A few hours in
Okay, I’m done.
Normally, I play games like these — silly visual novels in general, Sakura-brand titles specifically — over multiple play sessions. The issue isn’t length, but content: while these games are generally only a handful of hours long, if that, my brain needs regular breaks from the deluge of poorly-written non-sequitur nonsense. There’s only so much awful I can take.
I finished Sakura Swim Club in a single two-hour sitting. I just… wanted to keep reading. Like with a good book, it was hard to put down. An interesting thing just happened! What will happen next? More plot? More character development? More pointless, non-sequitur nudity?
And when I finally wrapped the story up, I was… well. Flabbergasted, honestly.
I never thought I’d have cause to say this, but Sakura Swim Club is really good. Genuinely really good, not just ‘good by Sakura standards’. The overall story is really well-written. The characters are actually characters, human beings with drives and flaws and silly human quirks. And the narrative arcs from high to low not on the whims of a bored schlock writer, but in ways that clear and recognizable and human. It has all the hallmarks of writing that was done with heart, and care for the topics, and the fact that I’m finding this in a Sakura game just fills me with endless confusion.
The long and the short of my praise here is that Sakura Swim Club is a really good story about depression.
Little background about me: I don’t struggle with depression myself, but I have a few close friends who do. If you frequent Ninja Blues, you might even know some yourself. So while I don’t have first-hand experience with the topic, I’ve learned a lot about depression just from being around them.
The biggest thing I had to (un)learn at the start is that I didn’t really know what depression was. In wider common understanding, ‘having depression’ is equated with ‘always being sad’. Popular media portrays characters with depression as crying all the time, and getting upset and sad about everything. But one of the more insidious things about depression is that that idea just isn’t true.
The depressions I’ve heard about or seen up-close aren’t much more an illness of ‘feeling sad all the time’. They’re an illness of ‘not really feeling at all‘. Depression expresses itself as a listlessness, a lack of energy, and a lack of motivation to act. Even when it comes to things you really care about. The drive is just… not there.
And Sakura Swim Club‘s Kaede absolutely suffers from this.
It’s never actually called depression, mind. But all the symptoms are clearly there. Kaede always has little energy to do thing. He’s unmotivated for school, to the point where he almost physically can’t focus. He knows that school is really important, and he thinks he should do more, but he just can’t — his brain doesn’t cooperate to an almost self-destructive degree. He assumes the worst in many situations, and whenever something happens, he’s quick to blame his own failings. It’s hard for him to accept compliments, or accept that he’s good at something, or accept that people genuinely like him for him. He hates the situation he’s in, but he doesn’t think — doesn’t believe — he can really change.
Does any of this sound familiar to you? Because it sounds familiar to me. I actually had some shivers down my spine while playing. It’s eerie.
Sakura Swim Club nails the influence of outside factors too. Kaede’s parents are a constant presence in his life. They’re successful people, driven and goal-oriented, and they want nothing more than for Kaede to follow in their footsteps. But while they want to help, and their intent is good, the outcome very clearly falls short. What Kaede’s father says, on the phone, is ‘you should do your best to be successful‘. What he means by that is ‘success has made me happy, and I want you to be happy, so I’m encouraging you down this path‘. But what Kaede hears, instead, is ‘you must be like me or I’ll be disappointed‘. Similarly, Kaede’s mother encourages him to be like his father; for her, that’s because she thinks that’ll make him happy, but for him, it’s a constant reminder that he’ll never be as good.
And Sakura Swim Club portrays all this in a really good, nuanced light. It’s well-intended, but it just doesn’t help. It understands, and acknowledges, that the good intent and the painful hidden meaning are both equal parts of this.
Crucially, the game never lays the blame on Kaede himself: it never goes ‘Kaede should just WORK HARDER or WANT TO SUCCEED MORE and all his problems will be solved forever’. It’s clear that this is the dead-end path Kaede’s parents have been staring down for years. Instead, what finally helps Kaede is equal parts luck and friendship. He finds a new pursuit that ‘just clicks’, the swimming, and he makes new friends that support him in reaching what he wants to reach.
Mieko and Hiromi aren’t flawless either, mind. When they offer to ‘help’ Kaede with his ailing schoolwork, it doesn’t work out in exactly the way these well-intended things have never worked out. Still, this is never construed by the game as a failing on Kaede’s part. And the girls stop pushing the subject after Kaede asks them to stop.
And speaking of friends: a big part of Kaede’s story is Mieko and Hiromi helping him become more capable and confident. But this is not a uni-directional thing! Both girls have hidden emotional issues of their own. And once those come into play, Sakura Swim Club morphs from a story about two people supporting a depressed third, into a nuanced exploration of the importance of friendship and support.
You know what? I’m just gonna use some particularly heavy spoilers from here on out, okay? It helps with the point I’m making.
Both girls have a history. Mieko is working through past trauma: a former friend got really hurt, and she blames Mieko. Mieko blames herself, too, for the accident and the rumors. And Hiromi’s mother has serious breast cancer. They both suffer. And what’s more, their suffering interacts. Hiromi feels she must be ‘the strong one’ for Mieko, which means she never lets herself show her weakness (and her own need for support). And Mieko, who knows about Hiromi’s mother, feels selfish: ‘Hiromi’s problems are real, more important than mine, and I shouldn’t be allowed to feel bad’.
It takes Kaede to give both of them the support that they need, and to help them accept the validity of their pain and their need for help. Kaede, who in so many other games would be the one-note ‘depressed man’ stereotype.
