So Long, My PlayStation 2
Those battles operate on some very simple principles, some of which will be immediately familiar to Valkyria fans. Each of your team members is given a Mobility Meter, which is slowly drained as you move from your starting point that round. Everything from attacking to doing joint attacks with friends to launching your own Super Attack to healing to just plain resting drains chunks of the Meter, but in a counter to Valkyria's system, if you run back to the starting point, your meter will fill back up (at least until you take an action or end your turn). This actually encourages a lot of experimentation and exploration of the smallish, boxy areas that make up a particular battle.
As things graduate in intensity, you'll eventually have to move between areas, sometimes summoning the help of team members in other areas or joining up with them if they need a little support. This idea of multiple areas within the same general battleground actually makes for some ingenious boss fights that I don't quite want to spoil. Suffice it to say, there's a wonderful amount of leeway afforded by a system that initially feels rather rigid and constrained. I give full credit to the Overworks team, as it's something they embraced just as handily with their later PS3 effort, and it really does give the game far more in the way of legs and varied strategy than you'd think.
The same could be said for all those conversations and running around New York during the day time too. The four areas that you'll regularly scoot around to meet up with people or investigate local stomping grounds for info are peppered with plenty of casual non-important conversation, and though everything is (relatively) limited by a constant ticking clock (unless you get into an important story section where the game pauses the flow of time for a while), there's still plenty to do your first time through the game. Every chapter focuses on a different member of the Revue, slowly peeling back their initial façade and exposing a nicely nuanced (if sometimes clichéd in tone) bit of extra depth to each of them. In one chapter, you may end up getting into a courtroom showdown (yes, like Phoenix Wright, and yes, it's great), while in another you may study The Bard in Central Park.
It's this constant changing of the basics that keeps everything fresh all the way to the end (though prepare for a lengthy endgame fight), and despite being "old" by video game standards, Sakura Wars' art style is incredibly eye-pleasing. You're staring at character portraits more often than not, which is why it's such a delight to see them blinking with more than two frames of animation or watching their expressions change as you bumble your way through conversations. Everything that's static is also rich in color and rife with detail, meaning even familiar faces don't get old after hours of chatting.
When the game moves into the turn-based battles, it's a little less flashy, save for some extremely elaborate (and skippable) Super Attack cutscenes. The texture work is decent enough, but all the full 3D sections do have a bit of blurriness about them that contrasts with the beautifully up-ressed 2D artwork if you're playing on a PS3 (though be forewarned: the game shifts resolutions between the mid- and end-chapter menus, which can cause your TV to blank out for a bit if you are doing it backwards-compatibility-style).
The audio, too, really is wonderful stuff. The voice work, though certainly running a well-trod anime-style delivery, is varied, interesting and rather prolific -- if you don't count the fact that Shinjiro, the main character you control, is effectively mute when it comes to voice work save for a few cutscenes. Still, the jazzy, lounge tracks that pepper all the different locales of the city are a perfect fit for the steampunk style, and manage to somehow sink into your grey matter to pop up at odd times. Nice work, Kohei Tanaka.
It can be a little tough to re-write a review from scratch when you've already gushed about things. Often times it's difficult to avoid re-treading things you've already said or even just parroting the same stuff over again, but I honestly don't need to spend another thousand words talking about why Sakura Wars is great. It's $40, which gets you both the English and Japanese voice versions on separate discs for purists, offers a ridiculous amount of replayability, and, yes, may actually be the last new PS2 game you ever play. I'm a broken record at this point, but I really can't think of a better send-off for a system already regarded as the home to one of the best collections of RPGs in gaming history. This, friends, is icing on the cake.