Four years ago, Sakura Wars (Shin Sakura Taisen) launched exclusively on Sony’s PlayStation 4 console. While the game has found a fond fanbase in the West, the title has also garnered equally as many critics. Among these, is the argument that the game’s Battle sections are little more than thinly-veiled “Musou” segments. As a die-hard Sakura Wars fan who adores the Musou subgenre, this argument has always raised an eyebrow. While the newest Sakura Wars game features action-based combat, it bears only a superficial resemblance to the style pioneered by Koei’s classic franchise.

The term “Musou” is derived from Koei Tecmo’s flagship “Warriors” franchise which, in Japan, are released under the “Musou” branding. For example, Dynasty Warriors is “Shin Sangoku Musou”, Hyrule Warriors is “Zelda Musou”, and so on. The games are informed by set trends and design decisions that have come to lay the bedrock for the subgenre, with the most important coming from the stage and move-set design. Since the series’ inception, numerous titles have successfully copied the formula, from Fate/EXTELLA, to Capcom’s Sengoku BASARA line. In this light, Sakura Wars fails to measure up to the standards that have defined the subgenre.

Stage Design

Screenshot from Sakura Wars 2019 depicting a pair of robots standing in a linear corridor.

When starting a stage in a Musou game, be it one of Koei Tecmo’s main series, or one of the non-affiliated games within the sphere, players are immediately dropped into a large battlefield that is filled to the brim with a combination of low-health mooks and enemy commanders with actual health bars. The main objective of these stages is never to destroy every enemy, as this is borderline impossible. Rather, players are tasked with an ever-changing list of objectives, such as chasing down and defeating a certain commander, escorting an ally, or capturing a specific base by defeating a set number of enemies within it. All of these objectives are intended to illustrate the chaos of an ongoing war, with most Musou games telling their story through pop-up combat dialogue and scripted events that unfold over the course of battle.

The typical Musou battlefield is either a large square or a circle, with several pathways and bases scattered throughout. As such, there tend to be several ways for players to navigate toward their objectives. At the same time, this allows development teams to reuse assets for multiple missions, making only minor changes to block off pathways or set characters into bases. Unlike in traditional action games, this means that the overall design and routing in a level take lower precedence to the objectives and scripted events that unfold within it.

That said, there have been a number of Musou games that have used linear stages in the past. For example, the final stage of Warriors Orochi 3 and Altera’s opening stages in Fate/Extella funnel the player down a generally straightforward path with only one route for progression. These are exceptions to the rule, though, as they are typically story-heavy scenes, intended to stand out as special events that command the player’s attention.

Sakura Wars, in comparison, features a series of linear stages where the goal is to traverse a set path that is often barred by small hordes of enemies that always cap out at roughly twenty units. At the end of each of these stages will be a large boss monster that is taken down in a climactic showdown as the theme song plays. It nails the “anime episode” vibe occasionally, but it never quite captures that “giant, chaotic battlefield” feel that Musou games have.

Likewise, objectives are all but absent in the game’s stages. Aside from reaching the goal and defeating the boss, the only time players are given anything resembling a secondary objective is when they’re locked in a room and required to defeat every enemy within it to advance. Even then, comparing these sections to the typical Musou stage design is dubious, at best. The amount of enemies Shin Sakura Wars throws at the player will often cap at around twenty, with those numbers dropping drastically if the game decides to throw out a few stronger enemies. These sections are far more comparable to something like Kingdom Hearts II or God of War, which also utilize the “locked room” to gate player progress, and feature a large number of weak enemies being present to emphasize the player’s strength.

On a similar note, it should be noted that Musou games typically lack any sort of actual party members or useful allies on the battlefield. Players are rarely cast as the actual army commander. Instead, they are typically an allied unit that the player cannot afford to let die, whether it’s by failing objectives or just failing to notice an enemy heading straight toward them. These units typically don’t fight alongside the player but are instead scattered around the battlefield as they engage in their own fights and progress toward their own objectives. The presence of these allies and the requirements objectives to aid them allows the player to feel like they’re part of a collective, even while they are single-handedly mowing down thousands of enemies.

In contrast, the player’s allies are nowhere to be seen as players progress through Sakura Wars’ action stages. Even though players are supposed to be filling the shoes of the Flower Division’s commander, the only characters present during any given stage are the two that players are assigned. Occasionally the game will have a third character briefly appear to assist, but these moments are fleeting, and uncommon to the point of being forgettable. This feeling of loneliness during the gameplay was actually one of the key criticisms of Sakura Wars’ gameplay and could have been avoided had the games taken more notes from the Musou genre.

