Snow Sakura review
A Wonderful Tale Blooms
OK, so the last time I tried a snowy themed visual novel I got lumped with Snow Drop, which did so many things wrong it was almost funny. Therefore my choice to try out another one may seem strange, but something about Snow Sakura called out to me. I had heard good things about this one so what the heck, I decided to give this one a whirl. The result? A full CG collection and all five paths cleared. Yes, Snow Sakura was compelling enough to encourage me to see the whole thing through to completion.
The graphics used are beautiful, with snow covered landscapes making up the Hokkaido outdoors and the interior locations like the Tachibana residence and the school represented well by their own scenic CGs. The novel's various locations aren't quite as varied as some of the other big name novels, perhaps in part due to the snowy nature, but there's enough to create the feeling of a small community with its own points of interest.
These scenes are outdone by the key visual treat that are the wonderful character designs. It's quite odd how the people you meet are quite content with wearing skirts and shorts in the middle of winter, but get past that and you'll develop a true appreciation of the direction taken. The school uniform is perhaps pretty typical of what you'd expect but the crafting of it is still very nice. Away from the school each character is given their own distinct outfits to better give them a sense of individuality. Miss Misato will strike you as strange though, because although she's supposed to be older than the other girls she actually ends up looking younger than them outside of the CG images.
When it comes to CG images there are two types in this and both work extremely well. You have the usual style common in the genre to highlight key events (especially the intimate sequences), which give a better view of these events not possible with the normal figure artworks. SS also pitches in another style used for more comical moments that are best described as "more cartoony", and these fit in surprisingly well for the situations that call for them. Saki's long standing habit of resorting to physical violence is usually accompanied by CGs of this style to emphasize it.
For those interested in the hentai scenes each obtainable girl has three sequences, and once you've made it onto a specific girl's path it's impossible to miss these events. Although these scenes are generally uncensored they are also pretty low key affairs that are more than just sex for the sake of sex.
Of all the things in this novel I feel that the music is perhaps the most underwhelming thing around. The opener is J-pop number that while fitting is all too forgettable and doesn't have the grab others bring to the table. The background music used throughout is indeed pleasant and befitting of a snowy town but really I didn't consider there to be anything that stood out from what I was already used to. All this isn't bad but it's an area that could have been handled better.
Like many visual novels you can expect the original Japanese vocals to be used and they really help to breath life into the story. I was especially impressed at the voicework for Saki, whose switching between fury, cheerfulness and emotional distress was seamless and perfectly handled, with just the correct level of tone each time. Of course, the whole cast puts in a terrific performance.
At first I had some concerns over the story, and that is because there simply isn't much of a backstory to begin with. You take on the role of Yuuji Tachibana, who comes home one day to find his house emptied, his parents moved off to Hawaii and instructions to go live with his uncle and cousin in Hokkaido. There first half of the novel doesn't really touch upon anything significant in terms of backstory as you just tend to hang out with friends and continue on with school life.
Yet, Snow Sakura has perhaps one of the most interesting stories I've ever come across, and you can thank both the diverse cast of characters and the sheer brilliance of the script writing that covers what would otherwise be everyday exchanges between friends. What makes the novel interesting isn't a long running plot line but a series of events that loosely tie into one another, building up into the second half where you build and maintain a relationship with one of the girls while still enjoying the delights of friendship with everyone else. The blending of the unique and common scenes is seamless and the resulting woven tale is truely engaging.
While taking care to tackle some serious issues (mainly once you're onto a set girl's route) I found that the bulk of the success comes of the humour. The friends just tend to mess about a lot of the time and each of them bring in their own personality quirks to the mix that really works. Add in some very clever scenario writing and we have a winner. Honestly, there were many times that I literally laughed out loud as Snow Sakura seems to revel in inanity. It's even perfectly capable at poking fun at various things outside its own contained world, going so far as to make light hearted fun of the h game industry itself and at times breaking the fourth wall by either making remarks about the player or characters knowing things they shouldn't.
There are five obtainable girls in this novel consisting of Misaki, Kozue, Saki, Rei and Miss Misato. The first half of the novel effectively consists of introductions, friendly exchanges and the all important decision making that will decide which girl you will eventually chase after (or none at all if you mess up the choices and end up finishing the novel early a lonely virgin). This build up is probably lengthier than the norm but it does make it much easier to get to know each girl in preparation to making your choices. When you hit the second half of the novel I found that actual decision points almost disappear entirely. There are still a few floating around but these didn't seem to make much impact on the storyline at that point so the challenge really lies in getting onto a set girl's path in the first place. Thankfully the story is compelling enough that I enjoyed seeing the paths through even without having to interact with it so much.
