Way of the Samurai Review
With Tenchu 3 currently being created by a new developer, all eyes have been on Acquire's newest entry into the world of feudal Japan - Way of the Samurai. Taking a different approach from the Tenchu series, Acquire has delivered a game that combines the combat of Tenchu (or Bushido Blade) with a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book, making for quite an interesting experience. Many will note that a complex battle system and multi-dimensional storyline are the main ingredients to this rather short, graphically impaired samurai delicacy. However, the developers have also added a splash of interesting weaponry and a side-order portion of replay value, leading to a hearty meal of a game that will definitely get gamers going back to the table for seconds.
Graphics in Way of the Samurai are pretty weak, probably the biggest disappointment in the game. The character models in cutscenes are done very nicely, and the intro movie is very impressive, but "jaggies" and a lack of varied textures make the game look too much like a PSX game as opposed to a 2nd generation PS2 title. The environments are repetitive and could definitely use some anti-aliasing, as could the in game character models. There are also some slight issues with the frame rate when lots of allies and enemies are fighting and blocking on the screen at the same time. Luckily, the game's core features are able to overpower its mediocre graphics, so they don't take too much away from the game.
The single player mode of Way of the Samurai puts you in control of a rogue, masterless samurai traveler that has just walked smack dab into the middle of an ongoing struggle for power. The powerful Kurou family has plans to sell their foundry and a small town to the Meiji Government, a revolution that has slowly brought about the end of the age of the samurai. On the other side of the struggle lies the Akadama Clan, a group that intends to overthrow the Meiji Government that wishes to acquire the Kurou foundry to strengthen their military power.
Similar to Medal of Honor: Frontline, Way of the Samurai starts off by putting you right into the middle of the action. You begin your adventure at the Three Corners Bridge, a bridge that received its name because three feudal provinces once met there. While crossing the bridge, you are approached by a group of hoodlums that have kidnapped a girl. You have 3 choices: challenge the men and save the girl, help them, or just ignore the situation completely. Each action that you take will have its own reaction. If you choose to save the girl, she will reward you with an offer of a free meal at her restaurant. If you choose ignore the situation, eventually one of her allies will rush to the scene and save her. Finally, if you choose to join the thugs, they will consider you weak and attack you, robbing you of all your money and leaving you bound and penniless on some railroad tracks for the next train to come through and bring an end to your game.
The combat system is one of the main ingredients in Way of the Samurai. As with most sword based combat games, weapon types and special moves play a big part in assisting you in defeating your enemies. Special attacks can be learned throughout the game as you unleash weak, strong, and aerial attacks on your foes, and they get better as the game progresses. You will find yourself going from a samurai that defeats his enemies by hacking and slashing to one that uses a simple sweep kick to floor an opponent, finishing off the move by plunging a sword deep into his chest while he lies on the ground defenseless. The unique part of this battle system is the use of your sword and balance as defense against your opponent. While attacking or defending, pressing forward on the controls will sometimes cause your opponent to lose his balance and fall backward, leaving him prey to one of your more powerful attacks. Pressing backward will parry the attack, tossing your opponent aside, leaving his back exposed for a combo or powerful attack as well. While it may seem complicated, eventually you will get the hang of it all. Acquire has also included a combat tutorial to help you get going that can be accessed from the main menu.
Another unique aspect of Way of the Samurai is the qualities of each individual sword. There are a number of different swords that you will collect throughout the game, as well as some other weapons. Each weapon comes with its own set of attributes that affect your character's life, attack power, and defensive power, and each weapon style has its own set of moves. When you first begin using a sword, the basic attacks will be displayed in the moves list. As you progress thru the game, you will uncover new moves by pushing the appropriate button combos and movements. As usual, weak moves are faster than strong ones, but in Way of the Samurai, it also determines how much pain you inflict on your weapon. Each weapon comes with its own durability rating depicted by gray bars above your health meter. When you attack an enemy, the bars will fill with red, indicating that you have put stress on the weapon. If you cease attacking for a moment, the red will begin to disappear. However, if you continue to attack, the bar will eventually be filled with red until it breaks. Once all of your gray bars have disappeared, the sword is broken and cannot be fixed, so it is extremely important to keep an eye out when attacking with a powerful sword. To help guard against destroying your weapon, you can visit a blacksmith who, with the help of his fire forge, can raise the durability of a sword as well as its offensive and defensive powers.
Way of the Samurai's branching storyline is part of what keeps you coming back for more. It allows you to play as the helpful samurai savior, or as the fearless samurai warrior that shows no mercy to those who stand in his way. There are multiple endings to the game, and your decisions will rule the way your character is viewed by others throughout the game. The final outcome depends on whom you have made your friends and whom you have made your enemies, and with that in mind, it is important to always keep your sword sheathed. Walking around touting your blade will cause the weak to become scared of you and the strong to attack you thinking that you are looking for a fight. Also, if certain conditions are met in the single player mode, the Battle Mode will be unlocked on the title screen. This mode allows you to test your sword fighting skills against a friend or a computer opponent, and adds a moderate amount of replay value to the game.
While Way of the Samurai presents itself with a great combat system and interesting storyline, it has its faults as well. Saving is probably the most frustrating aspects of the game. First off, you are presented with very few save possibilities throughout the course of the game, which prevents you from playing and quitting whenever you like. You really have to dedicate time to playing the game if you want to be able to save your information and not start over from scratch. However, starting a game from a previous save presents another problem. Once a saved game is loaded from memory, that save is erased, so basically saving in Way of the Samurai is more like "a-really-long-pause-that-allows-you-to-turn-off-the-machine-and-play-some-other-time". This also means that should you die, it's as if you never saved in the first place, and you will have to start from the beginning all over again.
Another problem with this game is the map. Rather than have one big map for exploration, like in games such as Drakan or the FF series, Way of the Samurai's map is broken up into segments. There are very few areas to travel to, and each is pretty small with hardly any people around. The camera will change angles on you as well. If you are running forward away from the camera and turn around and run back, the camera never moves. This is annoying when you are in a battle with a group of enemies and end up walking your face into the blade of someone's sword. When you enter a building, the camera will lock, but the controls get all crazy. This is especially frustrating when you are in a room with multiple camera angles and press up on the joystick only to find that up really means down in the view you're using.
Those who enjoy listening to video game music should expect to be pretty disappointed with the soundtrack of Way of the Samurai. It basically consists of one song that is drowned out in the background, almost like it is being played from a speaker that has been stuffed under a couch cushion. As with most action/adventure games, the music intensifies itself a tad when a battle begins, but it's nothing more than a sped up drum beat that doesn't do much to change the mood of the game. Sound effects in Way of the Samurai are crisp. A strike of metal on metal produces an accurate clang, while a hit to the body produces a fleshy slicing sound. Characters will groan when hit and yell when attacking, but that's about all the voice acting you'll hear in this game. Rather than use voice acting, the creators of Way of the Samurai have opted for cartoon-like bubbles that display the words of each character.
While Way of the Samurai has enough to leave the average gamer satisfied, it lacks that one mystery ingredient that makes for a "can't miss" game. Its interesting storyline and cool battle system are enough to overshadow most of its shortcomings, but overall the game leaves a lot to be desired. Those who are looking for a samurai/ninja title to add to their library will enjoy Way of the Samurai, while others may want to rent first.
6/15/2002 Steve Berry