A little look at… Sakurazaka Shouboutai

After mindless gushing like this it probably comes as no surprise that I’m a fan of the rather niche Japanese firefighting game genre, so having this 2004 Irem-published PlayStation 2 release brought to my attention by the lovely @iiotenki was like having Christmas come early! It’s officially a ‘teamwork rescue action’ game, and although Irem’s familiar logo is the one on the front (and back) of the box it was actually developed by Racjin – one of those semi-secret developers who tend to do donkey-work for bigger companies. You’ll probably be most familiar with their Snowboard Kids series, or if you’re after something a little more current, they were responsible for Final Fantasy Explorers.

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First impressions are likely to bring back memories of Granzella’s (also Irem-published) Zettai Zetsumei Toshi [Disaster Report] series, with Sakurazaka’s titular fictional city sharing the same sort of unrealistic realism and a broadly similar graphical style as its more famous disaster-laden stablemate. You might worry a game that boils down to ‘Point the water at the burning things’ would soon wear out its welcome, but there’s an awful lot of unpredictable variety crammed into the game’s seven stages, and almost every mission throws up a unique challenge to overcome. ‘An office – BUT ON FIRE’ doesn’t sound like the most fascinating location for a videogame on paper but when Daichi’s stuck in a corridor with flames licking the ceiling, a room nearby is on the verge of becoming permanently lost to the blaze and the teammate that was supposed to tackle it is trapped under rubble there’s a real intensity to the experience and a lot of fun to be had from handling it well. Beyond the most obvious firefighting duty of pointing a hose at things you’re also tasked with searching rooms thoroughly for survivors and then taking them to safety, activating sprinkler systems and cutting gas supplies, all in an effort to control the inferno while still keeping an eye out for clues that might lead to catching the arsonist behind this mayhem as well as the man responsible for Daichi’s brother’s death.

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Now firefighting isn’t the sort of thing anyone tackles alone (not if they want to do it more than once, anyway), and so to try and mimic the teamwork required of a real firefighting team Sakurazaka Shouboutai places up to three AI partners by your side in each mission. The thought of babysitting multiple computer-controlled morons for an entire game is enough to bring anyone out in cold sweats, but your teammates here are intelligent enough to do their job without being so clever that you feel superfluous to requirements. If sent to clear a room you can trust that it’ll be truly clear when they report in, and if they discover a survivor they’ll ask your permission to escort or carry them back to safety before abandoning their position.

There are a lot of crucial tasks for your team to carry out and they have to be done quickly if you want to succeed, so it’s good to know that playing the role of fearless leader is an intuitive and snappy process – bring up the map, pick the team member you want to give an order too, move your cursor over the room or person on the map you want them to interact with, and that’s it. It’s even easy to to set up fluid two or three man teams that can change quickly without any trouble, just by selecting one firefighter and clicking on another. Need to split them up? Select the officer you’d like to send elsewhere and then tell them what to do – the other will carry on with their original orders until they’re completed. It’s a system that works so well it’s almost hard to appreciate, as from the start to the very end of my playthrough it always worked as intended and even though I got Daichi burnt to a crisp on more than a few occasions it was never because the AI wasn’t doing as I’d instructed it to.

In a few of the later missions your command expands to the fire station helicopter (to dampen down large external blazes) and direct the fire truck’s rescue ladder to a particular balcony, effectively making for a moveable survivor escape route. All of these extra features are introduced in a way that makes it feel like the careful layering of new possibilities rather than a needless complication, and the game never dumps a new thing on you without fully explaining it first and telling you how to apply it. You’ll find that as the game progresses you go from panicking over a very basic small fire to calmly splitting your team up to handle distant ferocious infernos while you casually break through a damaged wall, calling out for survivors as you do so.

Between pulse-pounding missions Daichi and team can be found back at HQ, and this gives them the chance to go over any evidence found during the previous mission, check emails, read letters from grateful survivors and generally have a bit of a post-blaze chinwag. These sections may look like post-mission filler when they first come up but as the plot unravels it becomes clear that the game’s been expecting you to pay just as much attention here as when out on call and the things you - the player – notice will determine just how much of the truth you uncover in one of four possible endings.

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Need a break from Sakurazaka’s short-but-broad story mode? Free mode let’s you tackle any stage already cleared with the partners of your choice, for practise or pleasure. Want to share the experience with a friend? There’s both cooperative and competitive two player modes available, with the latter amounting to a heavy-duty water gun fight. There’s also bonus artwork and extra characters to unlock, as well as a ranking system in place for the high-score-minded – all-in-all, this makes for a well-rounded package that offers a lot of reasons to stick with it even after you’ve got the main story mode well and truly beaten.

Sakurazaka Shouboutai seems to have come and gone without anyone really noticing or caring, a real shame for a game that mixes disaster-movie excitement with meaningful tactical thinking as effortlessly as this one does. Whether you think team-based action firefighting’s your thing or not, this game is more than worth your time and money.

Or it would be, if not for one significant problem for import gamers – Sakurazaka doesn’t have a lot of text and dialogue but the game does expect you to completely understand all of it, and if you can’t read text-only bomb diffusing clues against the clock you will encounter significant roadblocks to your progress as early as the second level and then things only get worse as just before the climax you’re expected to give the correct answers to a series of five questions, and the game won’t let you progress until you’ve got them all right. The game should be praised for weaving the plot into the action in such a way that they’re both essential parts of the overall experience, but this is obviously something for interested foreigners to be aware of before buying.

