A few hours in
Yeah, turns out it doesn’t.
Turns out I was a little confused about Sakura Spirit, here. I figured that, sure, it’s a visual novel. That happens. Most of my time is going to be spent clicking from one scene to the next. But even visual novels have gameplay in ’em! Maybe there’ll be choices, or stats, or some minigames, or that whole ‘dating sim’ thing I erroneously thought would be in this game.
Nope. Sakura Spirit is a visual novel in the sense that it’s a digital big-picture book. You click from one sentence slide to the next, over and over, absorbing all those written words through your face eyes, and then suddenly it’s over.
Okay, in all fairness: there is one choice in Sakura Spirit. One. Near the end of the game, before the start of some nebulous festival or another, you are asked if you want to spend more time with either the fox girls, or the warrior girls. That’s it.
And the choice influences…
Nothing, in the grand scheme of things. The story plays out almost entirely the same. You either get a little vignette about how the fox sisters promise not to try to seduce you anymore, or you get to laugh at how the stern katana girl blows all her money on carnival games. Beyond that, the story plays out in exactly the same way, to exactly the same beats, with exactly the same ending.
Really, the only interesting aspect of that whole choice is which of the girls you want to see more of half-naked. Do you want to ogle the blonde fox sister sans top?
Or do you want a face full of katana girl squeezing into what appears to be an uncomfortably tight kimono?
Oh, dang, sorry! I should probably have said something about this, huh? Sakura Spirit is basically a soft-core porn game, for all intents and purposes.
No, that’s not an exaggeration. The entire game is vignettes of talking-head stories set to pretty Japanese-countryside backdrops, interspersed by pictures of the leading women in various states of nudity. The main menu even has a Gallery function, so you can peruse your favourite ecchi moments at your pleasure.
I don’t actually know what else to say about Sakura Spirit.
How does one critique a straight visual novel? I can’t blame it for lack of gameplay, because the whole premise is that it’s a book with CGI. I’ve already mentioned the lack of choices, but is that really a defining element in games like this? Does ‘more choices and branching dialogue paths’ automatically mean ‘better visual novel’? And the soft-core porn jibe wasn’t even criticism, per se, I’m pretty down with that. Fairly certain that was probably the reason it was in my list to begin with.
I suppose I could criticize the story? Sakura Spirit’s story is… not very good, honestly. I’d call it a wish fulfillment fantasy if I was feeling generous, but…
The story is more or less this: Gus has been brought back in time, somehow, to the village that preceded his own town. The two fox girls are spirits, from another world, that don’t belong in this ancient Japanese village. There’s a bunch of other spirits, also non-local, that are causing havoc, and generally causing everyone to distrust spirits. It’s up to Gus to reconcile the human and spirit world, and to help the villagers and the fox girls ward off the mischievous other spirits and stop their rampage of mild petty harassment!
It’s a decent setup in theory, ruined only a little by the fact that Gus manages to do so in just two weeks. And that the whole ‘many spirits’ angle is undercut when all evil spirits show up at once, all at the same time, at the end-game festival. And they’re all taken down within the span of twenty dialogue boxes.
Then, Gus returns to his own time, swearing that he will move heaven and earth to find some way back after he’s won his judo tournament. Then, one minute later, he does so.
(Spoilers, I guess.)
The story feels rushed, shoddily put together, and only dreamed up as a slapdash excuse to string together images of half-naked women. Which, you know, is probably because that’s what it is. How do you meaningfully critique something like that?
I’ll tell you what would be an interesting viewpoint, though: looking at it from a sex-positive feminist perspective. I’d love to have Dr. Nerdlove talk about this game, for instance, because there’s a whole wellspring of messed-up character interactions to look at. Gus alone is an amazing poster boy for the power of self-limiting beliefs. And the while archaic ‘gentleman’ norms permeating the story…
There’s a running thread in Sakura Spirit where Gus finds himself alone with one of the leading ladies. Yes, half-naked, how’d you guess? And all girls except Miyo, the stern katana girl, tend to get pretty flirty with him when that happens.
