Allow me to get one thing out of the way – I am a SUCKER for fantasy VNs and fantasy video games in general.
I blazed through Monster Girl Quest in two days and a night, and cried like a little bitch at the end. I counted the days until the release of Fault: Milestone 1 and its sequel (Milestone 3 never ever). I could probably write an essay gushing about how magic works in the universe of Kinoko Nasu’s Fate/Stay Night and Kara no Kyoukai (though I will never be able to explain how a man responsible for that also conjured up material as retarded as Nero being Saber in a transparent skirt and Thomas Edison being a furry). I have three-hundred hours clocked in Dragon’s Dogma and can sing ‘Into Free’ from memory. Really, I could go on. You ever played Labyrinth of Touhou? Wanna hear all about my tabletop RPG campaigns? I should probably stop.
I may be a bit biased, is what I’m trying to say. You throw some swords, magic and cute anime girls into something, and I essentially become a drooling ‘tard for a while. It takes a truly bad experience to make that status wear off in any appreciable amount of time. So, when I played Sakura Dungeon and got sucked into a nerd-shaped black hole from which I only emerged some four-odd hours later, I did stop to wonder: ‘Am I this easily swayed by anime breasts and magic explosions?’ ‘Yes,’ came the prompt answer. I soon realized, however, that the question was a poor one to make. Instead, I should focus on whether the game can appeal to people who are not necessarily addicted to cel-shaded cartoon girls (i.e. people who are wrong about everything, but let’s not get into that). The answer to that is… yes. No matter how you look at it, Sakura Dungeon really does deliver.
Now, some people may be feeling skeptic right about now. That’s understandable – developer Winged Cloud has been accused of churning out anime titty games that all more or less follow the same cut-out template. I’d argue that it’s a very successful template and that rather than fault a particular dev for what works for them, we should focus on finding devs that fit our niche, but I digress. That’s a discussion for another article. My point is, Sakura Dungeon does not follow the usual Winged Cloud template. Hell, it doesn’t follow the usual H-game template – there’s porn, yeah, but the focus clearly went into making the gameplay as polished as it could be within the limits of the Ren’Py visual novel engine.
I can gladly confirm that titty detail did not in the least suffer for it, though.
I’d say we’re off to a good start so far. See, the thing about H-games is that, due to the low budget usually involved, titles usually offer both mediocre porn and gameplay, and we forgive them this because hey, it’s a niche genre. Sometimes you’ll see a title that really goes all-out on the art, and yet oftentimes these sorts will also not be able to hold your attention for long due to middling gameplay. It’s rare to see an H-game that is a game first, which is both odd and sad since good gameplay that keeps the player glued to the screen can make up for and even improve porn that would otherwise be just “decent” or worse, “good enough”. Then again, it’s also true that good gameplay isn’t exactly easy to deliver – it’s a rare art that not even a huge budget can guarantee (see: most AAA schlock nowadays).
Fortunately for Sakura Dungeon, the handbook it chose to follow is a great one that’s both easily pinned down and easy to make changes to – the Wizardry/Etrian Odyssey style of dungeon crawling, with mappable dungeons and a party of many, many interchangeable characters, consisting of a front-line and a back-line facing off enemies in turn-based combat.
In contrast to the old Final Fantasy/RPG Maker style, which is the gameplay and strategy equivalent of sticking forks in your eyeballs over and over and expecting it to finally stop being excruciatingly painful (read: mind-numbingly boring), the EO style of RPG combat allows for a ton of variety, as the character-switching system creates scenarios where overwhelming opponents become surmountable through proper character management by switching in counters and switching out wounded party members, thus allowing for otherwise-impossible positional combat on a static 2D plane.
You start off with a single party member, the cute knight girl Ceri. A brave adventurer who takes on monsters (read: monster girls) for pay, Ceri accidentally releases the ancient foxgirl witch Yomi from a magical seal. Yomi kicks Ceri’s ass and turns the knight into her servant (don’t worry, Ceri takes this a lot more easily than you might think). Under Yomi’s command, Ceri is tasked with reconquering Yomi’s old home – a sprawling underground dungeon which has fallen under the control of another, far more sinister monster girl.
