In the fall of 1999 RED Company, creators of such series as Bonk and Tengai Makyo, announced a special project, involving its most acclaimed series yet, for the following year. Sakura Project 2000 served as a vehicle to promote the Sakura Taisen series in the year of the Dragon; two new fan discs, Hanagumi Columns 2 and Beni Tokage, were scheduled to be released, while ports of the first two titles were announced for the Dreamcast.
The biggest announcement of all, however, was the news that Sakura Taisen 3 would see the light of day in the fall of 2000. The game was eventually delayed until the spring of 2001 and dominated the Japanese sales charts for weeks, giving the ailing Dreamcast something to boast about. Does the next generation of the Sakura Taisen series best the first two installments though? The answer is yes and no.
As in the first two games, you play Ichiro Ogami, a 2nd lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese Navy. You can read my reviews of the first two Sakura Taisen games for Saturn to get some background to the story. At the end of Sakura Taisen 2, Ogami is assigned to a new post in Paris and the Teikokukagekidan is heartbroken, especially whichever girl you won over.
Upon arriving in the City of Lights, Ogami stumbles into a nun-in-training who surpasses Sakura with her clumsiness. That night, the Japanese consulate takes you to the cabaret located in the heart of the city, but things are not as they seem. Much like the Imperial Theater in Tokyo, the cabaret is a front for the Pariskagekidan; girls who fight in cool, steam-powered mecha against the anamorphic terrors plaguing the city.
My favorite part of the game is the new battle system, which totally rocks, and an area in which Sakura Taisen 3 makes up for something that the first two games lacked. Gone is the tile based strategy system; instead, you actually move your koubu anywhere on the playing field it can go, though you still only have a certain number of moves, as illustrated by a bar at the bottom of the screen. The more full it is, the more options you have. Depending on the bar, you can have up to a five hit combo or perform a special attack. You can also perform combo attacks w/the other characters, or if their love for you is high enough, a special attack.
Graphically, the game looks like a souped up version of the Saturn titles, though gone is the heavy Cine-Pak-ing on the FMV. The battle sequences have faced the biggest facelift, with fully rendered koubu and an incredibly enjoyable new combat system. During the conversation sequences, Ogami is no longer restricted to just one building; he, in his full rendered glory, can wander around Paris to his heart's content.
Kosuke Fujishima returns as character designer, however the characters cover a wide range, from bland (Erica and Hanabi) to adorable (Coquelicot) and then just downright badass (Lobelia).
The Sakura Taisen series has also always used the most talented voice actors, and the third installment is no exception. The game features such talent as Inoue Kikuko (Lunar's Luna) in the surprisingly diverse role of Lobelia, and many others.
Music is also another one of the series' strong points, though I can't make myself like the new theme song more than "Geki! Teikokukagekidan!" Luckily, they have a new version of the old familiar as the opening on the second disc of 3.
Sakura Taisen 3's weak point, unfortunately, is the story. The first two, while somewhat clichéd, had an interesting story and supported character development. The second one especially had a big helping of plot twists. The newest edition, however, just seems kind of blah to me. The girls don't really do anything for me, the plot seems way too similar to the first game… and Ogami continues to be his clueless, commitment-phobic self, while maintaining his lovability.
RED Company and Overworks have surely made a pretty game; though 3 does nothing to continue the almost epic feel that the 2nd sequel began to have. Hopefully more innovation will be present in the next sequel, though don't look for it anytime soon, since I suspect Sakura Taisen 3 will find itself on the PlayStation 2.
Nevertheless, Sakura Taisen 3 is a must have for those not shy about importing. The series manages to meld a lot of genres, such as strategy and conversation-style games, with a splash of dating-sim, and is by far one of the most enjoyable games I've come across yet.