry all of the time isn’t as fun as you might think it is.
But before we split, can I just ask an honest question? When do you think was the last time that Winged Cloud cared about what they were making? In 2015, the group released six visual novels, seven games in total, and in that list I can only think of one that was even remotely entertaining to play: Sakura Angels. Everything else has been, for lack of a better term, processed in order to fit into particular consumer bias. It’s ensured that they continue to be profitable after the shocking success of Sakura Spirit. However, churning out a visual novel every few months just to meet a certain revenue quota has come at a dire cost to them.
Winged Cloud is a game development McDonald’s. Yes they are profitable, but the only people who give a damn are the ones with the biggest paychecks. Everyone else is in the assembly line cranking out reasonable facsimiles of food, or in this case a reasonable facsimile of visual novel just to get by. The passion and craftsmanship that comes from loving and enjoying what you do is gone and, I’d argue it was pretty rare in the first place. But the point is that in its current form, I have a difficult time imagining anyone working with WC and trying to put it together a project with a smile on their faces.
And if it was any other group, I would be empathetic. However, I’ve said this day was coming and others who weren’t enraptured by shiny anime girls warned the day would come when they’d run themselves into the ground. Can they put themselves back together again and recapture the passion for this? Maybe. I never write anyone out, but I truly believe WC is beyond caring about what they do, so long as the money keeps rolling in. And the only merciful thing to do at that point is to walk away.
But what a note to walk away on, am I right? If there was ever a visual novel that perfectly captured Winged Cloud it’s Sakura Santa. Devoid of any sort of entertainment or joy, it’s a bland fantasy stuffed to the brim with tired fanservice, forced drama and empty characters. Leaving pandering far behind it prefers to infantalize its audience, hoping that by dumping a bunch of things they like in front of them and constantly telling them how special they are will keep them from noticing just how barren this one is. It is beyond bad, it’s just pathetic and like so many other entries in the Sakura series, deserves its fate of being left on the side of the road as WC marches blindly forward, grinding any remote talent they have left until the day that even its hardest of hardcore fans leaves them behind.
And with that, I’m finished. Good riddance.