No, ‘pretty flirty’ doesn’t always cut it. Naginata girl suggestively eating a hot dog in her cleavage kimono is flirty. Blue fox girl talking about how wet she is after you rescue her from a river is flirty. Blue fox girl taking off all her clothes, then taking off all your clothes, and getting in bed with you is a little more than just ‘flirty’.
And whenever something like this happens — we’re talking at least half a dozen times — Gus reacts in the same startled, stand-off manner. He’s interested, because he’s a sexually active single man and these are some very attractive ladies. But he holds off on following through on any of the subtle and overt propositions out of some weird sense of… ‘honor’, I suppose.
Gus doesn’t reject these women because he’s not interested, he rejects them because it’s wrong, somehow. Sakura Spirit extensively lampshades that Gus realizes that he’s in an incredibly enviable situation, but then paints Gus’ abstinence as some sort of moral victory. It sets Gus up as this weird arbiter of morality, a shining beacon of righteousness, who is able to detect that getting into sexy times would be a bad idea for everyone involved even when the girls themselves seem to be pretty into it.
And, okay, in fairness: sometimes Gus has a point. Blonde fox girl, for instance, is basically portrayed as having a child’s view of sexuality. She likes getting naked, and her overtures towards Gus are less fun-sexual and more ‘I see my sister doing this, so I’m copying it’. I can understand why you’d abstain there.
But then at some point in the game, you’re invited to pink naginata girl’s — Narumi’s — house. You enter the dark house, you turn on the light, and you find her sitting there, completely naked and covered in chocolate.
Narumi has been openly flirtatious to you many times before, and she’s already shown she has no qualms about stripping down in your presence. And she uses lines like “Do you want a little taste“. There is absolutely no reason, bar absolutely none, that anyone would interpret a scene like in any other way than ‘I want to bone you right here and now’.
And yet, somehow — somehow — Gus is able to intuit that that’s not what’s going on! Because it turns out, what actually happened is that the shrine spirit demon told pink-haired girl that ‘getting naked and covering yourself in molten chocolate’ is some sort of customary ‘make new friends’ gesture in Gus’ alien future.
We’ve been shown that this girl understands flirting and sex. She’s teased you a few times. She’s referenced sex. She’s shown to be comfortable with her own sexuality, and well-aware with how everything works re: propositioning someone. And yet, she immediately accepts and believes that taking off all your clothes and slathering yourself in chocolate — and then inviting someone to have a taste — will be taken in a non-sexual context by Gus. That isn’t even possible to take this in a non-sexual context. And it’s up to Gus, beacon of paragon morality, to point out to her that what she’s doing could easily be interpreted as ‘an invitation to something more’. At which point she gets embarrassed and backs down. “It was all a joke by that shrine spirit.”
No, you know what? I’m changing my read of that scene. Narumi didn’t back down because she misunderstood the message she was sending, Gus. She backed down because it was clear to her, finally, that you weren’t going to go for it. How much more clear can anyone be in their intentions? And yet, you’re still second-guessing. Narumi ain’t got no time for scrubs like you, Gus. If you’re not taking what she’s offering, there’s probably a whole village full of strapping young men and women who are less held back by their own ridiculous conceptions.
I guess I had plenty to say about this after all, huh?
I am convinced that at least some of the people involved in making Sakura Spirit were working under the assumption that they were building a hentai game. The artist or artists, for one. It’s telling that in almost every half-naked scene, the woman involved looks some variant of sultry or happy. No matter what the story says. You walk in on Miyo changing? Smile on her face. Maeko almost flashes you while jumping? Sheepish grin. The text tells you Machiko is cuddled up to you, naked, under a blanket? Yeah, there’s no blanket in that image.
And had Sakura Spirit been a hentai game, I would have understood the format more. The extreme linearity, the lack of choices. Who cares about all that gameplay business when you’re busy speeding from sexual encounter to the next?
Sans porn, Sakura Spirit is nothing more than a relatively shallow visual novel. The story is only marginally interesting, the gameplay is absent, and you can blow through the whole thing in two or three hours, depending on your reading speed. And for ten bucks on Steam, you’re basically paying premium for a small set of ecchi images and four to six lunch breaks’ worth of reading.
Yeah, this game ain’t getting the coveted Jarenth Stamp of Approval. Get it in a mega-Steam sale if you really need to add some porn to your library.