As a kid I remember being introduced to the ways of the ninja via schoolyard shenanigans that involved hungrily flipping through mail order catalogs for throwing stars, pitting Snake Eyes and Stormshadow against each other, and basically being an eleven-year-old mystified by a culture that I truly had no grasp of. Ninjas were cool. They were dark clad mysterious bad asses with katana’s, and could kick anyone’s ass with jujitsu. In my eleven-year-old head, Samurai were nothing compared to Ninja.
In 1987 my view of Samurai shifted. First Comics began to republish the early 70’s manga, Lone Wolf and Cub with Frank Miller covers. Dark and gritty yet full of honor, the comic line opened my then thirteen-year-old mind to the realization that samurai were the cool ones and ninja were the sneaky, backstabbing, less honorable ones. Of course, gaining cultural understanding from mail order catalogs, comic books, and the occasional sneak viewing of R-rated ninja flicks as a kid skewed my view of that culture, but also kept me wanting to learn more.
Flash forward to college and as part of my base history requirements I took two classes on Asian history. Dreams of learning about feudal clans warring against one another were only slightly dashed as both classes did nothing to romanticize that period of time. Rather both showed how much Japan struggled with its own identity as cultures from other parts of the world explored and forced themselves into a traditionally isolationistic people. Gone were my youthful ideals of sneaky ninjas and honorable samurai. Instead a more well rounded view of the struggles normal people had to deal with while power hungry rulers enforced their views by whatever means possible was established.
So, what does all this have to do with video games? Way of the Samurai 4, out now for PS3 exclusively via PSN, is an almost ideal simulation of the marriage of my younger views and my older college education. The idea is fairly straightforward: Three factions are vying for control within a small fictional port town called Amihama. Isolationist rebels fight to keep the shogunate government from allowing the foreign British naval entourage from spreading western influence into the Japanese town. Playing as a lone unknown samurai, you can choose to side with one or several factions to see the outcome of the power struggle bubbling up. To make things even more interesting, you only get four days to play out any of the available scenarios. Replaying the game offers the chance to try out different outcomes, with each playthrough allowing you to make improvements or changes from past runs.
Amihama is an open world city that allows you to roam the various sections of the port town to perform tasks offered up by random citizens on the street or by the specific clashing factions. Each day is broken down into daytime, evening and nighttime, and during each phase of the day new tasks or quests become available from each faction. On my first playthrough, I was still trying to learn how to fully grasp what each faction was asking of me, and how to control my samurai in combat and get a full lay of the land. Some how during that first playthrough, I managed to not side with any particular faction, enter a contest and win and be crowned a Demonscale.
The appeal with Way of the Samurai 4 is the ability replay the game and start over with whatever goods, skills, and other assorted bonuses you’ve managed to accumulate. Unfortunately the game does not offer any sort of intuitive explanation of how to start a new playthrough with those prior goods. Once a game finishes, the main menu appears with New, Load and Manual. Frustratingly, the manual is only available from the main menu. To add to the frustration, the manual only shows controller functionality and gives no explanation for starting a second playthrough nor offers any information on the various factions and their connections.
Finishing my first playthrough, I wanted to see how my collected goods would be available the next time, so I started a new game. During the initial start of a new game you are immediately presented with a screen with which to save your progress with. Not realizing the consequences (and only having 10 slots to save on a console that has 320 GB of space–which seems a bit short sighted design-wise) I selected a save from which my last playthrough was stored on. Yes, that’s right. I started a second playthrough, saving over my end game progress from my first run. It didn’t become obvious what I had done until I finished this second (first) playthrough and realized that all of my stats showed that this was truly my first time through.
OK. I admit I’m new to the series. But the concept is right down my alley. The combat is a little repetitive at times and seeing the same quest options play out is a little annoying, but the ultimate idea of progress from a previous playthrough as the foundation for additional playthroughs is genius. So why the heck can’t the game save my meta game progress in a different location than my actual playthrough progress? Coming to this realization after my second playthrough, I opted to “load” my second playthrough to start a “new” run. Low and behold all of my actions and gear were available for my third (second) run. Of course, I wasn’t pleased with how my second playthrough ended (boiled alive no less) and thus my third run didn’t start off with the same gear I had hoped would carry over from my overwritten first run.
