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Season of the Sakura

Reviewed by Craxton (craxton@erols.com)
January 27, 1999

(This is the first review I ever wrote. I've thought about revising it several times, but, aside from changing the headers, I've ultimately left it untouched. Consider it a relic of my personal history. ^_^ )


Publisher: JAST USA
Cost: $24.95 (old price)
Graphics: Good, although they can get monotonous.
Music/Sound: No SFX. Initially catchy, but gets annoying after a while.
NPCs: Very well developed.
Writing: Good.
Plot: Generic, but ultimately reasonable.
Interface: Very Good.
Sex: Sparse, but very nicely done.
Kinkyness: Totally vanilla.
season of the sakura

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NOTE: Although out of print for some years, Season of the Sakura has been re-released as part of the JAST USA Memorial Collection. There are many new features that make the game enjoyable for anyone who is playing the games again, or for the first time (Windows XP compatibility is also provided). See this product for information on this game.

This was the first H-game I ever played, and playing it will probably make you see why I'm such a big fan of H-games today. ^_^ The player assumes the role of Shuji Yamagami, a young man in his first year of prep school. In the introductory screen, Shuji is taking a romantic walk with the woman he loves, with sakura petals falling all around them. Who's the woman? You have to play the game to find out, because Season of the Sakura is a flashback.

Since this is my first H-game review, I guess I should say a few things about the genre itself. "H-game" is short for "Hentai Game," a Japanese style of IF that involves sex. This is not to say that H-games are pornographic. They are erotic, but to dismiss them as "porno games" would be foolish in much the same way as dismissing Star Wars as an "action movie" would be foolish. The design philosophy is to create an interactive erotica story, usually with the player as the male lead. The text of the story is paired with anime-style illustrations of places and characters which change to fit the scene, as well as music.

The interface of an H-game is neither the parser of a text adventure nor the point-and-click interface of a graphical adventure. Instead, the player selects his actions by choosing verbs and objects from a list. While some people complain that this constrains the player, it's a necessary trade-off. A romantic game needs realistic NPCs, and that is something conventional IF does very badly. The more freedom the player has, the greater the chance he will do something the author didn't expect. When that happens, the game typically falls back on a canned response, or, worse yet, fails to react at all. If these blunders involve NPCs, it makes them seem like computer-controlled sprites, instead of real people. By constraining the player, the menu-based system virtually negates this flaw, allowing the mimesis to remain intact under constant player-NPC interaction. Thus, the characters seem more realistic, and the game more absorbing.

And absorbing it is. It's very easy to lose track of time while playing Season of the Sakura, and I had some trouble tearing myself away from the screen. This is the interactive equivilent of a real page-turner. Part of that is that the premise is easy to identify with: who doesn't remember their high school years? Or their first love?

The object is to fall in love with someone, and get them to fall in love with you. Sound easy? It is, for the most part. The hard part may be choosing someone in the first place. You'll meet eight differant girls over the course of the game, each with a different personality. In general, the characters are familiar archetypes: the fiercely independent tomboy, the kind-hearted, devout Catholic girl, the bubbly, air-headed bimbo, and so on. You'll get to know them well, because character interaction is at the core of this game. You'll spend most of your time talking to, looking at, and thinking about the various other characters. If that sounds boring, it's not, because, as I've said before, the characters are very realistic, and once you're truly into the game, you'll very rarely feel like you're talking to a machine. If you succeed in capturing someone's heart, you'll be rewarded with a nice little sex scene at the end.

Pardon me, did I say *the* end? My mistake. There are twelve endings- eight successful and four unsuccessful. Which ending you'll get depends on the "love points" you accumulate. These "points" are a measure of how affectionate a girl is toward you, and are individual to each girl. (There are points for Reiko, points for Kiyomi, points for Mio, etc., all independant of each other) The "points" aren't shown onscreen, nor are you ever made aware of them, except insofar as they influence how the girls react to you. For example, early in the game you'll be asked by three differant girls to try out their respective sports clubs. Reiko asks you to try out swimming, Kiyomi wants you to play baseball, and Mio thinks you should try tennis. If you try the swimming team first, you'll get points with Reiko. If you choose baseball, you'll get points with Kiyomi. If you choose the tennis team, you'll get points for Mio. Some events are more important then others, because they set off internal switches that change the course of the game later on. What's more, the "switch events" aren't immediately obvious. That means the game will surprise you- the second time through, it's likely not only that things will be differant, but that what caused them to be differant won't be immediately obvious.

I can't help feeling that this is turning into a review of H-games in general more then Season of the Sakura in particular. But that seems to be unavoidable, and it exposes Sakura's chief flaw: Season of the Sakura is the definition of an H-game. It lacks anything to distinguish itself from the rest of the genre. All the basics are here, and they're all excecuted well, but that's it. There's nothing unique about it. Most notable is the lack of a plot outside of Shuji's love life. The framework of a school year is used to set up situations, but there's little cohesiveness to the events: they're basically just a sequence of events that happen, with variations depending on the love points and switch events. If you've played a lot of good H-games, you'll probably forget this quickly.

On the other hand, if it's your first, like it was mine, it will leave a lasting impression. Once you get used to the quirks of the interface, it's a hell of a lot of fun. The game has tremendous replay value, even though some sections get tedious after the second or third time. Furthermore, with eight girls available, you're almost guarenteed to find someone to love. Which makes the game all the more rewarding. The sex scenes at the various endings aren't particularly effective on their own, but they don't stand on their own, either. As I said before, the game draws you in. Character development is so good that by the end, you almost feel like you *are* Shuji Yamagami, and the woman you're making love to really *is* your true love. That feeling is a rush almost as intense as the real thing.

Just two minor complaints before I wrap this up: First, although you can save at any point, you only have five save slots. This isn't a big problem, though, as it's difficult to screw up irrevoccably. Second, most of the music has the upbeat, bouncy rythum of jingles from TV commercials, and after about half the game, it started to grate on my nerves.

But that's okay. I turned the volume down and kept playing.

Bottom Line: My first love. ^_^


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