Sakura Swim Club‘s message is ultimately a bittersweet hopeful one. Everybody hurts, and everyone can help. Another’s pain does not invalidate yours, and your own pain will not always stop you from being there for another. And if you rely on each other, all problems can be addressed — not solved, not per se, but addressed, slowly but surely.
From that view, it’s unsurprising that Sakura Swim Club‘s ‘big drama twist’ is Kaede’s father, misguidedly meddling in Kaede’s life again. And the big emotional payoff at the end isn’t winning the big swimming race: it’s Kaede, later that evening, finally having the strength and the energy and the support need to really talk to his dad.
The story isn’t flawless, of course. Some elements are still a little overly saccharine. Almost everything goes really well, and a lot of difficult situations are only resolved in the best possible way. Kaede struggles in class due to his depression, but not enough for it to be risky: he still ‘manages to scrape by’. Kaede needs to win the big race to stay in school, and then it turns out it’s an incredibly good swimmer. Both Mieko and Hiromi fall for Kaede, and they fight over who gets to date him — but then they just kiss and make up.
And then they all agree that he’ll just date both of them.
But the ratio of ‘immediate problem-solving’ to ‘nuanced descriptions of real issues’ is still really very good.
Guys, it’s just… a really good story.
Which makes all the porn stand out even more.
Sakura Swim Club is the first of the Sakura games (that I know of) that has an ‘adult content restoration patch’. If you’re not familiar, these are a recent-ish way for adult games to get past Steam’s content blockades: developers upload a ‘sanitized’ version of the game to steam, then offer an ‘unofficial patch’ that ‘restores’ the cut (porn) content to the game. It’s not something I think Valve is super happy with? But the practice is growing.
And Sakura Swim Club has one of these — if you look at the Steam guides for this game, all of them are instructions for getting this patch running. There’s nothing else to guide for in this game, anyway: choices are strictly flavour-only, there are no multiple endings.
I actually ran this adult patch after fully completing Sakura Swim Club the normal way. And no, I’m not uploading any ‘new’ screenshots here. Understand that this patch makes Sakura Swim Club an actual hentai game: the new images are all uncensored, hardcore cartoon fucking. So, er, be careful where you play, I guess.
It’s really interesting, actually. I knew this game had cut porn content almost immediately. And with that idea in mind, I started looking for obvious ‘scene transitions’. Sakura Swim Club has a few of these. Mieko comes over for moral support, and ‘stays the night’, and then the game jump-cuts to next morning. Hiromi lures you into the empty basketball gym and dressed up in that bunny suit, and then suddenly Mieko interrupts the whole scene. And then there’s the most hilariously blatant one: the girls visit you at your house, but then Hiromi ‘trips over some cables’ and ends up bondage-tied as a result.
And then the game jump-cuts to ‘the next day’, and Kaede remarks ‘I finally got them out of that mess, but I had to get a little ‘hands on’‘. Uh-uh, Kaede. Uh-huh. You ain’t gotta tell me twice what really happened there.
Except it turns out it really was nothing? I misjudged the placement of all the porn scenes. Rather than the cord scene leading to sex, or the bunny suit, or the vulnerable love confession, most of the pornography just… comes out of the blue? It’s all spliced into scenes I thought were pretty complete on their own. For instance, Mieko talks to after practice, and she’s being a little shy about things… and then suddenly she suggests the two of you should bang in the locker room. That sort of thing. Hiromi doesn’t make a move on you when the two of you are alone, but Sakura Swim Club does bust out a graphic scene five minutes earlier, when the two of you are in a public place. And so on, and so forth.
In my previous Sakura reviews, I mentioned that I think I’d respect Spirit and Angels more if they just committed to being porn. It’s Alanis Morisette-ironic, then, that Sakura Swim Club‘s porn content only really makes it worse.
Even weirder, there’s some stuff in the content patch that really shouldn’t have been cut in the first place. In the restored version, there’s a running gag where Mieko calls you ‘stupid’ as a nickname. Baka, I’m guessing. It’s not really borne from anything, she just thinks you’re an idiot. But, bafflingly, that whole sub-story has been cut from the release version. All lines where she calls you that name have been replaced or dropped entirely…
…except one part, near the end, where Kaede mentions ‘not really liking that nickname she gave me’.
In the original version, that line just sort of came out of the blue. I had no idea what it was referring to; had I not played the restored version, I never would have. And it’s just… really strange? Cutting the porn, I can get. But this? I don’t know, is it somehow considered super lewd in Japan to call a man an idiot?
The mind runs in circles, boggling.
Because my last few paragraphs have been a little more negative, let me take some time to reassert the following. Sakura Swim Club is a really really good visual novel. Here’s how good it is: when I was writing the third quarter of this review, the part where I talk about the importance of support and being there for each other, I actively had to fight back misty eyes. This story makes me emotional just by talking about it. It’s maybe the depiction of depression issues I’ve read all year.
And it’s still a Sakura game. I’m sorry, readers: I know we all came here for a few weeks of laughing at me playing horrible VN schlock, but I can’t in good conscience not tell you that Sakura Swim Club is excellent.
Should you get it? Like most other Sakuras, Sakura Swim Club runs about ten bucks on Steam. It’s pricey for a short visual novel, particularly one in a series that’s traditionally nothing more than ecchi gallery delivery vehicles. But Sakura Swim Club actually justifies its price. Real care and heart went into writing this. And particularly when you start with a name-brand handicap of this strength, actually delivering a class experience is something that deserves rewarding.
Jarenth doesn’t really have a good bouncer for this piece; these games weren’t supposed to be *good*. Suggest bad ending puns at him on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?