True love triangle stories have obviously been abandoned for the most part since the anime boom started. While traces of it are seen in certain anime, manga and games, very few series in the last decade have been designed as true love triangles. Most anime tend to focus on one heroine much more than the other(s), and/or heavily modifies character dynamics in order to accomodate the more acceptable monogamous relationship. Thus, the stories tend to hint early on who the "real" lead girl is and designs humorous situations around that.
Now, two key elements in love triangles happen to be the indecisiveness of the protagonist (as best seen in Kimagure Orange Road), as well as regressive character development (Love Hina, while leaning more towards the harem genre, is a good example of this). By the latter I mean that, unlike a normal story where events bring a protagonist and his chosen heroine closer in a way that is both obvious and for story purposes, the love triangle story will have events that take the "2 steps forward, 1 3/4 steps back" or see-saw approach. This means gradual attraction and relationship "growth" is very minimal because of the positive events being almost completely negated by other events.
I've personally not laid eyes on a true love triangle story in a very long time, as I understandably got bored of the formula around which they are built. Still, tatomu and keikei's take on this style of story was something of a trip down memory lane while at the same time reminding me of why I stay away from those story types in the first place. The game I speak of is HiQua Software's Sakura Sakura.
Game: Sakura Sakura
Sakura Sakura was released on June 26, 2009 by Hi-Quality Software. The game features a story by tatomu and keikei, with character designs by Kasukabe Akira, Higa Yukari and Kiya Shii. The title is a pun based on the fact that both main heroines have the word Sakura as part of their name.
The "main" protagonist is Inaba Tohru, a student that as the story begins has just transferred to the Rintoku Academy. Unlike most schools, the academy is known for its impressive (not to mention very influential) art club. In what some might consider a reverse type of setting, the sports and training clubs are the minority, while the art clubs reign supreme.
Tohru himself is a boy that yearns for nothing more than to meet girls and eventually get himself a girlfriend. His timid and sometimes extremely apologetic demeanor at first makes him an easy target for some of the other students (including his housemates, Naoki and Akira). Still, the whirlwind of events that come soon after his transferring to the academy lead to him joining the art club (on a probationary membership) while earning the attention of two particular females: the art club's vice president, Kirishima Sakura, and his own housemother, Sakura Nanako.
The "secondary" protagonist is Fuse Naoki, a resident of the boarding house Tsukimi-sou and Tohru's housemate. While Tohru deals with his issues between Sakura and Nanako, Naoki has to deal with the battle for his affections between his childhood friend Nitta Akira and his online friend, Tachibana Kurumi.
|Sakura Nanako C.V.: Maki Izumi|
Nanako is the housemother of Tsukimi-sou, a small boarding house that is next door to the mansion-like Maison Lune. Her other duties include her job as a math teacher at the Rintoku Academy as well as advisor for the gymnastics and kendo clubs.
This petitte heroine is introduced as a somewhat lonely housemother that has a first meeting with our protagonist after she falls from the second floor of the house, only for her to land right in Tohru's arms. As later revealed by Naoki, she actually ranks as the school's #1 choice for a wife amongst the male students.
While completely clueless when it comes to dealing with men, she opens up to Tohru right from the get go, and slowly begins to develop feelings for him (much against her own better judgment). Of course, she prefers to mask these feelings as part of her duty as a housemother, but the more astute characters in the story easily deduce how Nanako feels about Tohru.
Given her small size and gentle demeanor, Nanako usually has problems when trying to exert her authority as a teacher, but is still quite frightening when truly angered.
|Kirishima Sakura C.V.: Aoyama Yukari|
Sakura is the generally unnaproachable vice president of the art club. Most students at school prefer to keep their distance from her, but those in the club highly respect her.
Tohru's attraction to her is one of the main reasons he decides to join the art club, and while obviously unaware of this, Sakura takes it upon herself to do what she can to help him become a full member. She begins to truly appreciate Tohru when she realizes that our protagonist is not afraid to talk and interact with her.
