A few hours in
For the record, I ended up going for the fox girl, Akina, first. Both because she’s the first one you meet, and yes I do consider that a valid excuse to pick her first, and because I like her the most. She’s funny, and cheeky, and hilariously without shame, able to match Koji’s perverseness with a comfortable teasing all her own.
Then I hung out with Izumi, childhood friend and one-time crush-haver, who may or may not still be pining for the Koji she once knew. And after that, I spent some time with… ‘Santa’, whose actual given name is Santa, trying to work out the intricacies of this game’s expansive Santa Mythos.
Finally, I tried to suss out the inevitable ‘harem’ ending that I knew had to be there. I knew this and so did you. It was a little trickier than expected, but I wouldn’t say it was in any way hard.
And that, as they say, was that. Leaving me with…
You know, it’s tricky. I was kinda banking on Sakura Santa being bad. I’d have been able to get a short review out of it: ‘haha, another Sakura game, it’s garbage as expected’. And then just, you know… get on with my life. But then, had that been the case, you wouldn’t currently be reading a page 2.
The reality of the situation is that Sakura Santa is actually pretty good. Not Sakura Swim Club good, which is to say not actually objectively good. But within the Sakura game framework, it stands head and shoulders over most of the rest. Not only is it well-written, featuring likable characters with cohesive and convincing personalities and drives, it’s also self-aware in a way that so little of these games ever are. And mechanically impressive too, to boot.
Actually, let’s start with that last one. Remember this image?
When I first went through Akina’s route — and as a side note, I hate that I’m starting to think and speak in visual novel vernacular like this, but what can you do — I encountered three of these ‘choice points’. Thinly-veiled options of ‘hang out with Akina’, ‘hang out with Izumi’, and ‘hang out with Santa’. So I went for Akina once, then twice, then thrice. Then a dramatic narrative tipping point happened. And then Sakura Santa told me in no uncertain terms that choosing to hang out with Akina again would lock me into her ending.
Then I did the same things with Izumi, and then Santa. Date one, date two, date three, narrative tipping point, final choice. You can see the shape of this, right? So, with that in mind, the harem route should be obvious: just use one of your three days for each of them, and that should sort itself out.
Except, of course, I wouldn’t be talking about this if it was that obvious. There is more going on under the hood, in fact. Take a look at the first choices screenshots again. Now this one:
Notice anything… ‘unusual’, about them?
VN experience experts — I know your pain, fellow wanderers — may already have pegged on this. For those of you that didn’t, the answer I was looking for was: only Akina’s answer has changed between the two of them. Izumi’s and Santa’s options are still the same, even after three in-game days have passed.
As it turns out, Sakura Santa doesn’t actually work with ‘choice moments’, in the conventional sense. The mechanic is much more akin to time-based dating sims like Flower Shop. Every ‘day’, you choose one girl to hang out with. Doing so advances her personal storyline one step. Once you hit step three, and reach the narrative nadir, the fourth step will conclude the overall story, with that girl as your special Christmas friend… but you’re totally free to date around before that, if you want!
Well, okay. That’s not entirely true. Once you hit one of these tipping points, you only get three more in-game days to flirt around. If by that point you haven’t reached any other tipping point, the game automatically proceeds with the story you were on. And if you did get a second tipping point, you still can’t share; you’re going to have to choose whose life you improve, and who you leave crying in the dust of your wake.
Much more complex than your basic VN fare, am I right?
What’s more, the exact way Sakura Santa plays out depends on the precise order in which you have your dates. While the dates themselves don’t change — and can thus safely be skipped through on a second run, if you’re that kind of person — the transition periods in-between can be wildly different. If you’re only focusing on one girl, for instance, Koji completely seems to forget about the other two. But if you hang out with multiple girls, he’ll often reference them to himself.
Even more than that, though, whole new mini-scenes will often play out if you start mixing-and-matching. For instance: if you hang out with Akina three times first, and then with Santa afterwards, there’s a small scene after the second date where Santa visits your house to retrieve a lost toy. It’s in no way impactful to the plot, but it’s still there. And the first time you hang out with Santa, she decorates your apartment; afterwards, the other girls will follow you home after dates, and sometimes comment on it.
I won’t pretend this gives Sakura Santa any significant reply value over the four plays you’ll get from it otherwise. But the mere fact that these transitions and references exist is impressive. They could have very easily kept each girl’s story completely apart, each of them existing in a vacuum; the fact that the developers went above and beyond expectations to make this world feel that much more alive and real is commendable.
