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Published October 3, 2015

Before we begin this review, I would be remiss if I didn’t note that VNs Now has a new Reviews Editor! It’s a familiar face for those long-time readers who remember Will Wellemeyer (aka Ozzytizer) was our Reporter. He’s been busy, but he’s still been around behind the scenes of VNs Now. He’ll be taking a more active role again so please give him a warm welcome back everyone!

Now, on to the review!

I know what you’re expecting in this review and you are justified in thinking that you’re about to experience three thousand or so words of pure rage. And, to be fair, Winged Cloud is very good at pressing that particular berserk button in by brain. However, we’ve been on this Merry-Go-Round of tits and schlock five times now; four this year alone. Just as I have said that at some point WC will have gotten all of the mileage they could out of the Sakura series and leave nothing but a withered husk after it, the same thing goes for criticism of the series.

Physically and mentally speaking, at some point you just get tired of being mad and I am tired of being mad at the Sakura series. I’m tired of repeating the same freak show with a different coat of paint. I’m tired of this series treating me like a goddamn pre-pubescent just because I have a Y chromosome. And most importantly, I’m tired of putting thought into something that WC and their fans clearly don’t. There are plenty of other bad EVNs I can hold up as an example of what not to do for fans and developers. There is no reason to keep coming back to WC’s mental diarrhea every few months.

So, you know what fanboys? You win. I’ve repeatedly promised to play Sakura Beach because between it and Beach Bounce, ONE of them have to be fun to play. But after that? I will leave you and your fan bait alone. And before you pop the champagne and tell me not to let the door hit me on the way out, trust me; the keg may be running dry, but there’s still more than enough left to put Sakura Swim Club in its place.

Sakura Swim Club is the latest release from Winged Cloud and a first for the group in that they’ve finally bit the bullet and made pornography. There are two version of the game: an all-ages version for Steam and an ‘adult’ version for Denpasoft – the sister site of Sekai Project. So you’d think that since they’ve dropped the pretense, every scene of SSC would just be a setup for our Generic Male Protagonist to screw around. Strangely enough; that is where you’d be wrong.

Warning: there will be spoilers.

  • Genre: Drama, Slice-of-Life, Romance
  • Release Date: August 3, 2015
  • Developer: Winged Cloud
  • Publisher: Sekai Project
  • Language: English
  • Platform: PC
  • Website: Steam
  • Review Edited By: Ozzytizer

STORY

Our Generic Male Protagonist of the hour is Kaede: a young man who has been shipped from school to school with the intent of finding his natural talent. Disgusted by the state of affairs, Kaede gives into teenage angst and becomes stagnant. That all changes when he hears about the Swim Club at the latest school he’s been dropped into to. From there he meets two young women, Mieko and Hitomi, and the three lives will never be the same.

Along with having a pornographic edition, Sakura Swim Club is distinctive in that the premise is a bit more serious than other editions. SSC takes on a more dramatic Slice-of-Life format with the central driving force being Kaede’s teenage angst combined with the relationships he forms with Mieko and Hitomi. Unfortunately, that doesn’t completely wash out the usual fanservice WC likes to package with the Sakura series. And considering the premises on both ends is already weak, the last thing this game needed was to be divided into two unstable visions.

So let’s take it one at a time and start with the dramatic half. The ‘Slice-of-Life Drama’ road is pretty worn by now, but you can still pull a few decent yarns out of it. Unfortunately, SSC drains out any possible creative flow by adding their own unique spin which is nothing more than a crippled version of a familiar tale. Kaede himself is the biggest issue and officially goes down in the records as the worst Winged Cloud protagonist; easily overtaking Takahiro from Sakura Spirit by being the whiniest emo bitch-bag I’ve seen in an EVN. This first ballot candidate for the Douche Hall of Fame is so tired of everyone expecting him to be talented like his parents. He never asked to a good student (actually said in game by Kaede) or a good athlete! Just leave him alone! Or give him a reason to do better and he will as long as it isn’t something his overbearing parents want out of him (ALSO said in the game).

Don’t get me wrong folks; I love the broken in fiction, and watching what a good author does with the pieces remains a highlight of modern American fiction. However, the starting point is recognizing that said character actually IS unlikable and SSC never seems to get it with Kaede. This also bleeds into the world at large because outside of Kaede’s Daddy issues, there is no real contention or discomfort in his world.

‘JP why is that important?’ Because he doesn’t have a reason to become a good swimmer. Period. There is no Younger Toguro or Treize Khushrenada or this chick from Teppuu to kick his ass and push him to become better. And when you are talking about a competitive activity, physical or otherwise, the passion and drive to get better comes from direct competition. However, in an act of total literary cowardice, the much needed rival character never shows up. In fact, the Swim Club never has to deal with any type of competitive challenge throughout the game, which allows Kaede and the girls to cruise to the national swimming championships (go with it).