Due to her seemingly-cold demeanor, Sakura is capable of quieting an entire room with a single look. Unfortunately, the lack of interaction outside the art club has left her with little experience when it comes to dealing with people in general. Tohru's arrival (which leads to her befriending Akira in particular) helps her grow a bit. Romance is also one of those things she does not understand well, and tries to "study" romance by reading shoujo manga.
Interestingly, she seems to like stories with protagonists that are naturally indecisive...
|Tachibana Kurumi C.V.: Sakakibara Yui|
Kurumi is a girl that attends one of the schools affiliated with the Rintoku Academy. Nevertheless, she's a full member of the school's art club (technically making her Tohru's senpai). Despite being younger than the more prominent members of the club, Kurumi is a natural when it comes to art in general and has been recognized due to her innate talent.
Introduced at first as a supporting character (for Tohru), Kurumi has actually been looking for the boy that she once knew from playing the MMORPG Hallo several years before the story begins. A chance encounter during one of the hijinks that take place due to Tohru's indecisiveness causes her to realize that Naoki is her long-lost friend. While initially afraid of what he might think due to his "male" companion being really a girl, Kurumi eventually overcomes her fears and reveals herself to Naoki, who (after breaking down into tears and embracing her) gladly accepts her friendship.
Kurumi's feelings for Naoki eventually grow beyond the bounds of friendship, causing her to become demure and shy around our secondary protagonist. At the same time, she develops a rivalry with Akira, who often makes fun of Kurumi's small size.
On a side note, before focusing on studying art, Kurumi used to be a game/anime/manga otaku with hikikomori tendencies. There are parts of Kurumi's hikikomori side that still linger; an example being the fact that there are certain things she can only say via text messages and online chatting.
|Nitta Akira C.V.: Kanematsu Yuka|
Akira doubles as the pseudo-manager of the kendo club and the sole member of the gymnastics club. She is a resident of Tsukimi-sou and has been friends with Naoki since childhood.
Tohru initially thinks of her as Naoki's girlfriend, simply due to the fact that, in his words, "they have the air of a couple"; This includes some arguing, along with her beating on him if he says something she finds offensive. At the same time, they work well as a team when it comes to playing jokes or tricks on others.
On her own, Akira comes off as a girl that doesn't take lip from anyone, and can even be violent (in a comedic way) at times. There are several issues she seems to be sensitive about as the story progresses, mostly involving Naoki's relation to her and the past she shares with him. She is also known to get very angry if someone mentions her tendency to diet.
A large part of her relationship with our secondary protagonist is hindered by the fact that she comes from a well-off family, which has always seemed to be the one thing that keeps Naoki from considering a romantic relationship with Akira. To try to alleviate his insecurities, she has taken up the habit of reciting a mantra to make him feel better ("Naoki is great! Naoki is brave! Naoki is strong! Naoki can do it!"). As expected from an osananajimi character, she has been in love with Naoki for several years now, but has had no chance to do anything that would really take things further.
Story & Structure
The story technically takes place over a year and a half, though it is separated into several sections. The default starting route is Tohru's route, in which he is a second-year student that has just transfered to the Rintoku Academy. After introducing the heroines and support cast, Naoki presents the player with the see-saw that reflects how each heroine feels about Tohru.
The events that take place during the first route follow the basic love triangle formula, in that while Tohru manages to get close to one heroine, something happens soon after that undoes most of his progress. During this route, Naoki, Akira and Kurumi provide some of the comic relief with the situations they bring about, while at the same time playing off Tohru's faults as a character. Kurumi's importance grows when she decides to help Tohru win Sakura over.
After the flower viewing, Tohru is forced to decide between Nanako and Sakura. This choice carries great weight in the story, as it determines whether he continues as a member of the art club or ends up joining the kendo club instead.
The player takes the role of Naoki during the second route, which takes place one year after the first route's ending. Without the Nanako-Tohru-Sakura drama to keep him entertained, our secondary protagonist is forced to come to terms with how he feels about Akira and Kurumi, and eventually is forced to decide which of them he wants to be with. Much to his chagrin, Tohru decides to get revenge for the previous year by creating a see-saw just for Naoki. Something worth noting is that Tohru's role is very subtle up until the point where Naoki is forced to make his choice: should he choose Kurumi, the story will show Tohru pining for Sakura. On the other hand, should he choose Akira, then Nanako will be Tohru's love interest. For the purpose of moving the story, both Nanako and Sakura temporarily leave the cast.
