Wednesday, June 8, 2016

[In-Depth Review] Sakura Dungeon


Winged Cloud's girls-love focused dungeon crawler Sakura Dungeon packs in solid gameplay, decent characterization, and ample ero into a 20+ hr experience.




Product page (18+)
Similar games
VNDB
Steam uncensor patch (copy patch0x.rpa to the 'game' directory to enable 18+ content)
Game manual
Game guide
Cheat console guide (allows cheats such as unlimited HP and gold, level boost)
Save data (Unlocks full gallery and includes a save file with LV67 characters; may not be compatible with the unrestored Steam version)

Developer: Winged Cloud
Voice: Unvoiced
Genre: Dungeon crawling RPG
Tags: female protagonist, girls-love, consensual sex only

Other reviews:
LewdGamer (NSFW)
GAMERamble
The Otaku Judge
OPNoobs
The Yuri Nation
walawalagames

Introduction


Winged Cloud has a reputation for visual novels with pretty art that conceals poor amateur writing and an utter lack of ambition.  Their games are like candy bars: they're cheap, highly visible to consumers, and they have no lasting value.  The first 60 seconds of Sakura Swim Club only confirmed to me what others had said about the dreadfully bland writing: the same thought "I'm tired and don't want to get up" was simply repeated over and over.  I covered Sakura Swim Club merely to promote Winged Cloud's experiment with free Steam uncensor patches.

I had very low expectations for Sakura Dungeon.  All of the ingredients for disaster were assembled: an indie developer with a long pedigree of shovelware experimenting with their first gameplay title (no, Sakura Clicker doesn't count) and being tossed between publishers Sekai Project and MangaGamer like a bad Christmas fruitcake.  I expected Sakura Dungeon to be a horrible mess with non-functional gameplay, fanfic-level writing, and pretty but sparse art which would be the sole selling point.

I was wrong.

Winged Cloud has defied all expectations and released a superior indie gameplay eroge with professional production values.  Sakura Dungeon manages to competently execute most of the aspects of a dungeon crawler: combat, level design, character and monster variety, characterization, optional challenge content.  The game's most glaring weakness is that the setting is underdeveloped and we don't feel a sense of progress through an overarching narrative, which is a common weakness in dungeon crawlers.  I also didn't find the erotic content very erotic, but that could be a matter of taste.

If you don't like dungeon crawlers, Sakura Dungeon won't change your mind.  If you do, read on.

Story


Yomi, ancient fox spirit and lord of the local dungeon, has slumbered for hundreds of years after being sealed by a band of adventurers.  One day the adventurer Ceri stumbles on her chambers and inadvertently releases her.  Yomi easily prevails and uses her remaining power to bind Ceri as her servant.  Yomi orders Ceri to venture into the dungeon that was once her's and depose the lord who took over in Yomi's absence.  Ceri must confront the dozens of monster girl clans as she delves deeper and deeper into this mysterious dungeon and helps Yomi reclaim her lost power.

That's the story concept and the entire main story fits neatly within those very narrow confines.  As is typical with dungeon crawlers, the setting is left underdeveloped and all you get is a basic excuse to set up the dungeon crawling.  We do eventually get passing mention as to why Ceri was there and why and how Yomi was sealed, but this is certainly not a story-driven experience where finding out what happens next is one of the main hooks.

The game's saving grace in the story department is that while the setting and plot development are lacking, Sakura Dungeon does succeed in characterizing a large cast of characters.  While Yomi is technically the protagonist, much of the early game focuses on Ceri, and Yomi and Ceri end up with equal attention and development.  Yomi and Ceri can capture and recruit most of the enemies and characters they encounter, and every playable character in the current team of six will chime in during all the dungeon events.

Let me repeat: all 53 characters appear to have lines in all dungeon events (those that join later obviously have no lines in earlier events).  Their remarks will often trigger responses from others in your team, leading to a sense of persistent characterization you don't often see in games with this many characters.  As a result, there's a sizeable amount of optional text, depending on who you include in your team, and in a typical playthrough you'll see only a small fraction of it.  Unfortunately, while this persistent characterization may lead some players to develop an attachment to certain characters, only the main characters (Ceri, Yomi, Sylvi) get the stat, skill, and passive ability upgrades to make them useful for the entire game.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the professional quality of the writing.  Sentences flow correctly, descriptions are descriptive, and I don't see the mess of redundant words and poor word choice that I expect in amateur writing.  The text isn't riddled with typos either.  The Sakura series was supposed to have issues in all of these areas, but Sakura Dungeon certainly doesn't.

