A few hours in
So it turns out nothing weird did actually happen! At night, I mean. It was sort of strange when I went to the bathroom the following morning to find one of the angels already there, particularly since Kenta never invited them into the house and, in fact, locked all the doors. But that’s more ha-ha strange, not monsters-trying-to-eat-my-dreams strange.
From there, the story proceeded to… well, I’m obviously not gonna spell the whole thing out for you. Let’s just say that the material on the previous page makes up a quarter to a third of Sakura Angels‘s total. And it represents the game’s running themes pretty well: a combination of magical girls fighting shadow monsters, a mystery involving headache dreams and ancient sorceresses, and walking in on people when they’re changing.
Sakura Angels has three ‘different endings’, using the term generously here, which are determined by four particular choices you make throughout the game. And after having played through all of them, my opinion of it is…
…it’s… not super bad?
There are basically two ways of reviewing Sakura Angels: I can look at it strictly in the context of ‘being a visual novel’, or I can look at it in the context of ‘being a Sakura game’.
Taken independently, as ‘just’ a visual novel, I would never go as far as to say that Sakura Angels is a ‘good game’. By VN standards, it’s short, lazy, and uninvolved. It doesn’t have the ridiculous runtime of WORLD END ECONOMiCA, or the sprawling game-influencing choices of Cinders, or the heartstring-tugging masterpiece storytelling of Hatoful Boyfriend. And that’s only limiting examples to games I’ve actually played. In the grand visual novel scheme of things, Sakura Angels is a forgettable diversion: if visual novels were dinner dishes, Sakura Angels would be a fast-food burger. And not, like, a Big Mac. Just a cheeseburger. Hold the pickles.
It’s just hard to ‘judge’ Sakura Angels for this, when it’s so clear this is what it wants to be. Like its famous predecessor, Sakura Angels never seems to hold any pretensions of providing Serious Visual Novel Experiences. It’s clearly aiming for dumb, goofy, titillating fun. And while I dismissively call it the fast-food cheeseburger of the lot, the truth of the matter is that I love fast-food cheeseburgers. No pickles.
I’m not saying you can’t judge Sakura Angels by normal visual novel standards. By all means! It’s just that this is pretty short process: Sakura Angels is not a very good visual novel by any metric, you should probably not buy it, end of story. If that’s what you wanted to know, then hey, here you go! But for those of us that do like our fun weird and goofy, there’s a more interesting review angle to consider: how does Sakura Angels fare as a Sakura game?
Pretty good, actually.
Sakura Angels improves on big sister Sakura Spirit in almost every respect. The writing is better, the story is more coherent, the characters are better-written. The game is more dynamic, using visual effects and avatar movement to convey action that still images can’t really bring across. And even the ecchi and the softcore porn feel like they have more of an actual place in the game, if that makes any sense.
When I say the writing is ‘better’, again, take that inside the Sakura context. But I definitely enjoyed Sakura Angels‘s story more than Sakura Spirit‘. Sakura Spirit‘s story was, and this is putting it generously, a bit of a mess. It started off with Gus the Judo Champion, who wanted to improve his confidence and martial skills… and then suddenly you were in Ye Olde Alternate Dimension, where fox girls steal panties from uptight warrior princesses. And there’s a whole backstory of monsters and spirits and humans that ostensibly connects these characters, except it’s only touched on once or twice, and then suddenly dropped in favour of a left-field palette-swapped ooze-a-palooza. And then Gus goes home, except then he comes back… somehow? In contrast, Sakura Angels‘s story is relatively straightforward. Boy has nightmares and headaches, boy meets girls that protect him from mysterious monsters, boy and girls discover that the monsters and the nightmares have a common source, boy and girls team up to defeat that source. End of story. Cue panty shots.
The writing is more coherent in the sense that the characters by and large act on recognizable, human motivations. Kenta is a regular high school student who’s suddenly thrust into a world of shadow monsters and incomprehensible angels. He wants to know what’s going on, and he also wants his life back. Hikari, the older angel, is all about keeping secrecy, and following the mission to the letter… even as she doesn’t quite understand why she’s falling for Kenta so hard. And Sayaka, the younger angel, just wants to have fun and crack jokes and eat food and tease Hikari and ‘tease’ Kenta. They’re simple character archetypes, but for the most part, they inform the character’s actions and motivations well enough.
I say ‘for the most part’, because there’s still a little bit of ‘characters behaving oddly because the story beats call for it’ going on here and there. Hikari is shy and a little prudish, but here she’s suddenly coyly wearing a bikini. Sayaka is by all accounts a slacking exhibitionist, but here’s she’s suddenly a highly capable fighter, and upset that Kenta walks in on her while showering. You get the idea. I’m sure all of it can be traced back to actual character motivations, but the unexpected sudden transitions can be jarring.
The same goes for the story, which has a tendency of going from ‘serious life-and-death combat’ to ‘look, isn’t it funny that these girls are tripping all over each other’ in the span of a heartbeat.