The "One year later" route has Tohru returning as the protagonist, and brings about closure to the story by building on what has been set by the first route's events as well as the Naoki route. Since the romance is for the most part done with, this route focuses more on some of the side characters and how they relate to the main couple.
Game engine-wise, there are a couple of neat things to take into account. Firstly, the game has two modes of play, one being the standard dating sim engine, while the other is a "wander" mode that is used between major scenes where the protagonist gets to walk around Tsukimi-sou. While the option to simply move on to the next part of the story is there, the game has 25 hidden mini-routes that can be discovered by going to certain parts of Tsukimi-sou during these "breaks". The mini-routes are not really related to the main story, but definitely help in giving the cast some depth, as a variety of topics are covered (ranging from real/fake occult investigations, mystery stories, likes/dislikes of a certain character, and even details that the main story would never reveal).
Secondly (and in conjunction with the first bit), the game has a record mode that keeps track of certain story-relevant items that appear during the main and mini-routes. Much like the mini-routes, these items reveal additional detals about the characters involved. Others offer background information and even flashbacks to events from before the beginning of Sakura Sakura.
The combined efforts of Kasukabe Akira, Higa Yukari and Kiya Shii have brought about the character designs and artwork. From what I can tell, there is a good amount of variation in the small cast this game has. At the same time, I wish they had taken a different approach to drawing Sakura's interaction artwork, as in certain cuts her clothes are overly clingy. I mean, I understand that we're selling her as the large-breasted heroine to act as a contrast to Nanako, but still...
Audio & Video
The game is fully-voiced, and has a decent cast in Aoyama Yukari, Maki Izumi, Sakakibara Yui and Kanematsu Yuka. I'll admit that Sakakibara-san is not someone I run into much when playing games, but hearing her play Rio Barone in Pygmalion and hearing her rendition of Kurumi was literally night and day. I was also very fond of the way Kanematsu Yuka voiced Akira. Sadly, Maki Izumi and Aoyama Yukari just kinda sounded like something I've heard before. Not that it was bad, but nothing that really amazed me.
Music is credited to Kyouna Ryou. I wasn't really impressed with the score, but the use of BGM for scenes was perfect. The insert songs and ED song aren't anything to write home about, but that's alright in this case. The OP song is another story, and is for some reason still stuck in my head...I think it might have to do with the use of brass in the instrumentation.
As far as movies, we have the OP, which can be viewed here.
There's not much in terms of omake outside of the usual things like sound test mode, CG gallery mode and event replay.
One of the few real extras to this game is a route called "Tsukimi-sou he youkoso!" (Welcome to Tsukimi-sou!), which can only be unlocked by discovering the 25 mini-routes in the game. In it, the player can type their own name and be treated to interactions with the residents of the aforementioned boarding house as if they were a new resident. Clearing this route grants the item "Key to room #6", which allows access to some extra artwork used in the game.
Aside from that, Kurumi and Naoki's respective computer desktop backgrounds can be unlocked by clearing Kurumi's route. Kurumi's cell phone ring tone can also be unlocked this way.
While seemingly "more of the same thing" in terms of eroge content, it's obvious that the staff put a lot of effort into the game as a whole. I was impressed with the way flashbacks and background information were handled, as the items-tied-to-a-story and mini-routes helped flesh out the characters without disrupting the flow of the plot (unlike certain games I could mention *coughHoshiutacough*).
Even though the art and designs were generic to anyone overly familiar with eroge settings, I can say I really enjoyed this title, even if I do think it's not for everyone. If you can sit through any of the old romantic comedies that featured love triangles, rectangles and octagons, you should be just fine for this game. I don't think I'm alone in seeing the merits of this game, as sometime this summer we may see a PSP version of Sakura Sakura hit the shelves.
Anyway, that's my two cents on the matter.
"Aoyama Yukari trifecta: 2/3 Completed"