Since this game was developed on the visual novel engine Ren’Py, Ceri’s progress through the dungeon is done not in top-down view as a controllable sprite, but rather in the style of old adventure games – a 2D first-person perspective, controlled by the WASD keys. Anybody with an attraction to exploration and dungeon mapping should be sated, as navigating requires the use of a deliberately crude minimap to trace your steps and track landmarks.
It gets to be more intuitive than it looks, though I wish the minimap were a tad bigger. On second thought, that might be cheating a bit.
As for the combat itself, it’s comparable to the Etrian Odyssey system I already mentioned. Ceri has stats and abilities, pitting them against her foes in turn-based combat, which fleshes out as you acquire more party members to fill out your frontline and backline. There are two unique things to Sakura Dungeon I didn’t mention before, though. The first is how you acquire party members. Besides Ceri, every other party member is a monster girl you defeat, but merely mowing them down isn’t enough. You’re given a “Capture” skill, with which you must strike the killing blow, and if it succeeds, it will teleport your catch to a prison above ground, where you can later collect her and add her to your party. Essentially, rather than doing so merely through plot progression, you collect party members through a sort of monster girl Pokémon.
Another feature of combat, which ties the game right back to its lewd, hentai roots, is the clothes-ripping system. As Ceri and your other party members take damage, their clothes and armor will begin to peel off, until eventually they’re stark naked. This means you get eye-candy to look at, though the candy is bundled with onerous penalties (turns out fighting without your armor on isn’t smart). It works both ways too, and if a fight drags on long enough, you might find yourself knocking the clothing off the enemy monster girls.
It is widely held scientific consensus that Ceri looks best with as little clothing as possible.
As far as the technical aspect of things goes, Sakura Dungeon is also pretty solid. The art, I think, speaks for itself even at a glance (i.e. it’s just like my Chinese cartoons), and is of suitable visual caliber for a game centered around half-naked girls fighting. Seriously, if you don’t like shiny, lovingly drawn anime tits, something must be wrong with you.
In terms of its audio, Sakura Dungeon is great. The tracks range from comfy to entertaining to heart-pounding depending on the battles and are a good step above the usual mediocre piano-plunking you hear in a lot of VNs. Sound effects are solid, with believable thuds for the striking of metal and nice ripping sounds as attacks tear your girls’ clothes apart.
Sadly there’s one thing lacking that just makes my autism go nuts – resolution options. You’re stuck at sub-720p, and fullscreen mode just makes things ugly. This is an awful, awful thing you see in Japanese VNs that OELVNs shouldn’t be inheriting, yet they’re doing so anyway. It’s not a dealbreaker, but it’s incredibly annoying. Winged Cloud, you draw tits. I have a full HD monitor. I want to see breasts in full HD. See the connection? There’s both supply and demand! This shouldn’t be so hard.
Now, for the bottom line. Is Sakura Dungeon, in a word, good? Yes. Should you buy it? I certainly recommend it. If you’re a fan of anime girls and dungeon crawlers, this hole was made for you. Seriously, Winged Cloud has outdone themselves, and I think this really puts to rest any notion about them being stuck to a single titty game template. Sakura Dungeon is highly polished, visually great to look at, has good softcore porn, and while perhaps not as epic in scope as some other RPGs in the genre, it’s still hours of fun.
If this interests you at all, I suggest you take the plunge. It’s available here on Nutaku for $18, and worth the price. There will also be a Steam version here, available on July 3, but of course on top of the wait, it will be censored and will require an uncensor patch (much like Sakura Swim Club) to enjoy in its entirety. Then again, it’s Steam, so maybe you’re willing to put up with the wait and the patch just for the convenience. Nonetheless, if the premise interests you, get it. Sakura Dungeon really doesn’t disappoint.