Way of the Samurai 4 Review
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On 09/10/2012 at 02:25 PM by Julian Titus
"You must understand that there is more than one path to the top of the mountain." -Miyamoto Musashi
Only hardcore fans of samurai and Japanese culture need apply. This is a deeply flawed game that will yield a lot of enjoyment for people that loved Rurouni Kenshin and The Last Samurai.
For me, there is no better exhibition of the focus, skill, and elegance of the martial arts than the samurai, and it boggles my mind that we don’t see more video games based on these noble warriors. Sure, ninjas are cool and all, but what about those that follow the way of bushido? I gobble up the lifestyle of the wandering ronin, and I think you can forgive me a little bit that I enjoy Way of the Samurai 4 so much--despite that fact that it is flawed on every conceivable level that games are judged on.
Like previous games in the series, Way of the Samurai 4 is an action/adventure game that plays out like a choose your own adventure book. Even though the story is constrained to certain events throughout the course of the experience, your choices will dictate what scenes you’re a part of, as well as what ending you’ll get. This is a game that’s intended to be played over and over, even though you can “clear” the game in a couple hours. Or five minutes, if you decide that you want nothing to do with the plights of the townspeople and simply get on a boat to leave right away. The choice is yours, and that freedom is refreshing, even if you’ll quickly grow tired of seeing the same events unfold.
You’ll also get tired of the environment and events of the game because there simply aren’t enough of either. The areas in Way of the Samurai 4 are just as small and constrained as they were in the first game way back in 2001 on the PlayStation 2. While the game has a decent number of diversions such as gambling, fishing, and various places to shop for items and cosmetic gear to customize your samurai, the actual areas offer little in terms of exploration. After one or two runs through the story you’ll likely be intimately acquainted with the fictional town of Amihara. Since the game is so short and built to be played over and over again from different perspectives it can end up feeling like the movie Groundhog Day, where, just to keep things interesting you may end up devising interesting ways to commit suicide—or is that seppuku?
If Way of the Samurai 4 was polished to the quality of a Hattori Hanzo blade the sheer repetition of the game wouldn’t be a problem. I like the idea of a game that I can finish in a few hours and replay from a different angle to see different events and outcomes. Unfortunately, nearly every aspect of this title comes across as poorly designed, awkward, and generally rough around the edges.
And yet, I can’t stop playing it.
Allow me to explain. From the get-go, Way of the Samurai 4 looks decidedly last-gen. The character models and environments sport a shocking lack of polygons, leaving everything looking blocky and bringing memories of Acquire’s 2007 release of Tenchu Z to mind. Some of the NPC faces are remarkably detailed, giving the impression that they’re based on real people, like Capcom did with the Onimusha games. Unfortunately, the graphics on display here look about on par with those games, which are over ten years old at this point. Despite the low poly models, Way of the Samurai 4 is victim to terrible screen tearing, even when very little is going on.
Beyond the aesthetics, this game suffers from a lot of little things that add up to some big problems. Character A.I. behaves in such a way that you will be seen as an enemy the moment you draw your blade, even if you’re around NPCs that are the same faction as you. So if you have to take down one specific target in a crowded space you’ll need to be prepared to fight every other person with a weapon in that area, leading to lengthy, drawn-out battles. Even doing something as benign as polishing your sword is seen as a hostile action, resulting in enemies crawling out of the woodworks. Considering that your weapons degrade in quality at an alarming rate this can be a real pain, especially if you get sucked into one of those lengthy fight scenarios. Random NPCs on the street will give you quests when you talk to them, but there’s no way to tell these task givers apart from common passersby, and after a couple times through the game I grew tired of chatting up every ronin, Yakuza, and geisha that came my way. Animation is clunky and stiff, and clipping issues abound, which can be a huge problem in tight quarters.
With all that going against Way of the Samurai 4 I can understand why you’d want to give it a pass, and yet I can’t dismiss it outright. Just as it has a lot of little sticking points that add up to big problems, this game gets a lot of little things so right that a samurai fanboy like me couldn’t put it down.
If you enjoy samurai history or movies at all, this title offers a lot of fan service at every turn. Taking place just a few years before the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate and the start of the infamous Meiji era, Way of the Samurai 4 tells an interesting story during the twilight of the samurai. The British are making inroads to Japan at this time in history, and you find yourself in a conflict between the “foreigners”, the shogunate, and a faction of proud samurai who want to keep their way of life pure and untainted by the British. The translation of the game is quite clever, as your character can’t understand most of the foreigners at all, and the ones that do speak Japanese do so in a broken manner, adding a bit of humor to the proceedings.
There is a plethora of fighting styles to master, with plenty of famous moves seen in various movies and TV shows. If you get tired of the katana in its many stances (and even dual-wielding, Miyamoto Musashi style), you can try your hand at the spear or even traditional hand-to-hand martial arts. It’s a samurai fan’s dream come true—you even have the option of reversing your blade to avoid a killing blow. Of course, if the story dictates you need to kill someone, you have no choice—there’s no option to clear the game without shedding blood. Combat is simple yet satisfying; it takes proper timing to turn away an enemy’s thrust or throw them off balance, and flashier moves add some much needed zing to the stiff animation. It’s nowhere near Assassin’s Creed or even Soul Calibur when it comes to weapons-based combat, but the clang of steel on steel and the arterial spray of an honorably defeated foe kept me coming back for more.
While finding quest givers is a bit of a chore, Way of the Samurai 4 does some nifty, forward-thinking things, such as informing you when you’re on site for a mission, and highlights the target on the map for you (provided the target is there at the time, of course, as the game boasts a nice day/night cycle). Completing certain long quest lines allows you to reap the benefits from them on subsequent playthroughs. Help the elderly blacksmith find a successor once and you’ll never have to do it again—his apprentice is in charge from the get-go on later games. Any weapons you pick up go into a chest that you can access in the dojo. Since there are over 100 unique weapons it’s easy to get sucked into that “gotta catch ‘em all” mentality, especially since most major characters also drop a fighting style guide when slain.
Way of the Samurai 4 is not a well-made game by any stretch of the imagination. Almost every element of the design feels rushed and unpolished, and there are plenty of better action/adventure titles on the market. With that being said, I had a blast with this title, and if all this talk of bushido, shogunates, and katanas makes you smile this just might be a game worth checking out.