In fairness, Sakura Angels makes a good effort at actually being funny every now and again. When the going isn’t getting tough, the narrative conceit of ‘these girls somehow don’t have a lot of real-life experience’ is often played to chuckle-worthy effect. It’s not usually laugh-out-loud funny, but I found myself grinning a lot. And one particular clever scene did make me laugh. During the first morning, Sayaka offers to make you breakfast — she’s, er, not very good at that. If you allow this, and sit through the consequences, she’ll offer to do it again the next morning. At which point you get the following set of possible replies:
Comedy aside, Sakura Angels handles most of the life-and-death-danger tone well. And the action scenes are cool enough. I particularly like how the game uses the cutout avatars to simulate action, moving them around and smashing them together to convey battle chaos. It’s a clever way of working around the limitations of the medium.
Of course, not all limits can be overcome with moving sock puppets. As with almost all visual novels, Sakura Angels suffers from the fact that ‘drawing fancy backgrounds’ is an expensive and time-consuming process. Consequently, backgrounds are re-used whenever possible. Some absolutely necessary variation is there: the city background has a day version and a night version, for instance. And I do like the use of light shimmers and colour filters to simulate effects like encroaching darkness. But all the same, the game often calls on you to just imagine things like pouring rain and overcast skies.
And production costs being what they are, you understand that actual drawings of rain are only reserved for scenes where it actually matters.
Which segues neatly into the topic of porn.
I… want to say I was hoping that Sakura Angels would handle its softcore porn content with a little more grace. But that’d be a lie, on both possible reads. But still, I’d have liked something not as surreally blatant as Sakura Spirit. And what I got was…
It’s odd, really. On the surface, Sakura Angels is even more blatant than Sakura Spirit was. And yet, somehow, it manages to make it work better?
The thing is that Sakura Angels knows what it is. It is unashamedly a softcore anime porn game, an ecchi gallery wrapped around a silly adventure story. It knows this, and it delights in it. The nudity doesn’t usually come out of thin air, no: the game builds up to it, using writing and audio cues and visual transitions to tease the next gallery reveal. Oooh, Kenta just woke up. He’s walking to the bathroom! He’s opening the door! The music is changing! There’s a long, drawn-out white flash screen transition! What do you think could possibly be behind that door right now, player?
My absolute biggest Sakura Spirit peeve was that the storytelling and the characters were so at odds with all the nudity. Almost as if the game was embarrassed about itself. Protagonist Gus in particular made me irrationally angry. In case you haven’t played Sakura Spirit, here’s how things played out over and over: Gus encounters a half-naked woman in a sexually charged position. The woman is smiling, or beckoning, or outright being flirtatious. But Gus’ nonsense code of honor somehow intuits that all is not as it seems, and to proceed in this situation would be to take advantage of this virginal creature’s perfect purity. And he’s right every time! It’s incredibly frustrating: the game titillates you with inviting nudity, but then scolds you for thinking about these characters as sexual creatures. How dare you think they’d be interested in that! Them stripping naked, covering themselves in molten chocolate, and then inviting you and only you to their house at night is just a misunderstanding.
Sakura Angels has no such compunctions. While there’s still no explicit sex, the characters are definitely sexual. Sayaka in particular plays this up: she openly and explicitly flirts with Kenta, gets ‘caught’ in comprising situations, and sets up plans to spend as much time with Kenta as possible wearing as little clothes as possible. And while Hikari isn’t super-openly into this — I have a feeling her initial character design included the words ‘tsundere-light’ somewhere — it’s strongly implied that her clear crush on Kenta helps to, er, draw her out of her shell a little. If you know what I mean.
The culmination of this, for me, is the beach scene: the two girls go ahead, to ‘prepare’ for your arrival, and when you finally show up…
Sakura Spirit‘s Gus would assume that a trickster demon stole their full-body bathing suits while they weren’t paying attention. Sakura Angels‘s Kenta just gawks.
And I think we can all agree that that’s the more reasonable reaction here.
Again, I want to stress: if you’re searching for a really good game, Sakura Angels is probably not the place to look. It’s short, blatant comedy-porn, openly so. There are no hidden depths to this madness. What you see is what you get, in every sense of the phrase.
At the same time, Sakura Angels is clearly a big improvement over Sakura Spirit. The story is better, the characters are more rounded out — if you know what I mean — and the particular mix between serious story and goofball comedy, while sometimes whiplash-inducing, generally makes for some chuckles. And I particularly like that the game seems more comfortable with its own sexuality: characters flirt, bodies are commented on, and ecchi scenes are no longer awkwardly dropped, but more handled with a sense of naughty excitement. I still think it’d do better as a full porn game, but even here the game cheekily plays with expectations: in a scene where one of the main characters is captured by a tentacle beast, the game nudges and winks at you before having the monster just try to crush her to death.
Do I recommend you buy Sakura Angels? Given that it’s currently ten bucks on Steam… I dunno. Maybe you if you need some quick giggles regardless of cost? Or if you really need to add a barely-disguised ecchi gallery to your Steam list. Maybe if it’s the only possible way you can sneak some porn onto a long family camping trip in the deep woods.
For everyone else… much like the Sakura Spirit of yesteryear, maybe let this one pass you by.
Jarenth has taken down one of many. Five more Sakura games remain. Encourage his success Twitter, and follow the action as it happens on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign? Without Patreon supporters, this horrible nightmare months wouldn’t even exist in the first place! And wouldn’t that be sad?