Gameplay


Sakura Dungeon has a barebones story and decent characterization of a large cast of characters, but this is a turn-based dungeon crawler first and foremost.  You'll spend most of your time in this 20+ hour game exploring the dungeon and dealing with the enemies you encounter.

Exploration screen
Level design is varied visually, audially, and in terms of layout and mechanics.  I counted 28 levels and 6 different level types all with their own ambient music, and the layout is manually-generated with secret doors and treasure waiting to be discovered.  Various mechanics are employed to keep the exploration interesting, like buttons that unlock doors, levers that open some doors and close others, traps or teleport fields that obstruct movement, and secret doors strategically positioned in ways that the player can anticipate.

Statistics screen
A team is composed of six units: three on the frontline and three in reserve.  The frontline units gain normal XP, while reserve units accumulate XP more slowly and units left in town get only a small share.  All units recover HP every two steps and gradually during battle based on their Resilience (RES) stat.  Switching units between frontline and reserve is occasionally necessary to recover HP, but since switching during combat is penalized and only frontline units get full XP, you'll end up using the same three core units most of the time--especially since you get a limited supply of stat upgrade items that you'll want to focus on your most-used characters.

Each unit has base stats, battle skills, and passive abilities.  The base stats govern the unit's effectiveness with the three attack types (melee, ranged, spells), as well as their evasion and damage resistance.  Each unit can possess up to six different battle skills.  Friendly and enemy units can resist or evade certain attack types, so it's up to the player to choose whether to specialize in one type or have their units learn a variety of battle skills to counter various defenses.  While stats and battle skills are customizable, passive abilities are not and are innate to the unit (some units can acquire additional passives through events).  Some of the passive abilities are very strong, making the unit highly evasive or much more likely to score a critical hit.

Combat screen
Battles in Sakura Dungeon are usually random encounters, although some levels also have enemy markers that trigger a battle when stepped on.  Most levels have a boss that must be cleared before progressing to the next level.  As items cannot be used during combat, healing potions are used to recover between battles.

Success in combat relies on managing action points (AP) effectively.  Besides governing what battle skills a unit can use (higher damage skills use more AP), a unit's current AP also adds to its evasion and critical resistance.  Units with full AP can be difficult to hit and almost impossible to score a critical hit on.  Low damage skills tend to have high accuracy; use these when the enemy has high AP.  High damage skills tend to have lower accuracy and are best used when the enemy's AP is depleted.  Units recover 20% of their max AP every turn, with the Guard command providing an additional bonus.

Concentration power (CP) doesn't play much of a role until late game.  CP is increased by landing hits and defeating foes, while CP is consumed when a unit takes a critical hit or uses a powerful skill (usually an area-of-effect skill).  In late game the threshold of 10 CP can be reached in a typical battle, triggering the unit to enter a Flow state and gain massive bonuses to hit rate, evasion, and critical rate.  Bosses can enter Flow too, and this can have painful results.

Critical hits reduce the "protective value" of "armor"

Critical hits, besides dealing 1.5x damage, can also tear a unit's outfit when dealing high damage to a unit with low HP.  A unit with a torn outfit recovers HP at half the usual rate, both during and outside of combat.  Repairing this is somewhat expensive (field repairs for a single unit take 6 battles worth of currency in mid-game), and the effect on regeneration is significant, so avoiding this status effect with careful AP management is useful.  Expect a non-negligible repair bill after certain optional boss encounters.

The game manual is available here for those interested in specifics about mechanics.

The game has three different difficulty modes.  I played on Hard (labeled "Normal" difficulty in the manual), and this provided a good balance of challenge without requiring any additional grind (seeking out enemies just to fight).

The combat system is simple and streamlined at first glance, but has a decent amount of depth that changes the flow of combat over the course of the game.  Early in the game, having a variety of damage types allows you to bypass resistances, and moves with high accuracy and low damage are best.  Later in the game, enemies often have multiple resistances and allies are far more effective (specialized) with certain damage types, so hammering through enemy resistances with high damage skills when their AP is low becomes a viable option.  Paralyze (poison) is also extremely effective when used by units with high resilience against mildly higher level targets with low resilience: a paralyzed unit's ability to connect with non-magic attacks is effectively crippled.