Now that I’ve got my biggest complaint about the game out of the way, let’s get to the good stuff. Once I realized how the game intended for me to play subsequent runs of the title, I found myself playing through again focusing solely on one faction–the rebels. With each day broken down by phases, the rebels offer a key interaction/quest to progress their story. Even though the game is an open world and other quests or encounters may become available, as long as I stuck to the rebel quest alone, I found myself getting an intricate, moving story that highlights the passions and fears of a society in 1855 faced with a huge unknown wave of change rolling in.
During my first run, I “won” by being admitted into the Shogunate’s Demonscale force. The second time around, I was boiled alive because I had sided with one of the factions and entered the same tournament that had previously earned me the Demonscale title. On my third playthrough, I noticed at the last moment that I had an option to escape from being boiled alive to live another day. This option allowed me to meet back up with the rebels who had planned a grand attack on the Shogunate. The battle takes place over a series of seemingly unending waves of Demonscale soldiers defending the government facilities housing rebel prisoners. Sadly, the tale is woven in such a manner that while my actions were ultimately stopped, they were viewed as a last act of an honorable warrior.
Playing through a fourth time, I realized that each of the time periods during each day offers a chance for the quest to overlap and in many instances directly conflict with a quest offered by an opposing faction. For example the western presence wants to establish a language school. In order for the language school to open, players have the option of fighting alongside with the western soldiers and shogunate to battle the rebels attempting to stop the scholar from reaching the school. Alternatively, siding with the rebels means battling all forces attempting to aid the scholar in reaching the school. In the grand scheme each faction offers a quest which leads to the same battle, but extends the story in the favor of whichever faction is sided with. To some this may feel overly repetitive, but the story and characters within each faction are unique (if not outrageously so–Melinda Megamelons I’m looking at you) so it’s worth replaying multiple times to see how their stories play out.
Any truly open world game offers players a chance to deviate from the story and get caught up in the various side missions, and Way of the Samurai 4 has no shortage of side missions. Many of them are simple fetch type missions where a random citizen on the street asks for a message to be delivered. Other missions offer enhancements to the overall experience. One such mission includes convincing an apprentice blacksmith who has decided to kill himself, to instead make peace with his demons and return to the shop. Other side diversions include fishing, gambling or recruiting ronin samurai to join your own dojo. Oh yeah. There is one other diversion that has probably garnered the most attention, Night Crawling.
Night Crawling offers gamers a chance to woo women during the day and then during the night phase of the game, sneak into a wooed woman’s home battle her until she sleeps with you. I’m not opposed to mature themes in video games. Sex and dating are part of life. But sneaking into a house, avoiding other family members and then wrestling a woman until she submits to sleep with you teeters just beyond the side of creepy. Fortunately Night Crawling is not a focal point to the game and can easily be skipped.
One of the other unique features to the game is the option to enable a world mode. When turned on, the game will randomly bring in another player’s samurai to wander the streets of Amihama. The other samurai is not controlled directly by another person, but any attributes they have accumulated from their various playthroughs will apply as a bonus. During my various journeys through the game, I found that when I encountered another player’s samurai I would quickly get slaughtered because my unlocked fighting stances and styles were no match for the visiting samurai. Fortunately this mode can be toggled on or off at any point so there is no need to worry about an invading samurai ending your adventure early if you don’t want to.
Aside from the lack of proper documentation (again no mention in the menu’s manual or any other XMB accessed manual) on how to properly start subsequent playthroughs, Way of the Samurai 4 is a truly unique and captivating game, with an underlying examination of varying culture clashes that adds a level of historic credibility to the overall experience. Optional side quests, missions and in-depth character customization help to break up the repetitive nature of the main story and as more combat styles and weapons are collected, battling large groups of enemies becomes quite fun. Way of the Samurai 4 is probably an acquired taste, but fans of samurai culture and open world exploration should find plenty to love about this game.
+ Replay offers different viewpoints on similar encounters
+ Plenty of stances and weapons add depth to combat
+ Online mode allows your samurai to travel to other games
+ Unique factions offer different stories and viewpoints to explore
– Lack of documentation in game or in XMB
– Replaying the same encounters can get repetitive
Platform: PS3 via PSN
Publisher: XSEED Games
Release Date: 8/21/2012
Genre: Action Adventure
ESRB Rating: Mature
Source: Review code provided by publisher