Way of the Samurai 4
Publisher: NIS America
Platforms: PlayStation 3
Release Date: October 5, 2012
Price: $75.95 AUD (Buy Here)
The fourth entrant into a well established series (in the East at least), Way of the Samurai 4 is a shot of Japanese culture that many may not quite get. Being a new player of the series, but an appreciator of Japanese humour, I came into this not knowing what precedents were set for the game, but keen for the silliness that was sure to abound. Will newcomers both to the culture and the franchise appreciate Way of the Samurai 4 the same way? And does it satisfy long-time fans of the series or leave them yearning for something new? Read on to find out.
Way of the Samurai 4 starts off with your character arriving by boat to the port town called Amihama. It is the year 1855 and upon arriving at the docks, you are immediately thrust in the middle of an on-going war between the pro-government Shogunates, led by Chief Magistrate Kotobuki Hikaru, the anti-government Prajnas gang and the British Navy the Prajnas fight to dispel. The British have arrived on their massive “Black Ship” to orchestrate the signing of a peace treaty with Japanese, while the Prajnas do not approve of this alliance as they fear that they will lose their culture and identity, themselves becoming xenophobes in the eyes of others in the process of expressing their dissent. Oh, and in cut-scenes, the main players from the British Navy all speak Japanese. The concept of the British instigating cultural globalization would have been better communicated if the British were speaking the very language they wish for everyone else to learn! Obviously budget comes into play here, but it’s just a little off-putting.
How can I take this thug seriously in his purple pants?!
What is great about the Way of the Samurai series are the branching storylines that you get to explore. In the main menu there is an “Events” page within the “Journal” section, which also shows you your current missions amongst other things. This events page displays all the possible story events that you may encounter, with already completed beats showing their title, whilst others that you have not experienced will remain untitled so as to retain potential spoilers in the story, waiting for you to see them for yourself. There are paths for each event, with each faction in the game – including “independant” and “other” – being highlighted with a different colour for easy tracking. The time of day and zone in which an event will occur is also noted. These U.I. elements allow you to plot a specific story-line that you would like to follow, that may be necessary to complete a particular ending.
There are ten endings in total, and most will require a set amount of missions to be completed for a certain faction for you to experience them. Although the quickest storyline can be finished within two hours of starting the game (without distractions/secondary jobs), the fact that there are multiple paths to follow means that there is much replay value to be had. And you will want to experience each story arc, as they differ greatly from each other and offer new perspectives on the happenings within Amihama. It suffices to say that the story can get quite twisted once Chief Minister Kinugawa and his three daughters arrive on the scene. And without playing through specific story arcs, you may never get to see his torture room…that’s right, a torture room. Oh it gets weirder…
Way of the Samurai 4′s main mechanic is its combat. As a samurai, you start the game with a basic katana with many opportunities for upgrades to your weaponry becoming available to you as you play. New weapons may be acquired from defeated enemies or bought from, and built by provided you have the parts, the local town Smithy. This weapon base will consist of a variety of katanas and staffs – as well as pistols if you progress far enough, each with their own unique combination of properties. You may also employ hand-to-hand combat if your weapons break down, although they can always be fixed and hardened. In using these weapons, you will utilise different fighting styles that can be unlocked or picked up much in the same way as you would weapons – from defeated enemies – with each of them harbouring differing move sets. Only through continued use of a fighting style will you unlock more moves to flesh out that fighting style’s move set. The sheer quantity of weapons at your disposal, with varying stats, means that you will work to refine your fighting strategies based around weapon and style choice as you find what works for you and against specific enemies.
That colourful Kimono is your default and only choice for a Kimono at the start…
During combat, you are able to execute light attacks, heavy attacks, blocks, guard breaks and sidesteps to dodge attacks. You also have quick access to your items, your stance, your capability to dual wield and the ability to switch between up to three different weapons on the fly – those of which must be specified in the weapons menu. Using the D-Pad’s left and right arrows will toggle between items, with the up and down arrows initiating their use. All of this is shown in the bottom left corner of the HUD, which also displays your vitality and health meters. The health bar works as you would expect, but vitality, the purple bar, drops as you attack, get hit, fast travel and “night crawl”, and will also automatically sacrifice itself to regenerate your health if it is low. When engaged with enemies, and alongside comrades, their health/vitality status is displayed going from the top left corner of the screen across.
New to the series is a special meter that will fill up and allow you to execute the “Spring Harvest”, which is basically a boost to your attack speed and strength, whilst also momentarily providing decreased rates of vitality degeneration and declines in sword durability. It is a very useful mechanic when faced with large numbers of opponents or a just particularly difficult one. Speaking of groups of opponents, when engaged in combat you will find yourself fighting with a sole opponent at a time, while the rest just stand at a somewhat safe distance watching the battle, eagerly anticipating their turn. It seems like a wasted opportunity to have wide, sweeping attacks that are only focused on a singular opponent, although if any other gets close enough to the battle, they will get hit…it’s just that you can’t do it intentionally. It is also rare to be able to change your lock on a target once it has been established, with a few players suggesting pressing R2 to free run and then come back to the fight closer to the guy you wish to fight within the group. For me, this didn’t work as I was still locked to the guy I tried to leave. Oh and try not to hit a Demonscale – equivalent of a police force – by accident as you will be arrested…and tortured. Remember the torture room I mentioned? Enough said.
