Everyone's got that game they used to love but nobody else seems to remember it. This site it dedicated to those games. Check in each week for a fresh look at another hidden gem and weigh in on whether it should be remembered as a classic or not.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Way of the Samurai

Year: 2002
Developer: Acquire
Publisher: BAM! Entertainment
Platform: PS2
Metacritic Score: 74
VGChartz sales to date: 510,000

A lone ronin wanders into a sleepy Japanese village.  There he finds two hostile clans on the verge of war and a newly centralized government encroaching on a traditional way of life.  This wandering swordsman must use his wits and his steel to make it through unscathed, and hopefully find a way to profit from the town's upheaval.  This is the plot to Yojimbo, a 1961 film by legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa and starring the renowned Toshiro Mifune.  This movie is a cinema classic and spawned the American remake A Fistful of Dollars which launched Sergio Leone's international success as the king of the spaghetti western and Clint Eastwood's fame playing the Man with No Name.  Both movies are beyond excellent and I highly recommend them, but if you want to take on the role of the ronin yourself then there's only one way to enjoy this rich story and that's by playing Way of the Samurai.

It even throws in an afro samuari for good measure.  And yes, he is an unlockable skin.

You play as Kenji, a ronin (samurai who has been released from their daimyo, or feudal lord, and was considered a shameful position) whose travels take him to the small village of Rokkotsu Pass.  The game is set during the start of the Meiji period, a time of upheaval in Japanese history when the traditional feudal system that supported samurai was being replaced by a more modern, centralized vision of government.   The growing pressure of modernization is being felt in Rokkatsu Pass where a power struggle has emerged between the powerful central government, the powerful Kurou family, and the Akadama clan.  Caught in the middle are the villagers themselves who, let's be honest here, are going to lose no matter which side wins.  Kenji finds himself caught up in local politics as soon as he begins a 3-day adventure through the Pass, and that's where things get interesting.

Though small, the game's playable area includes a nice variety of Japanese landscapes

Way of the Samurai has multiple branching storylines and it's up to you to decide which one to play.  Kenji can choose to align himself with one clan over the other, double-cross either side, defend the villagers instead, or even just passively observe the events and not get involved at all.  The amount of variation in every interaction is truly staggering and seemingly infinite.  In the first encounter alone, you come upon a group of thugs harassing a village girl.  I must have played this over a dozen times and have yet to repeat a scenario, with each providing a (sometimes major) tweak to the overall story.  I have killed the thugs and won a date with the girl, killed them but spared their leader, killed them but scared away the girl when I turned to attack her, done nothing and watched her die, helped the thugs kidnap her, and just killed everyone.  There are seven different endings and you're encouraged to play them all by carrying over some items and stats into a new playthrough.

Combat is a major component of the game, and thankfully the swordplay mechanics are really enjoyable.  There are over 40 different kinds of blades in the game which can be picked up from defeated foes (though you can only carry 3 at a time) and each has it's own attributes and a variety of stances.  You can even equip and wield a wide range of alternative weapons like axes, saws or sickles with each have their own style.  Button mashing will quickly get you killed, you need to be precise in your attacks and can't risk leaving yourself open to swing wildly.  Over time you unlock new combinations and techniques, and the better you are in timing and varying your basic strikes the more of these you learn.  Favorite swords can be repaired by the smith, and once per game you can add a sword to your collection for use in future playthroughs.  

Usually you decide whether to initiate combat, but when you do you can expect to cut down groups of enemies 
Niche appeal outside Japan.  Though you could argue this game was actually a success as it launched a series that continues to this day, albeit each iteration seeing successively smaller sales.  Still, it's global sales to date are only around half a million with 50% of them coming from Japan.  I think the widespread interest in Japanese culture and the success of other culturally-relevant games (Dynasty Warriors, the never-ending series about the Chinese Three Kingdoms period, comes to mind) suggests it's not the focus on Japanese history that turned people off.  Instead I feel like it's the style of gameplay, particularly the story structure and combat, that turned people off.

While branching storylines were not unheard of in Western gaming, games like the Fallout series or Deus Ex tended to be long adventures made up of smaller quests, each with their own branching options, while still maintaining an overall narrative.  WotS takes a different approach that is more common in Japanese titles, giving you a short 3-4 hr adventure in which the entire narrative is dependent on player choices and is designed to be replayed multiple times.  It's similar to Majora's Mask, the truly excellent follow-up to Ocarina of Time whose repeating 3-day storyline many gamers found off-putting.  But WotS didn't have the Zelda name to drive sales or soften criticism and many gamers, having no interest in multiple playthroughs, felt the game was too short and the story too disjointed.  

The more methodical and precise style of swordplay also came off as cumbersome to some reviewers.  The mechanics are similar to Bushido Blade or Acquire's own Tenshu games (both excellent series that may one day find themselves on The Best Games) in that they try to adhere to the principles of Kendo, a martial arts style of swordplay derived from the kenjutsu techniques samurai used.  It emphasis economy of motion and energy, using quick and focused slashes to quickly kill an enemy without exposing yourself.  The result is a fighting style that is highly efficient, but not very flashy in execution.  Combined with the limited production value of a small studio there wasn't much flash or style to attract a broader market interest.

In a way we can answer this directly because it's most recent iteration was released on PS3 for the North American market Aug. 2012.  While sales data isn't in yet, the Japanese version released in 2011 and has so far sold only 160,000 copies and stands as the weakest entry to date.  The series has also seen lower reviews with each new release for failing to address the briefness of the stories or improve the production values in graphics or sound.    You gotta credit Acquire's persistence, but this dog just won't hunt.

But in a more perfect world, perhaps a tweaked version of WotS could become more then just the lifeline of a struggling developer, it could be a true global success.  Non-linear gaming is hugely popular as demonstrated by the success of Heavy Rain and re-birth of Deus Ex.  But gamers still want a longer narrative, perhaps even more so when they are weaving it themselves, otherwise the game risks becoming repetitive regardless of the number of different choices at each turn.  Throw in more polished graphics and a smoother fighting mechanic that borrows from the timing-based Arkham games while staying true to the kenjutsu roots of samurai swordplay and I think you've got a winner.  In fact, even though I'm pretty critical of the motion-control trend I can see this series being a natural fit for Kinect or the Wii U's continued support of Wii MotionPlus if a studio could actually pull it off.  

Make the Wii U spray fake blood from the disc drive after a kill and you've got an instant classic on your hands 
Have you played this game? Is there a game you remember being great but no one seems to have heard of it?  Sound off below in the comments!

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1 comment:

  1. This game spawned Samurai Western. Truly, one of the best games you have never heard of. You can wear an afro, fairy wings, and spurs (among other things) while mowing down cowboys in the wild west with a variety of swords. It's incredibly unpolished, but oh good lord is it fun!