First time through I opted to go after Kozue and found that the decision points for her were very straightforward so I had no problems reaching her route. Kozue is effectively a stalker, whose obsession with her own best friend Misaki leads to her following her around. She's also probably one of the more thoughtful of the group after Rei, as she is quite capable of making plans and seeing them through to completion. On her path Kozue's emotions are toyed with as she knows full well that Misaki likes Yuuji as well, and it results in emotional pain as she tries to balance both her lovers relationship with Yuuji and her friendship with Misaki. We also get to see more on why Kozue is so obsessed with Misaki and how she can't feel such emotion towards herself. It's insightful and the conclusion is excellent, making this a worthwhile route to tackle.
Next time I went for Saki and again there were no problems picking the right decisions to reach her route. Saki is the playful one of the group who brings a spark to the proceedings, whether it's waking Yuuji up with an elbow drop, flying into a rage when teased over her breast size or chasing people around with an ammo supply of snowballs. Saki's story is about a forbidden love between cousins and the trials they face in trying to win the understanding of their critics. Saki shows a much more emotional side to her in this story as she fears the prospect of heartbreak but can't withstand the temptation to reveal her own feelings to Yuuji. Despite a strong exterior, Saki is shown to be often uncertain and anxious, and it's her level of attachment to Yuuji that threatens to tear them apart. Saki's route is easily the most moving and it easily became my most favourite of the novel.
Then it was time for Misaki. Her first trigger event can be missed if you're not careful but the rest of her choices are simple enough. Unfortunately, I found Misaki's route, despite being the novel's cover girl, to be the least interesting of them all. Misaki is a cute girl with a good level of charm with her naivety and in group scenes she works well to support everyone, but I don't think she has the presence to be a leading lady and it shows in her own route. Ultimately I actually found her more interesting in Kozue's path, and it doesn't help that the best this path can pull off in terms of a plot hook is a misunderstanding between girls. Compared to ones like Kozue's betrayal and Saki's forbidden love that just doesn't stack up as well. Misaki's a nice girl and there are wonderful scenes with her, but they lack the impact of the other paths.
Then came the turn of Miss Misato, who is trickier to get to as opening her trigger events aren't so straightforward as seemingly insignificant decision will lead to her. For a teacher at Yuuji's school, Miss MIsato is almost as airheaded as her sister Misaki and perhaps just as immature. Her endearing qualities involve being a klutz and getting herself buried under snow when people aren't watching her. The humour is also paired up with some serious issues though as, while Yuuji's friends all support their relationship there are others that don't approve and some hard choices face both of them as they decide where to take their relationship. As this scenario works its way to a conclusion it becomes more emotionally involving than initially let on and ends well.
Finally we have Rei, the calm senior. Like Misato, Rei can be somewhat tricky to open her trigger scenes as it's not immediately obvious what decision points do this, although she is perhaps a little easier than Misato. In a sense her route lacks a real plot hook, as her clashes with reality and deciding her future only comes into play near the end, although it is nice to see it play out when it does. Unlike Misaki though, Rei has far more substance to take on a leading role. The calm collected exterior hides someone who is easily flustered in some circumstances and despite being good in most things has regrets in not being good in what she considers more girly aspects and it makes her character complex and thus excellent.
Of course, there are a few supporting characters in here too. Some of the exchanges wouldn't be the same without Sumiyoshi. I was not too keen at first but soon I came to appreciate his contribution to the novel. The humour value is boosted by his actions and he shines when teamed up with other characters (which is quite often). Yuuji's father brings in plenty of humour too through the video tape messages sent from Hawaii, often insulting his own son and taunting him. He's an ass but the delivery makes it so entertaining that the role works.
The novel goes on for quite a while just to reach one ending, as you'll rack up quite a few hours on that alone, and this works both as a good and bad point. Even when you start using the skip feature you'll find that subsequent playthroughs will still take several hours as you are required to fast forward past scenes you've already seen. Fortunately the story is simply amazing and the length is simply a testament to the wonderful tale that has been woven here so I think the good far outweighs the bad here. I found myself really wanting to see all the unique scenes and all five endings.
Snow Sakura is the ideal visual novel for those interested in story driven adventures, with an excellent combination of quality artwork, interesting characters and talented writing that makes the whole thing work.
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