There is a reason though that this doesn’t happen. In fact, Kaede’s entire character arc is pivotal to understanding this entire game. However, at some point we have to get to the rest of the cast SO let’s move on to Miyo and Machiko. Oh wait. Sorry guys I’m getting confused. I meant Mieko and Hitomi. Wait…it’s too early for me to discuss the presentation isn’t it? But it’s easy enough to get them confused because they’re basically the exact same characters. Mieko is the resident tsundere: going from angry to infatuated in a moment’s notice, only to be held back by her anxiety of the other sex. On the other hand, Hitomi is more confident and flirty, but can also take herself and the club seriously when the time comes.  Unlike their predecessors, both have detailed backstories to try and give them added depth and, at this time, if you haven’t put your pillow in an upright position on your desk in the event of head-desking, you might want to because we’re getting into that.

Of the two, Mieko’s backstory is the most ludicrous. Apparently before Kaede came along there were more members of the Swim Club. However one of the members, and a friend of Mieko’s, got hit by a drunk driver. While she survived the accident, she was also physically unable to swim again. Unable to accept the diagnosis, her dumb ass tried to swim alone and nearly drowned. Somehow she survived AGAIN and, enraged by her bad fortune, she began to spread nasty gossip about the swim club which led to the other members leaving and the possibility of the club closing until Kaede shows up.

These events have left Mieko with a fear of people talking about ‘drowning’, not ACTUALLY drowning, just people talking about it. And, honestly, do I even have to analyze this?  This isn’t the first time we have covered tacked-on drama that was added for the sake of having tacked-on drama, but Mieko’s backstory is written with a much more mind-boggling intent. There is no way for her to work through the laughable issues presented because of the ridiculous lengths WC goes to in order to make it ‘dramatic’. So the only real solution to Mieko’s drama, with added buildup thanks to the spread of rumors, is to focus on something more ‘positive’: aka Kaede.

Let me repeat that for the folks in the back row. Mieko’s backstory is so ridiculous that the only logical conclusion was that it was written to give her an issue that could be solved with the magical powers of Kaede’s penis. You know, WC regularly goes for the low bar when it comes to fiction and misses, but this? This is a botch worthy of a Maffew video. And it only gets worse.

On the other end we have Hitomi whose Mom has breast cancer. I honestly don’t have a lot of jokes about this one because just like Machiko’s care and devotion to her sister in Sakura Spirit, this was presented about as competently as you could ask for. It wasn’t automatically labeled as terminal, as some other hack writers might do, so Hitomi is justifiably scared. The scene where she explains her Mom’s condition happens just after Mieko’s absurd drama so for a second, a split second, the game got serious and damn near pulled off actual character drama and development.

But, then again, if they would’ve ACTUALLY pulled it off, that would distract from the boobies! And we can’t have that now can we? The SECOND Hitomi stops crying, we are treated to THIS:

 

Oh yeah, that’s what I want to see right now. I mean, yeah she was just crying about her Mom’s cancer and is still clearly in an emotional fugue state because of it. But, that doesn’t mean we can’t have more boobies! YAY BOOBIES! And besides, her being afraid that her Mother could die will be easily fixed when she gets over herself and focus on what’s really important here: Kaede’s penis!

After this scene, neither Mieko’s nor Hitomi’s ‘backstories’ come back into play and the full force of the story focuses on either Kaede’s Daddy Issues or his harem. I discussed this on Twitter, but it has to be read to be believed. In one scene we get the girls’ backstories only to have them immediately dropped because in the next scene they are fighting over who gets to date this bitch. When they ask Kaede to choose, he instead insists that he would rather date them both! And so begins their three-way relationship!

And just in case someone wants to try and defend this, no: I’m not going to give this game the benefit of calling what these three pinheads set up as a ‘polyamorous relationship’ because the goal isn’t to form a relationship. As I said before, this is just to form a harem for Kaede and the writers were too damn lazy to think of any other way to set it up. So he gets exactly what he asks for and the rest of the game slides back into the territory of Sakura Spirit where ‘intimate’ scenes are written to set up fanservice. This leads to some truly groan-inducing writing because explaining the ridiculously drawn fanservice only makes the scenarios that lead to said fanservice Event Graphics much more absurd. I’ll get into it more when we get to the presentation so just leave the tarp out.

The story continues to set up Kaede’s eventual confrontation with his Father and this is worthy of closing out this part of the review. We’ve talked about Power Fantasies before here on VNs Now and, ironically, Winged Cloud was the catalyst for that conversation. It’s often thrown around when talking about media with a majority male audience: especially video games. The classic male power fantasy, of course, would be someone like Batman, Superman, Iron Man, etc. The more modern form I would argue is something like the Daniel Craig version of James Bond: someone whose power is derived from their passion for something greater than themselves and, through that, is always needed by that greater ideal. For Bond, that greater purpose is England (see Skyfall if you haven’t) and that philosophy is starting to take root in modern superhero movies as well.

