Let’s get one thing out of the way up front, because it seems to be a common point of confusion if Steam reviews are anything to go by.
The Winged Sakura series is not the same as the Sakura series. The Sakura series is a sprawling range of ecchi and hentai visual novels with a distinctive anime-inspired art style, developed by Western indie group Winged Cloud. Meanwhile, the Winged Sakura series is, at the time of writing, a trilogy of three disparate games with a shared cast, a (different) distinctive anime art style, this time developed by Winged Sakura Games, also known as one-man studio and BCIT graduate Hong Dang (plus freelancers).
To put it another way, if you’re one of those people who sees a new game with Sakura in the title and thinks “oh no, another Sakura game” or makes other similar assumptions, note that Winged Sakura: Endless Dream is nothing to do with those games, despite similarities in both its title and the name of its developer. It’s also really rather good.
Clear? All right then. Let’s continue.
Actually, before we do that let’s get something else out of the way: while Winged Sakura: Endless Dream bears some striking similarities to Amplitude’s excellent Dungeon of the Endless, it’s by no means a straight clone of that game. As such, if you’ve previously enjoyed that game, you can still get a great deal of enjoyment out of Winged Sakura: Endless Dream, and conversely if you have no idea what I’m talking about… well, if you enjoy Winged Sakura: Endless Dream, you may also want to give Dungeon of the Endless a look.
The remainder of this article will assume you are not familiar with either Dungeon of the Endless or Winged Sakura: Endless Dream, because I’ve now spent over 275 words on these disclaimers and frankly I want to get on with talking about the damn game. So let’s do that, shall we?
In Endless Dream (as we shall refer to it hereafter), you join a small cast of young women, some of whom hail from the previous Winged Sakura games and others of whom are new to this installment. The basic premise is that the cast has become trapped in a strange other dimension called the Endless Dream, from which there appears to be no escape — however far they run, they always seem to end up back in the same room.
There seems to be some hope in the form of a mysterious young woman called Mimi and her sister Lulu, however; Mimi appears to be in possession of some mysterious powers that allow the group to advance through the Dream and hopefully eventually find a way out. It’s up to our heroines to defend Mimi from the monsters created by the dark curse that blankets the Endless Dream and find their way to the truth of what is going on.
There are two main components to Endless Dream, both of which are kept pretty distinct from one another. Initially, you’re presented with the visual novel-style story sequences to introduce the premise of the game and the central cast of characters, and more of these scenes gradually unlock as you progress through the game and finish playthroughs either successfully or unsuccessfully. The developer’s intention for these was to provide a similar feeling to the “skits” from Bandai Namco’s popular Tales series, allowing us to get to know the characters outside of battle and make them more than just collections of stats.
The visual novel scenes are in turn split into a few different sections: the main story automatically advances each time you return from a playthrough, regardless of its success, and side stories showing pairs of characters interacting with one another also unlock more gradually in this way. Parallel to this, the recruitable “Sakura” characters you unlock using in-game currency earned both through watching scenes and making progress in the main game each have their own short sequences (accompanied by some lovely colourful CGs) that depict how they became trapped in the Dream along with the main cast.
It actually doesn’t take very long at all to unlock most of the story scenes, after which the main incentive to progress is a combination of the gameplay itself — which we’ll get onto in a moment — and the Sakuras’ scenes, which are many and varied and which will take quite a bit longer to unlock in their entirety.
The main story itself is enjoyable if a little predictable, but the real highlight is the characterisation in the moment-to-moment interactions. It’s immediately apparent going into the game that these characters have pre-existing relationships with one another, but it’s never depicted in such a way that it becomes inaccessible or confusing to someone coming into the series for the first time with this third installment. You quickly get to know the characters and how they relate to one another, with a wide variety of personality types on display and some gorgeously expressive character sprites complementing the snappy dialogue nicely. It won’t take long for most people to decide on Who Is Best Girl.
Before you start a game, you’re presented with a few options — the aforementioned choice of heroine, each of whom has one of three set character classes, aside from one who can choose between all three; a Sakura to take along as an initial supporter from those you have unlocked; three difficulty levels; and a dungeon type.
The dungeon type option affects the elemental type of enemies you’ll encounter once you get into the game. Different colours of enemies have elemental strengths and weaknesses, so if you’ve primarily unlocked Sakuras of a particular element, you can choose to play a game that favours elements you will be strong against. Alternatively, you can simply play the standard mode, in which all elements have a chance of showing up, or a super-hard Survival mode once you’ve mastered the core gameplay.
Once you’re into the dungeon you’ll be in control of your chosen heroine, who can be freely moved around with the keyboard. A basic attack can be unleashed with a left click and a special attack triggered with a right click. A second special move, usually defensive in nature, can be triggered with the C key.
Hitting enemies with basic attacks fills “Burst Diamonds” on a gauge in the corner of the screen, and when this is full a third, more powerful special move can be used which usually deals significant damage and provides a short-term temporary buff.
The three different character types all play quite differently. The Assassin has an emphasis on speedy, close-up combat, while both the Archer and Mage allow for ranged battling in different ways: the Archer is more defensive and evasion-based, while the Mage is all about heavy damage. The class skills are all straightforward to understand and easy to trigger, giving the game the deceptive appearance of simplicity; it’s the additional mechanics that are layered atop this simple action RPG combat where things get more interesting.