For better or worse, the entire system is tightly chained to unit level just like an MMO.  Enemies which are more than 5 levels above your team are more or less impossible: level modifiers are directly applied to hit rate, damage, and evasion that make large level differences absolutely insurmountable.  You literally won't be able to hit the enemy while they chain-critical you to death.  At least in Hard mode, staying within 1-2 levels of common enemies was required to avoid having outfits torn constantly.  Conversely, boss encounters are absolutely trivialized if you tackle them with 3 units that are near the level of the boss, as their primary "boss advantage" is simply the level difference.  Take that away and they're just a typical grunt unit.  Once you outlevel or simply outclass same-level enemies stat-wise, you can hit auto-battle and let battles play out automatically without fear of ripped outfits.

Once the main story is completed, a 3-level "bonus dungeon" unlocks with higher level enemies that will test your mastery of the system (at least initially).  An optional boss also unlocks, which I found undefeatable without first clearing the bonus dungeon and closing the level gap.

Sound


Sakura Dungeon has 20 different background music themes, and some of the boss themes are quite catchy.  There's also the usual combat sound effects which were spartan but functional.  The game is however completely unvoiced.

Sexual content


Ceri posing in her Bondage outfit
Yomi in her Abyssal outfit

To call Sakura Dungeon a "girls-love" game is an understatement: there are literally no males (or even genderless creatures to interact with) in the entire game.  All of the scenes are completely consensual, which honestly is a bit boring given the potential in a dungeon crawler for interesting situations like defeat rape (see the Raidy series).

The game has a good number of erotic scenes (I count 32 involving actual sex).  Many captured monsters also have a scene showing them with torn clothes or in a compromising position, which are probably included in the Steam version also.

I didn't find the sex scenes all that interesting... which is admittedly very unusual for me.  The sex scenes tended to feel like throwaway scenes without much context in the story.  Just sex for the sake of sex without the emotional element: porn in the purest sense.

In Japanese eroge we see a variety of tropes that address a wide range of sexual preferences: different body types and personalities.  In Sakura Dungeon, every character has more or less the same body type with wings or horns added and different colored hair.  There's not a single character with small breasts in a game with 53 playable characters, and in fact the breast sizes of all characters are approximately the same.  That's an impressive oversight from a character design standpoint.

Professional eroge these days tend to have 5-10 variations of every erotic CG that convey a sense of progression through the scene: changes in facial expressions, removal of layers of clothing, penetration, climax, etc.  These variations allow the visuals to more closely depict the written description.  In Sakura Dungeon most CG have 1-3 variations, and in some cases the visuals and description don't match up.  CG design is often one of the more expensive areas in a game budget, so likely Winged Cloud chose to cut costs by limiting the number of variations.

Overall, the combination of multiple factors--homogeneity of situations, sex without emotion, lack of variety in body type, few CG variations and the lack of voiceovers--contributes to a definite lack of eroticism despite the glut of erotic content.

I played the adult version sold by Nutaku.  Nutaku has guaranteed that their version of Sakura Dungeon is completely uncensored, as are all other downloadable titles sold in their store (the freemium browser games however are censored; see my censored eroge list for details).  But honestly, I don't think you're missing much even if you play the censored Steam version.  And that's not something I usually say.

Overall


Sakura Dungeon is a competent dungeon crawler that is more polished than I expected from indie developer Winged Cloud.  I'd recommend it to fans of erotic dungeon crawlers, especially those who like girls-love.  Sakura Dungeon compares favorably to titles like Demon Master ChrisBrave Soul, and the Lightning Warrior Raidy series, which are its main competition.  There's certainly better titles out there, but not so much in English.

Highlights


Pros:
  • Combat is streamlined but engaging
  • Level design is properly varied and encourages exploration
  • Wide variety of characters and monsters can be fought, employed, and captured
  • Story segments include comments from all the characters in your current party
  • Good value for the money ($20 for 20+ hours of gameplay)
Cons:
  • Very little setting or plot development
  • Low variety of sexual content
  • Few CG variations
  • Unvoiced

Similar games


     
Demon Master Chris: Girls-love dungeon crawler, fairly similar to Sakura Dungeon
Brave Soul: Action-RPG focused on combat
Lightning Warrior Raidy 3: Dungeon-crawler with greater emphasis on girl-on-girl ero but less developed gameplay; for those who found Sakura Dungeon too "tame"
Yumina the Ethereal: Story-focused RPG with dungeon-crawling elements

A review copy of Sakura Dungeon was provided to me by Nutaku at my request.

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