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Way of the Samurai
Review By:  J. Michael Neal
Developer:  Spike/Acquire
Publisher:  BAM!
# of Players:  1
Genre:  Adventure
ESRB:  Teen
Online:  No
Accessories:  Memory Card
Date Posted:  9-18-02

Way of the Samurai has charmed its way into the hearts of gamers everywhere. It could be because what the game lacks in production values it makes up for in personality. It manages to perfectly capture the feel of low-budget samurai swordplay films by placing you in the role of a wandering swordsman who must ultimately decide the fate of a small village. There are many paths to follow along the way, and each path leads to a unique outcome. This open-ended structure, combined with the gameís intuitive combat system, will keep you coming back for more, despite some glaring shortcomings.

Unfortunately, the first thing a gamer will notice about WOTS are the visuals. While not downright ugly, per say, the game is a far cry from what one would expect of a next generation title. The environments are repetitive, the textures flat, the palette dull, and the models barely above standard. Jagged edges surround everything on the screen and locations feel more like static backdrops than anything else. Overall it seems like the graphics engine dates back to the days of the PSone, as it would have barely passed as a Dreamcast launch title three years ago.

While the graphics could have been worst, sadly the same cannot be said for the music. This game features one of the most schizophrenic soundtracks in gaming, fitting off-kilter drum-and-bass tracks and bad 80s hair metal into a feudal Japanese setting. The few quality songs present in the game only serve as a painful reminded of what could have been if the developers chose to stick with a traditional swordplay soundtrack.

However, by far the sound effects are this gameís biggest failing. Way of the Samuraiís "voiceovers" are just about the most pathetic ever seen in a game. It would have been a blessing to hear voices of the same "quality" as, say, Resident Evil, because instead of clunky, emotionless soap opera dialogue, these characters are limited to neanderthaloid grunts, groans, and other monosyllabic exclamations, begging the question, "Why even bother with voiceovers at all?" Sound effects are equally slipshod as everything else so far, consisting of a maximum of maybe 10 different sounds. Overall, one could gather that very little effort was put into the visual and auditory presentation of the game. But once gamers begin to explore the game a bit, however, they will discover where all that excess effort went.

By now you must be thinking to yourself that this game sounds pretty terrible, and it would if the review ended here, but it doesnít. Luckily for everyone this game has "it" in all the right places, which is in Way of the Samuraiís gameplay and enjoyment level. For starters the combat in the game is surprisingly open, allowing players to unsheathe their blade at any time and engage in combat with just about anyone they see. Once locked in battle, players move and attack under mechanics similar to Bushido Blade 2. These mechanics work perfectly in the world of WOTS, making this one of the few 3rd person action-adventure games to rely on melee combat that never becomes troublesome, awkward, or tedious. And good thing too, because this game is very combat heavy and would have become unplayable after a few minutes if the fighting was cumbersome or shallow in any way.

If you look for a little more substance in your games then what none-stop fighting provides, youíre in luck, as Way of the Samurai adds enough story to keep gamers interested for weeks. The breadth of this game is enough to overcome itsí homely visual appeal and sloppy soundscape. The story places you in the middle of a small-town conflict that will ultimately be decided by whom you pledge your allegiance. All this is done in a very free form method that letís you be as active or as passive in as many story arches as you wish. You can change alliance as often as you choose, get involved in any number of side quests, or you can end the game at any point by simply leaving the town altogether.

Each story in Way of the Samurai is only a few hours long and able to be completed in one sitting with no saves. This comes in handy too, since Way of the Samurai only allows you to load once before erasing your save file automatically, to both ensure that any experimentation will be done on a new game and to give each adventure a sense of high stakes. And does it ever work, as most gamers will give WOTS at least half a dozen run-throughs correcting the mistakes of the past or exploring other possible outcomes. Itís this idea of the "bite-sized game" that makes WOTS so much fun and so unique.

Way of the Samuraiís strength is in itsí length. While most games try to be as long and complex as possible, WOTS tries to be very simply and very short. That is because the game is designed to be more of a collective experience rather than a singular story. Each ending reveals a piece of the whole picture; each character you complete the game with becomes part of a tapestry of possibilities, an experiment in tampering with the past. Itís this aspect that sets this game apart from others. Dieing is no problem, taking the cowardís way out or becoming the villain makes me difference, because you can always go back and become the hero, save the day and ride off into the sunset. Each new game starts in the same situation, but could end in any way at any time.

The only consent in each new game is your armory, which can be carried over from adventure to adventure, serving as relics of your previous lives. Weapons in your arsenal improve over time, enhancing with upgrades provided by the local blacksmith at a small fee or gaining more powerful attacks and longer combinations. The finding of new weapons, like in any good "role-playing game", eventually becomes major incentive to push onward and tackle greater odds and to complete the game as many times as possible in an effort to collect all the most powerful weapons.

Aside from the building up of weapons, the game also features a number of other incentives for completing the game numerous times, most notably a verses mode that should sustain anyone whoís play Kengo to death while waiting for a sequel. Each time a new character is introduced in the main game he or she is made selectable in the verses mode. Weapons in your inventory can also be imported into the verses mode allowing you to gain some much-needed practice with your blade of choice. Practice can also be found in the gameís tutorial, which features both basic and advanced fighting lessons.

The feeling that you are simply an observer, simply a passerby who can involve himself in the events of the game as much or as little as he chooses is a very unique one for a game. It creates a blank slate in which you can paint any number of adventures on, and all of them are worth experiencing. Way of the Samurai isnít the prettiest game ever made, it may not have the best music or sound effects every recorded, nor is the saving system the most user friendly, but it does create the feel of an interactive Kurosawa film in which you write the story as you go. And for anyone who ever dreamed of doing just that it is worth putting up with dated graphics and irritating music. This game is a real gem and although it may not appeal to everyone, those who it will appeal to will be grateful that it got imported.

HIGHS:

  • Combat is intuitive and entertaining.
  • Branching storylines provide plenty of replay value.
  • Unique concept and feel.
  • Plenty of reasons to come back to the game time and time again.
  • Verses mode is a nice bonus.

LOWS:

  • Crappy graphics.
  • Horrible music and sound effects.
  • Abominable voiceovers.
  • Save feature is a pain in the rear.

FINAL VERDICT:

Although this game wonít appeal to everyone, those who place entertainment value well above presentation will find this game well worth their time and money. Highly recommended for fans of Asian cinema.

Overall Score: 8.3

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