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/