Review: Sakura Spirit (PC)

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Developer: Winged Cloud
Publisher: Sekai Project
Platform: Steam(PC)
Price: $9.99 USD
Release Date: July 9th, 2014.

I first noticed this game back around when it was released, around July. As readers might know, Steam does not have a very large selection of Visual Novels. Or rather, there aren’t that many officially localized VN games at all.
Because of that, I was pleasantly surprised to see such a game on Steam’s front page, though this is not a Visual Novel in the same way most VN enthusiasts are familiar with. Sakura Spirit was developed by Winged Cloud, an English speaking group dedicated to creating Visual Novels. Learning that Western-based studios are successfully developing VNs really fills my up with anticipation for the future.

Upon a little more research(googling), turns out said group is developing more Visual Novels, with the help of crowd-funding techniques. Hopefully we’ll be seeing more from them and other English-based studios in the near future.

Sakura Spirit is a very short Visual Novel with a fantasy-like feudal Japan setting. The plot centers around Takahiro, a normal teen from modern-Japan who is magically cast into a world that contains cute kemonomimi girls. Of course, you could probably deduce that just from looking at Steam’s description and screenshots.

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Story
The writing in Sakura Spirit is nothing groundbreaking. In fact, one could argue that the plot and writing is plain boring and uninspired. However, don’t let that get to you. You didn’t come here for interesting writing, amazing plot-twists, and well-designed characters. You came here for this:

Indeed, this is why we’re here. Often times while reading indie Visual Novels, I get the impression that, sometimes, the developers behind them aren’t very sure what they want their game to be. One of the fundamental aspect of writing any form of media, video games being no exception, is clearly defining: “What kind of story do I wish to tell my readers/watchers?”. Fortunately, Winged Cloud has nailed this matter. That said, what kind of story does Sakura Spirit want to deliver? It wants to tell a fantasy tale with cute girls, suggestive dialogue, and plenty of fan-service.

For what it wants to be, it has most certainly succeeded on its task. To quote the protagonist, “I should have known by now that girls always seem to be changing whenever I enter a room, judging by the events of this past week”.

That aforementioned statement pretty much sums up the experience of playing Sakura Spirit. However, I can’t possibly dismiss this game’s short-comings just by being presented generous servings of supple breasts. There is little point in complaining about the plot of the game, considering it’s only meant as a backstory for the events the authors wished to write about. However, I was somewhat disappointed in how character’s personalities and their relationships were shallow. None of the 4 heroines in the game’s cast have any valid reasons for being infatuated with the protagonist. Those relationships weren’t developed, but rather shoehorned into story to get the plot going.

Furthermore, many other aspects of the story were unconvincing. Characters are swayed and trusting to strangers for no particular reason, despite what the initial setup would have you believe. The game also introduces two characters right at the beginning, in Modern Japan, that are never again brought up or relevant to the story. The protagonist has an osananajimi and a goofy sidekick-friend just because, you know, every anime protagonist has to have those two things. Though the worst that can be said about Sakura Spirit is its length. The game is barely 3 hours long, if you’re slow. Just when you expect the story to get somewhere, it ends. The ending was so sudden that I had to look it up online to make sure there was nothing that I had missed by accident.

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Gameplay
The very first thing I noticed immediately after beginning the game was that it was made using the Ren’Py engine. Many Visual Novel fans reading this will recognize it, for it was the same engine used for Katawa Shoujo, which is perhaps the most well known western-made Visual Novel. One very distinctive feature of Ren’Py is the way you can backlog the text. Visual Novels will normally allow you to read back on the text by scrolling back, which will display the already-skipped text in a box. For Ren-Py engine, the game will reverse the game entirely when doing this. That mean you can go back and view animation, panels, and music along with the text when reversing the game. This will improve the game experience a lot. So much, in fact, that I wonder why this isn’t the norm for Visual Novels in Japan.

Sakura Spirit is very gameplay-friendly. The menus are easy to navigate and very responsive. It’s also alt-tab friendly, and you can freely switch from Window/Full Screen without any issues. The only thing I felt was lacking was an option for selecting screen resolution, but most VNs don’t feature that anyway, and thus I am willing to give Sakura Spirit full marks for Gameplay aspects.

Sound
The game isn’t voiced. The game’s sound track is appropriate, but hardly memorable. None of the songs stood out as particularly good or exciting. I couldn’t find fault with the game’s music while I was playing, but it also didn’t make an impression on me. Winged Cloud has plenty of space for improvement here. I’ll be looking forward for their other games in regards to the music department.

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Graphics
By far the most impressive aspect of Sakura Spirit. Winged Cloud has some serious talent behind the art for this game. I probably wouldn’t be able to distinguish this from “authentic japanese art” if I had to.

The character-design are excellent, the backgrounds are beautiful, the anatomy is more or less correct(for anime standards), and best of all, it has none of that deviantart-tier pseudo-anime feeling that you usually get from western Visual Novels titles. Looking at Winged Cloud’s newer titles, it seems to get better and better too. Not many people can replicate Anime artstyle, and this game is absolutely fantastic from that point-of-view.

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Downsides
Though the game has outright bad writing and a rather weak soundtrack, personally I see it as having lots of space for improvement. Sakura Spirit’s greatest sin is being too short and abrupt at the ending. It also hints heavily at a sequel, which I am not holding my breath for.

Overall
The game nails the art and, as I previously mentioned, I expect a lot from this studio’s future works. Had the writing been slightly better, and had the story developed at all, this game would have been a solid 7/10, perhaps even an 8/10. None of that came to be however, and so we’re just left with a little taste of what could have been.

The Reviewer has given this game a Final Grade of 5/10!

Pros:
– Excellent interface and playability
– Outstanding Art
– Fanservice
Cons:
– Weak Musical Soundtrack
– Writing quality of a generic anime romcom
– Short story with an abrupt ending
– Doesn’t develop on any of the plot premises