In the Sakura series, you can and many have tried to argue that the games are a male power fantasy, but I’ve always questioned that one. The male main characters, and even Raelin from Sakura Fantasy to an extent, never struck me as a power trip for the player. Even though Takahiro, Kenta and Seiji all manage to attract the romantic interest of several young women and solve their world’s various issues by their mere presence, filling the power trip role on that front, it comes at the cost of their own identity which counteracts their over-idealized personalities. It’s why I so often call them Generic Male Protagonists in my reviews: ANYONE can be them, which ironically makes it hard to idealize them and play vicariously through them as an Audience Avatar which is key in a power fantasy.

Kaede, however, is a very different story. Unlike his fellow WC GMPs, his personality is defined from the offset. The mixture of apathy and entitlement are classic hallmarks of an Unlikely Hero. In fact, if the game didn’t bend itself to constantly protect his frail ego, I would argue that we’re not supposed to like Kaede at all. However, I do believe that regardless of whether or not the audience likes his personality, they are supposed to idealize him. Why? Because he won.

Kaede never actually evolves as a character over the course of the game and one can argue that time stops at an ideal moment: at the height of his youth, when he found something that he can be great at simply by dropping into the water, and the universe rewards him for this miraculous discovery by giving him a willing harem. The threat from Kaede’s Father then isn’t to impose his own overbearing ideology on Kaede, but rather to turn the clock back on and make him take responsibility for his actions. Instead of giving in, Kaede chooses to fight back in order to keep time still: making an ultimatum with his Father that if he comes first place in the national swimming competition, then he gets to stay in the school with his harem.

Of course he wins, but the stereotypical ending that you could see coming from the first scene of the game isn’t the point. The point is that Kaede managed to literally stop time and secure one of the oldest male power fantasies in the world: eternal youth…or perpetual adolescence if you’re feeling critical. The question is, is that necessarily a bad thing? And, honestly, I’m going to need a little more time to think that one over.

 

PRESENTATION & TECHNICAL

Wanaca returns to do the art for this game and, by itself, it isn’t that bad. Outside of the ridiculous stockings and garters for the girl’s school uniforms, SSC actually has some restraint (or as much ‘restraint’ as this series is capable of) when it comes to the character models that, as mentioned earlier, borrows more than just the concepts from Sakura Spirit. While it isn’t lighting the world on fire with its ambition, it is a welcome reprieve from the increasingly ridiculous designs of the past few Sakura titles and leaves the fanservice to the Event Graphics. And that is, honestly, where it begins to get a little ridiculous.

As I mentioned before, the game comes to a grinding halt in order to set up and explain fanservice CGs. It starts off innocently enough in the beginning with an extended discussion between Kaede and Hitomi because one doesn’t like wearing her uniform skirt to school on windy days which leads, of course, to a CG of her panties. Then there’s this gem. According to the story, Hitomi was trying to set up Kaede’s game console and tripped into the wires…somehow leading to THAT.

In another scene Mieko, who I’d like to remind you is the resident tsundere and has been frozen in anxiety at the thought of Kaede seeing her panties, decides to help him with his studies and takes the poor boy him to her home to study. Once they are in her room, Mieko strips down to her school blouse and panties without a second thought. Why? Because the game had to set up the CG of Mieko in her shirt and panties you see above this section.

Presentation is more than just your art looking good. Presentation is about harmony between art and story. Everything has to have rhyme and reason, otherwise the entire thing gets derailed like SSC did during so many of these scenes. And I’m not saying you had to remove all of the fanservice. In fact, there were a good number of Event Graphics that actually worked in context with what was going on. But instead of leaving the rest on the floor and going for balance, WC kept shoving CGs in regardless of what it took to get them to fit because boobies.

On the technical side it is mostly competent. The writing is a step up from past Sakura entries and, when it wants to, it hits a poetic flourish that would have been a nice touch. There are more than enough scenes with stilted dialogue though to keep the writing team busy honing their craft for much longer. But, as someone who has been reading these games very carefully, I can tell you there is a marked difference between the writing style and grammar of Sakura Angels from the beginning of this year and SSC now. So at least someone around the WC water cooler is improving.

The choices, on the other hand are, as usual, pointless. You get a few words different in dialogue, but nothing worth having as many choices involved as they do. Again this is a simple problem to fix, but because the only critique anyone in WC or Sekai Project took seriously was the asinine single pointless choice in Sakura Spirit, we’re now stuck with many pointless choices! Joy.