…however, you can eventually make your Samurai look like this…naked devil pirate?
Aside from the combat, there are many auxiliary missions and jobs, food stalls and establishments, stores, a gambling parlour, a casino, a dojo (which you can establish and run) and rest areas for the player to take advantage of. You may fish at virtually any body of water, talk to strangers on the streets to obtain missions and work as a thief amongst many other things. Doing these activities will earn you money, which you will need to customise your character via the clothing and curio shops, buy food items and pay the Smithy for his work on your swords.
There is one peculiar mini-game that I have previously referenced called “night crawling”. It involves seducing almost any woman in the game, and subsequently meeting them in a “hut”. But, once arriving and entering said hut, you must sneak up to their futon and rip off their covers without alerting their fellow residents. Upon successfully doing this, the festivities are taken to the local inn where you must work to take off your love interest’s clothes and then…well, you can imagine. Although, the screen fades to black at that moment, so don’t get too excited you perverts! You emerge the next morning outside the inn entrance with a “token of their love” at your feet. Mine was white radish…twice! An odd, odd game that is tracked much like your endings in the journal sub-menu.
What’s especially nice about the game is the “Proof of Life” system, which basically allows you to carry through your acquisitions and statistics from your previous game as you start a new one. Acquire built the game so that you must play it at least ten times to get all the possible endings, so this system is a smart, apt addition. Even certain events will be reflected in your next play-through, such as the opening of a language school allowing you to speak to previously confused (and seemingly racist) Brits who, just like you, are lost in translation. Overall, all the mechanics supplement each other quite adequately with the proof of life being a perfect example of this thoughtfulness by Acquire.
The graphics of the Way of the Samurai titles have not advanced much at all from iteration to iteration. Even though this is a PS3 title, you wouldn’t be blamed for mistaking it for a PS2 title…the console the franchise debuted on in 2002. Japanese titles, aimed at Eastern audiences, are not exactly known for their amazing graphics. But even so, and in being below industry standard, Way of the Samurai doesn’t suffer too badly because of it. Visuals are a main tenet of video game development, however the Japanese usually practice emphasising gameplay over all else, which is what they should be doing. Again, this evidently may not always be the case.
Character and object models also suffer slightly as they lack the definition and detail that a current-gen title usually portrays. This will not be an issue for those who can ignore a lesser quality of graphics, although it is quite confronting when engaged in close-up cut-scenes. Don’t even mentioned the lip-syncing! The biggest graphical issue, is the visual artefacts or screen tearing as we’ve come to call it. This is my biggest pet peeve in video games…I hate screen tearing. It has the ability to rip me out of a game so fast, causing me to lose all inspiration to continue playing. In Way of the Samurai 4, it even happens during cut-scenes! Somehow, I did endure it and haven’t lost the inspiration to play it ever again, but others may not be as forgiving.
Woo hoo! I caught crabs!
Having said all of that, the visual style of the game is distinctly Japanese; the environments, the architecture, the colour palette, the iconography and symbolism all represent Japanese culture as we have been presented with throughout time. The menus, for example, are riddled with cherry blossom imagery, which also ties in with the Samurai spirit/beliefs as they would romanticize the concept of a warrior’s death, comparing it to the falling of a cherry blossom at it’s most beautiful and fulfilled state. It’s an art style that I love and it’s in these respects that the game’s visuals are effective and fitting.
Way of the Samurai 4′s audio is probably both one of it’s strongest assets and one of it’s biggest failings. The first actual note I made about the game came about when the splash screen displayed on screen and I noticed the accompanying audio loop end and replay very abruptly, as though it had been crudely chopped up in a editing program and not looped properly. Not a good sign to start off the negatives before the game even begins. In that vein, let’s go through the rest of the negatives first. Aside from the aforementioned looping issue, there is more harsh looping, particularly in scenes with walla – yes, that’s a real term for the sound effect of murmuring in a crowd. Also, when fast forwarding through a cut-scene, if you stop in the middle of dialogue, the audio for said dialogue and maybe even the next few lines will be cut off and will not play.
*Don’t alert her parents! Night crawling is obviously frowned upon!*
Otherwise, the sound effects used include your common samurai sword slashes, smacks and exacerbated vocals. It may be over-the-top, but it does fit the absurd nature of the game. One hilarious instance where the audio is especially effective is in the night crawling foreplays. When the screen fades to black and the characters…are getting busy, the common attack sound effects play, which evokes comical slapstick imagery (I get it, slapstick…immature readers!). The music is probably the most well rounded and well produced area of the audio, with different tracks playing according to your immediate situation. The transition may not always be smooth, but the music itself fits nicely with the visual language and themes.
Way of the Samurai 4 is outrageous, ridiculous and any other like-synonym you wish to describe it with. Franchise faithfuls will love the familiar sense of humour, the distinctly Japanese depiction of Westerners and the divergent storytelling that distinguish it amongst all other titles. And although that familiarity is a good thing in those fields, other aspects of the game do need a change. The graphics are well below this generation’s standard, the sound design is at times lazy and sloppy, the combat is inexplicably restricted to one-on-one interactions amongst a group and there are a few notable technical mishaps and issues – screen tearing being the worst and most unbearable offender. Having noted those failings, I really wanted to be generous with my score…however I just can’t overlook them. If you can withstand these cons in favour of a hilariously ludicrous experience, then Way of the Samurai 4 is still worth it – it was for me.