If you’d like to poke around the official website you can find it here (archived) - http://web.archive.org/web/20040626032706/http://www.irem.co.jp/official/sakurazaka/

The start of something special? Eldorado Gate Volume 1

Capcom’s Eldorado Gate is probably best described as an episodic game series before we knew that you could make episodic games; with this ambitious Dreamcast project spanning seven discs and eighteen chapters. Thankfully this isn’t the case of an egotistical developer imagining an impossible budget-busting epic (Shenmue), or a rushed whole game desperately carved up to meet deadlines (Sonic 3/Sonic & Knuckles) – remarkably Eldorado Gate was designed this way from the start - whoever came up with the idea of pitching a bi-monthly RPG for the Dreamcast is at least half as mad as the chap who OK’d it and write the cheque. Even more surprising is that everything went according to plan - each disc released on schedule (bar a week’s delay for disc four) between October 2000 and October 2001 – a time when the Dreamcast could be politely described as ‘struggling’.

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A quick bit of good news for anyone left paralyzed by the thought of having to acquire all seven discs just to play through the story: all of the discs can be played by themselves, and they offer a brief recap of important events at the beginning so you’re not left in the dark. You do have to play the scenarios contained in each disc in order – you can’t play Radia’s scenario (the third on disc one) until you’ve finished Kanans’s (the second) – but other than that you’re free to tackle whatever bits you can lay your hands on. Of course this isn’t the ideal way to experience the story, but it’s better than forever being locked out of later chapters due to a corrupt VMU save file or a lack of access to one particular disc.

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We’ll start with a look at the most obviously striking part of Eldorado Gate – the graphics. Capcom were clearly proud of getting famous illustrator Yoshitaka Amano on board, and his influence on the game is plain to see from the moment you clap eyes on the box art. Unlike a lot of (possibly all other?) games he’s worked on battles use scans of his original illustrations for enemy art as opposed to an ‘influenced by’ or ‘interpreted from’ redesign. It’s fair to say that this style can feel at odds with the lush pixel art used throughout the rest of the game, but when it looks this good does it really matter? I found myself more interested in seeing what bizarre creature would pop up next than worry about whether it matched the standard exploration graphics, but as with anything your mileage here may vary.

Battles occur randomly and are frequent but not obnoxiously so. At first glance there’s a clear Dragon Quest influence to the battle screen layout – all menus and static monster art backed up by memorable jingles and strong sound effects. It’s clear that this is where the development time was cut to keep the games pushed out the door on time, but even so the fast pace and the odd impressive visual flourish when a powerful spell goes off keep the sparseness from being anything to really hold against it. Depth comes from the need to consider how your character’s equipment and spell element works with the current enemy group, using a rock-paper-scissors style interplay between wood, fire, and ice. It’s not so important that you must have the right weapon alignment at all times but it’ll definitely help smooth engagements out and the benefits of using the correct element on bosses can be clearly felt. Those of you worried about getting bashed into a bloody pulp by an unplanned-for encounter will be pleased to hear that you can change your equipment at any point during any battle. Rounding out the element system are ‘life’ spells (all your healing spells live here) and rare ‘light’ magic (general all-round attacks that do well, but not brilliantly, against everything).

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In keeping with Eldorado Gate’s desire to do the classic JRPG a little differently, the spell system doesn’t technically use spells at all but magical crystals that can be combined together to create more powerful attacks or effect multiple enemies (or allies!) at once. The combining rules are very simple – spells take on the element of the first crystal on the list, with the second (and if your current lead’s a skilled magician, third) boosting power, with W-[element] crystals adding a ‘target-all’ effect to any spell level. Enemies more often than not drop several crystals when defeated and dungeons are littered with equipment and items to pick up so you can use magic by and large as often as you please without worrying about backtracking to the nearest town to restock from the crystal shop (something I only had to do once in all of the first disc).

The plot is rather hard to write about at the moment as it’s only just begun - everything’s up in the air at the end of the first disc with the fates of some key characters left unknown and a fourth-wall-breaking narrator of questionable reliability. I can at least tell you that scenarios so far last around two or three hours each, and the writers seem to be quite keen on the idea of a flawed and/or reluctant lead – Gomez is happy to get into drunken fights, Kanan makes a very dodgy (and almost life-ending) deal with some questionable types to save her family, Radia’s a thief who literally steals from everyone she speaks to… they’re an odd but intriguing bunch. I can understand why the (lack of) length might put some people off, but I appreciated these micro-tales that used their time well – less is sometimes more and Eldorado Gate feels like it uses the time given well, being neither an overblown epic or a longer story cut too short. The overall tone leans towards the Saturday cartoon ‘mild peril’ end of the scale, with the more serious scenes dealt with effectively but either not dwelling on the idea of the police-led execution or giving comedic facial expressions to a man being boiled alive while his daughter watches.

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Eldorado Gate gets off to a strong start and so long as the seocnd disc carries on in this way I’m more than happy to stick with it and find out where the story goes. With a complete set currently worth in the region of £120 or so it’s not a cheap or easy series to invest your money in, but it’s clear Capcom were 100% behind their madcap RPG experiment and at the very least deserve more recognition than they’re getting for seeing it through properly to the very end.