REPLAY VALUE

Sakura Swim Club takes roughly two to two and a half hours to complete: keeping it in line with other Sakura series titles. For me it fell so much longer though, mostly because of the banal characterizations and the setups for fanservice we discussed earlier. Regardless, once you’ve cleared a single playthrough; you’ve gotten everything you’re going to get out of it. Currently it retails on Steam and Denpasoft for $9.99 and, honestly? If you are a fan of harem anime or have been morbidly curious about Winged Cloud, this is probably the one you want to dip your toe into. I’d still advise waiting on a Steam sale as they are pretty common for this series though.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

When we started off this review, I said that WC and fans don’t think about that series and up until Sakura Swim Club that’s the truth. It was treated as mindless entertainment: literary junk food. Yet, the thing I take away from SSC the most is the message they are trying to get across. If you want to take a positive view of this game, you can make a strong argument that this game is more clever than it presents itself as and the overall power fantasy of Kaede ‘winning’ the right to stay in his fantasy world is more of an allegory than a power trip. But then, you’d have to remove the audience from the equation to fully get it…if there’s even anything there to get.

Even so, let’s ride this train out. The characters could fit into this a number of ways, but if you wanted to overthink SSC, then Kaede isn’t an audience avatar: he’s an AUTHOR Avatar. Mieko and Hitomi would then represent the audience who have their own issues and passions outside of just reading or watching the author, but are brought together thanks to a mutual love of their work. So then, who would Kaede’s parents be in this scenario? Well, that would be me and other critics….although with Winged Cloud that list of actual critics probably just extends to me. This particular theory gets a little more weight with me whenever I think back on when Kaede talks about never being asked if he wanted to live up to his parents’ expectations, because I can imagine an artist or writer being angry at my opinions and saying the exact same thing.

But even if you, like me, openly question whether or not Winged Cloud can pull off allegory and, let’s all be honest here, that may be a bit high up on the literary bar for them to reach right now. However, even then the theme and overall plot does make this something of a a love letter not only to the fans of Winged Cloud, but fans of the Ecchi subgenre as a whole. It clearly wants to encourage the audience to continue indulging in this type of media and overcome the rest of the world that demands the clock rolls on. Kaede’s fight to hold onto his fantasy world can easily be switched with the audience’s fight to hold onto their waifus and the media celebrating them in the face of a community that looks down on said media. And it is at this point where, to my everlasting shock, I realized that Sakura Swim Club was actually making me think about it deeper than what it presented itself as: something I don’t do when I consider a VN to be beyond redemption.

‘Wait…WHAT?!’

Don’t get excited because none of what I just said means that this is good. As I said before, Kaede is completely unlikable and his entitled mindset when it comes to the world and the expectations that come with life in general is enough to want to gently massage his face with a weed wacker. In fact, if this is really supposed to be a stand-in for the audience, then it really makes me question just how WC sees their audience to believe that people can identify with the brat. Mieko and Hitomi are painful to watch even if they’re supposed to be written the way they are because they are made simply to fit into whatever moment the story demands that they meet: including creating dramatic backstories for the sole purpose of having them solved thanks to both girl’s mutual Kaede thirst.

And the simple truth of this particular power fantasy is that it is difficult to write without factoring in WC’s usual lack of creativity. The problem with perpetual adolescence is that forces the narrative around it to be perpetually childish.  Not only does nothing change in order to maintain its ‘ideal’ state, but every temper tantrum and childish action taken by the main characters is also justified because there are no consequences for the eternal teenagers. So the message and theme trying to weave itself in between the boobs comes off as more condescending and heavy-handed than anything: making this more Anvilicious than I believe WC thought it would be. We get it: you want to be able to hold onto your waifu fantasies forever. Great. Now can you please get Mieko’s butt out of our faces for five seconds and actually TELL the story?

That last one is the final nail in this one’s coffin as far as I’m concerned. Trying to merge this kind of dramatic message with this much fanservice and, if you buy the version from Denpasoft, outright sex is just a bad mix. Both require full commitment to actually pull off, so trying to force two half measures together broke any narrative flow the game could have had and instead made several segments of the game vignettes of Slice-of-Life drama before an abrupt shift to ‘Hey look! Panties!’. Ultimately, SSC is hoisted on its own petard: unable to deliver on its shallow themes thanks to its absolute devotion to fanservice.

However, as I’ve said before, we’ve been on this particular Merry Go Round of Pain for a while now. I have never held back on my opinion of this group and never gave their work the excuses others have because I’m actually dumb enough to think you guys don’t want to have your fandoms pandered to by me of all people. At the same time, I’ve promised to always shoot straight when it comes to that opinion and never crap on someone’s work just because I can. With that said, Sakura Swim Club does a lot wrong and I’ve listed those things, but it also shows some effort that keeps it from hitting the depths of failure other games in the WC catalog have. It’s a messy, banal blob of a VN with plenty of missteps, but not a VN that I regret playing and one that I humbly consider to be as relatively good as the Sakura series is ever going to get.

We’ve got one more to go y’all. Just one more.