Hypothetically speaking, had the Sakura Wars did adopt a Musou-styled stage design philosophy, players wouldn’t be jetting through corridors with few—if any—side paths. Instead, they’d be placed in an open environment like the avenues of Ginza or Asakusa, reusing them several times over the course of the game, while placing landmarks that the player traverses in the Adventure Mode segments as bases. Allies would be scattered throughout the city, battling against the demonic hordes as they make their way toward their commander, giving the impression that the Flower Division is working as a single unit, and defusing one of the main criticisms that hangs over the title.

Moveset Design

Screenshot from Sakura Wars 2019 depicting a menu that shows Azami Mochizuki's movesets.

At a glance, one could be forgiven for mistaking Sakura Wars’ combo system for that of Dynasty Warriors. Light attacks are mapped to Triangle, which can lead into heavy attacks mapped to Square. When the player earns enough energy, they can pull off a screen-clearing super attack with the Circle button.

While the buttons are the same, though, the overall execution follows a different train of logic. Most Musou movesets tend to follow set patterns of execution, such as the first heavy combo knocking enemies upward or the third heavy combo being an area-of-effect attack that hits a wide range of enemies. Sakura Wars’, in comparison, do not follow these established trends. Rather, there are characters who explicitly break these rules, with Claris and Anastasia using the exact same attacks no matter when the heavy combo button is pressed.

It’s apparent that Sakura Wars’ movesets want to evoke the feel of a Musou title, based on the menu interface and the three-button combat. In practice, though, the game more closely plays like a typical anime character-action title, like Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba: The Hinokami Chronicles or Naruto to Boruto: Shinobi Striker. Japanese video games have been using the square and triangle buttons for attacks long enough for them to be industry standards, and the existence of super attacks that are charged by hitting enemies can be seen in countless other games, from Oneechanbara to Senran Kagura. This style of gameplay isn’t exclusive to the Musou genre.

Meanwhile, there are gameplay elements seen in Koei’s Warriors games, as well as other Musou clones that are absent in Sakura Wars. Sakura Wars completely lacks core mechanics like a block button, the ability to strafe around locked on enemies, or items, or a rage state where the player’s attack is amplified for a brief period of time. While these elements seem minor—and on their own, they are—they help to build the overall feel and style that uniquely defines a Musou experience.

Other Considerations

Screenshot from Sakura Wars 2019 depicting three robots posing on a sports field.

There is one other element that one needs to consider when comparing Sakura Wars to the typical Musou experience. Specifically, the game has a Dash Button mapped to the R2 button, which is antithetical to Musou game design. In a majority of Musou, the player is unable to dash at will. Rather, the character will naturally dash on their own after the player runs forward for a few seconds. This dash can be interrupted by nearly anything interacting with the player, from an enemy commander’s strike to the smallest of arrows. Koei’s overall design philosophy behind this stems from the idea that, while Musou titles are ultimately about rushing from objective to objective, players shouldn’t be able to do so without resistance. This is further emphasized by the enemy swarms that exist solely to slow the player down.

In comparison, Sakura Wars meanwhile places more emphasis on zipping from set piece to set piece, with only a handful of strong attacks being capable of breaking players out of their dash. This, in turn, creates a completely different gameplay loop, as players are encouraged to dash whenever possible, constantly holding the R2 button with the intention of completing stages as quickly as possible.

The design decisions Sega made in the Flower Division’s latest outing actually resemble those of a game they released more than a decade ago. Like Sakura Wars, it was an action game with simplistic light and heavy combos, a linear level design that extends itself by locking players in a room with large hordes of enemies, and an emphasis on beating these stages as quickly as possible.

That title, of course, is 2008’s Sonic Unleashed.

Shin Sakura Wars’ gameplay feels like a refinement of what Sonic Unleashed had attempted fifteen years ago, replacing the werehog’s moveset—which was very much inspired by God of War’s Kratos—with a variety of Musou-esque movesets that are more in line with anime action games of the 2010s.

This comparison is apt, as 2019’s Sakura Wars was developed by Sega CS2 R&D, a development team within Sega that shares several staff with Sonic Team. Multiple employees who worked on the battle sections of the Taisho-era action game, including Lead Battle Director Shun Nakamura, had previously worked on Sonic Unleashed.


While many have made comparisons between Sakura Wars and the Musou subgenre, these arguments don’t quite stand up to actual scrutiny. From stage design, down to the considerations in combat flow, the fundamental differences disqualify the new Flower Division’s inaugural outing from joining the likes of Sengoku BASARA and Fate/Extella as fellow Musou-likes. While the differences are subtle, the elements that Musou games have that Sakura Wars lacks provide an experience that truly cannot be replicated without them.