Speaking of references…
Sakura Santa is a very self-aware Sakura visual novel. Self-aware about its Sakura heritage and its visual novel status, actually. We’ve seen an example of the former in the Arcadia Battlestation reference earlier on. I no longer think that this is meant to connect Sakura Santa and Sakura Swim Club, if for no other reason than you get to talk to your brother at one point and his name isn’t Kaede. But the reference is definitely intentional. As is the fact that you start your adventure by wishing to a sexy shrine spirit…
And then it gets real blatant, when you walk into Izumi’s restaurant, and the paintings are other Sakura games’ background images.
‘Aw, no love for Sakura Swim Club in that restaurant? That’s too bad.’ I agree, reader; that’s one disappointing oversight.
Sakura Santa is also keenly aware that it’s a visual novel about dating many girls. Expect some references to harem anime here and there, is what I’m saying.
There’s, er, not actually all that much to talk about here. So let’s move on to my final point of appreciation:
Particularly in the character department, Sakura Santa is pretty well-written. The four main characters — Koji, Akina, Izumi, and Santa, and no it doesn’t stop feeling weird to write out that list — all feel cohesive and internally consistent. Like they’re actual characters, instead of blank wish-fulfillment slates. Unlike other games I could side-eye.
Koji gets the most of my appreciation. And this is mostly for one big reason: he’s a sexual character. He actually calls himself a pervert on several occasions, and he knows he’s a bit of a pervert. And this is important for me, because it makes the whole sexy story work that much better. In so many other Sakura games, the main characters are these weirdly prudish ‘beacons of morality’. You know the type: your Gusses and your Kentas and your Kaedes and whatnot. Sexy women start pushing cleavage in their faces, and they’re quick to reassure us that, yes they usually like this sort of thing, but in this particular case it’d be wrong, somehow, and they have to be paladins about it. And this frustrates me more than it probably should. Just tell me if you’re not interested, alright! That’s fine! But not: the ‘sex is good, except always right now’ dichotomy must be upheld by all.
But not by Koji! Koji doesn’t care. Koji will stare at that cleavage and like it. Koji is in no hurry to warn you that your skirt is way too short. And if you’re a cheeky fox spirit and you challenge Koji to a game of grab-the-fortune-charms, you better believe he’ll be going for it.
Koji isn’t an unrepentant pervert caricature, mind. Especially around Santa, who’s shy and easily flustered, he takes up a more kind and protective role — because that makes sense. And when Izumi spills liquids over her thin dress in the middle of a busy lunch hour, he covers her shift so she can change instead of gawk. But whenever the situation is okay for it, he has no compunctions about starting at cleavage and thinking about breasts.
Akina and Izumi are pretty laissez-faire about sexuality and nudity as well. Akina because she’s a spirit and she’s cheeky, and Izumi because… well, that’s a plot point. And conversely, pure innocent little Santa gets red-faced and flustered really quickly. What matters is that it makes sense for all characters. They all act in ways that are consistent with their worldviews. And almost never does any character mock another for their held beliefs, or try to force their views and ideas onto another.
This applies to all aspects of the characters, honestly. Akina is cheeky and mischievous, but secretly also very lonely. Izumi is seemingly shameless and hard to perturb, but she carries some deep memories. Santa, the young clumsy Santa of the Japan region, is super worried that she can’t live up to her family name.
And Koji? Koji is just genuinely a good dude. He wants to help people as best as he can, because that is what do you. And if you also get to look at some beautiful women along the way, well, that’s just a bonus.
The stories themselves are fairly straightforward romance stories — though Izumi’s path has some interesting ideas about the nature of confessing love versus preventing pain. But they work because the characters work. They form the solid bases from which the narrative grows, naturally and organically.
And having something like that, in a Sakura game? I’m willing to call that a Christmas miracle.
Sakura Santa is a Sakura game with interesting characters that are consistent, entertaining, and comfortable in their own perversity (or lack thereof). The narrative is mostly one of genuine kindness, of improving the lives of others and having your own life improved as a result. And the systems are probably the most interesting mechanical thing any Sakura game has ever done.
I don’t know what explanation you want to give for this game existing as it does. But it seems pretty clear to me: Winged Cloud must’ve read all my previous Sakura reviews, decided to take my criticisms to heart, and then released Sakura Santa as a Christmas present to me specifically.
If you want to share in my Christmas joy, Sakura Santa is currently ten bucks on Steam. Whether or not that’s a fair price for a Sakura-length visual novel — even a fairly good one — is entirely up to your desire to perv over underdressed teenage girl Santa Claus.
Jarenth wouldn’t mind a Christmas quite like this. Follow him on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam, for no better reason than that it’s yule. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?