The basic aim in each level of Endless Dream’s dungeons is to escort Mimi from the starting room to the end point. However, you have no idea where the end point is to begin with, so before Mimi can begin her journey you have to open doors to uncover new rooms. This has two effects: firstly, you gain “polygon” income in three different colours, the purpose of which we’ll talk about in a moment; and secondly, it triggers a wave of enemies that make a beeline for Mimi (quite literally in the case of the early foes) and attempt to kill her. You, of course, must stop them.
All rooms on the floor except the start and end point as well as an “arcade” that allows you to buy items are initially “cursed”, which means that they’ll spawn enemies any time you open a door. You can, however, uncurse rooms by spending one of the four types of currency. This not only prevents further enemy spawns in that room, it also allows you to build things on the various hardpoints by spending red polygons.
Large hardpoints can accommodate generators, which increase the amount of red, green or blue polygons you get every time you open a door. Small hardpoints, meanwhile, can take towers, which can be offensive or defensive in nature. Offensive towers are various types of death-dealing equipment, starting with a simple laser gun and, depending on what you unlock in that playthrough, advancing to rocket launchers, sniper lasers, poison clouds, fire circles and ice beams. Defensive towers primarily provide buffs or healing to you and/or the other towers in the room.
The key strategy of the game is in deciding which rooms to uncurse and where to build various structures. It makes sense to uncurse the rooms that form the pathway to the exit once you find it, since Mimi will have to traverse them all once you tell her to start moving, but the pink polygons required for this task are a strictly limited resource, and there is no way to “re-curse” a room and get your polygons back, so you had better choose wisely.
Another aspect that gives the game some depth is understanding how the different enemy types behave. Initially you’ll be faced with simple bees (which head straight for Mimi, whether she’s on the move or still waiting in the start room) and beetles (which head straight for you), but each new level of the dungeon you advance to increases the variety of enemies to challenge, with later foes including drillers (who prioritise destroying towers and generators), crushers (who also destroy structures and have a lot of HP, but move slowly) and hackers (who open other doors on the level, spawning more enemies for you to deal with). You’ll need to figure out the best order to take out the incoming enemies to ensure both you and Mimi remain safe, while trying to keep your towers and generators intact, too.
You can adjust the way your character and your towers behave by using the aforementioned “Sakura” characters in various ways. You have five slots in which to “equip” Sakuras: two “supporter” spaces and three “operator” spaces. Supporter slots generally affect your character directly by providing elemental affinities to your attacks, bonus effects or adjusting your base stats in various ways, while operator spaces have a broader effect on the level or your towers such as increasing the strength of certain attacks or increasing the spawn rate of dropped polygons. Once you have more than one Sakura, you are free to switch them around between the five slots as you please, which is particularly helpful when it comes to dealing with enemies that have elemental affinities.
You begin each game with a single Sakura picked from those you have unlocked, but additional ones can be temporarily recruited during a playthrough by spending green polygons. The twist is, green polygons are also used to level up your character, heal yourself and heal Mimi, so they’re a particularly precious resource, especially as they’re a lot harder to come by than the red polygons used for building.
The final piece of the puzzle comes in the form of the blue polygons, which are used for “research” of sorts. Occasionally you’ll encounter one of the many incarnations of the character Cecilia, who will provide you with a selection of tower upgrades or new blueprints to choose from, randomised for each playthrough. Spending blue polygons on one of these will make it available to you two “turns” (doors) later; in the case of an upgrade, existing versions of that structure will be automatically upgraded to the enhanced version, while new types of structure can be built from that point on if you have the resources.
Cecilia also shows up in various other places, wearing a variety of different costumes that correspond to what she will offer to you when you speak with her. Bunnygirl Cecilia generally offers you a difficult challenge that you need to survive for two “turns” in exchange for a random free upgrade of some description. Goth Cecilia offers you a Sakura to recruit. And polite girly-girl Cecilia gives you an equippable item to boost your stats, with its quality dependent on her mood, which is in turn affected by various factors including the combination of Sakuras you have in your lineup.
As you can see, there’s a great deal more to Endless Dream than simple hack and slash! The basics of the game are easy to grasp — and, yes, will be immediately familiar to anyone who played Dungeon of the Endless — but the added interaction provided by the complete freedom of movement and class skills, the variety of constructable towers and the different ways the enemies behave make it a lot of dynamic fun, and a respectable challenge even on the easiest difficulty level. The three classes really shake up the way it plays, too, with the close-combat Assassin arguably providing the simplest experience, while the Archer is toughest to get to grips with.
Couple all this with a robust stat-tracking system that records your best and last three scores for each mode as well as the enemies you’ve encountered, the Sakuras you’ve unlocked and the events you’ve seen, and you have a very solid package all round that is sure to keep you busy for quite some time, even once you’ve seen the main story through to its conclusion.
There are a few areas where the game could be improved — for one, it would perhaps be nice to see the different Sakuras you equip have some sort of visual effect on your character to provide further incentive to experiment with them, and a bit more variety in the visual and musical themes for the levels would be neat too — but certainly as it exists at the time of writing, Winged Sakura: Endless Dream is an easy recommendation. It’s a solid, enjoyable and highly polished game with gorgeous character design, lovely colourful art, great music and addictive, accessible but deep mechanics.
Definitely one I’ll be coming back to time and time again!
More about Winged Sakura: Endless Dream
Winged Sakura Games provided a review copy.
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