Does the latest game in the long running niche Way of the Samurai series comport itself with honor or has this series truly lost its way?
Way of the Samurai 4
Publisher: XSEED Games
Genres: Action, Adventure
Developer: ACQUIRE Corp
Posted By Shaun K. about 8 months, 3 weeks ago
The launch trailer for Way of the Samurai 4 proves one thing at least: this is a video game. Yep, this is a definitely a video game that exists. Really. Honestly, I am kind of groping for things to say because this new trailer for Way of the Samurai 4 (arriving today in North America as a download-only tile via PSN) goes out of its way to highlight some of the stranger aspects of this series. How strange? We are talking Deadly Premonition levels of lunacy here, folks. And to be sure the Way of the Samurai series has always had its quirkier elements, going all the way back to elements like a black Afro-adorned samurai just kind of randomly hanging around 1878 Japan in the first game, but it looks like WotS 4 is taking this aspect of the game to new heights.
So I have decided to include a more traditional trailer along with the new launch trailer just to help balance out the madness and so all of you can get a fuller look at the game. No, no. You are all welcome. So, first is the standard trailer below and then take a deep breath and steel yourselves for the Way of the Samurai 4 launch trailer below it. Its going to be OK. We will get through this together. Here. We. Go.
Way of the Samurai 4 is out now in the US as a PSN-exclusive via PS3. It will arrive on European and UK shores on October 5. Stay tuned to Blistered Thumbs for our official review of the game and be sure to share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below.
Walk proud Samurai. Walk proud.
Posted By Shaun K. about 8 months, 3 weeks ago
Walk proud Samurai. Walk proud.
Ugly. If I had to use just one word to describe Way of the Samurai 4 then that is the one I would use: ugly. Give me a few more to work with and I would say this of WotS4: ugly and awkward. Finally let me use a full sentence to describe Way 4 and I would do so thus: This is an ugly and awkward game whose various problems ultimately overwhelm its few positives to the point that few will want to bother with it in the first place. Which is a shame because Way of the Samurai 4 (a game centered around a fictional port town in Japan during the period in the 1800s where foreigners where arriving in Japan and bringing sweeping cultural, technological, and political changes with them) had all the potential in the world to be fun niche title that, like previous games in the series, brought something different to the table. And while Way of the Samurai 4 ultimately does indeed still stand out from the crowd, this quality is not enough to save the overall game.
|PROS||Decent story & characters, solid sound and music, OK amount of content|
|CONS||Combat, Controls, Graphics, Mini-games, Side-missions, Uninteresting game world|
|WTF?!||The wrong-minded Nightcrawling mini-game nearly left me giving the game a 1 and devil spawn the first time I played it.|
Way of the Samurai 4 features a fairly boilerplate story made up of the usual array of samurai clichés that show up in tales that use this time period for a setting. Fans of the Rurouni Kenshin manga/anime, for instance, will immediately find themselves familiar with many of the tropes and ideas being bandied about in the game. And while a lack of originality is not always the worse sin in the world, in the case of Way 4 there is no style or quality writing to offset the cliché and give the game its own feel or personality; it is all rote and by the numbers. This is especially odd considering while past WotS may have their problems in terms of writing and storytelling, being distinct and off-beat was never one of them. Similarly, the characters in WotS4 are somewhat memorable visually but woefully one dimensional in almost every other aspect. Still, cliché as it may be, at its best there are times where WotS4 actually does manage to build up a decent head of steam as it reaches each of its potential respective climaxes. The main villain of the game in particular might be as stock of a character as one can get, but nonetheless players will still likely feel highly motivated to take him down as the game’s story progresses. Basically, WotS4‘s story is neither a particular weakness nor a particular strength; if it is something of a missed opportunity, at the very least it does not drag the game down in the same way that its many other aspects do.
Also, as with past Way games, player choice plays a big part in the game, in theory in least. There are three main sides in WotS4 and players can choose to ally with any of them or even none of them as their fancy takes them. Additionally, players can choose to act as noble and heroic samurai, base and honorless ronin, or everything in between. Unfortunately all of this ultimately has less overall impact on the game than one might like. Unlike say a Mass Effect or Infamous game, one’s moment to moment actions tend to have little impact on the way the game world reacts to players. So, for example, it is completely possible to go around slaughtering innocents left and right only for the player to still be hailed as a hero by the very people they are murdering horribly afterwards. Or the player can cavalierly go up to members of an organization they have nominally allied with and kill them only to face no repercussions later from said organization. This disconnect applies to pretty much every other aspect of the game regarding player choice and it really shows how surface and shallow the ability to alter the flow of the story really is. While unlocking the different branches of Way 4’s story is less cumbersome than in previous WotS games, players still will ultimately feel less like they are actively altering and shaping the flow of history and more like they are being herded down one of a small number of rigid and highly narrow pre-paved pathways.
Moving on, one of the biggest failings of WotS4 is unquestionably its bland and ridiculously simple combat. In WotS4, players basically have a light attack and a strong attack and that is about it. While there are various special moves to be learned and unlocked, in the grand scheme of things they end up feeling pointless since it is entirely possible to beat the game using only the basic light attack. Indeed that is exactly what I ended up doing when I played the game on easy the first time around. Admittedly, on normal difficulty I did end up having to use both light and heavy attacks, but I still never felt the need to mess around with the game’s many special moves or numerous combat styles in order to progress. Why bother when I was able to literally win some fights by just pressing buttons without even looking at the screen. So yes, combat in Way of the Samurai 4 is far from compelling or engaging and yet a big part of the game is replaying the story multiple times in order to unlock each of its ten possible endings, especially since a single full run-through will only run most players around a couple hours sans side-quests (which themselves tend to be completely rote ‘kill this many enemies’ or ‘delivery item x to person y’ affairs) and mini-games. Thus would-be players should be prepared to experience a lot of dull, repetitive, and completely non-cinematic combat if they want to get the full value out of their purchase.
Further compounding the combat woes of Way 4 is the fact that controlling the main character in general also tends to be a stilted affair with no sense of the grace and precise movements many samurai became famous for. While I could completely understand the decision to emphasis realism over the hyper-stylized combat of many modern actions games, the truth is that Way 4 is anything but realistic. In real life, people might not be able to leap twenty stories or catch arrows in mid-air but then again in real life the British did not send a twelve-year old girl as an ambassador to Japan during the days of the Black Ships nor did said ambassador’s guard consist of women wearing essentially sexed up versions of a medieval knight’s armor. For that matter, in real life combat between one person and a gang of opponents rarely leads to the gang deciding to attack singular opponent one of the time either. But that is exactly what happens every time in Way 4, to the point that it is even explicitly stated as a feature of combat in the game’s opening combat tutorial. Clearly this is a title where realism has gone out the window and this in turn leads me to conclude that the slow and cumbersome nature of combat in Way 4 is less the deliberate choice of a developer striving for ‘realism’ and more the simple outcome of poor and/or lazy game design.
As if all of this was not bad enough, combat is made all the more awkward by the lack of such basic functionality as a lock-on feature. I cannot count how many times I was in battle with a large number of enemies while attempting to slay a particular foe only for the awkward camera and cumbersome controls to cause me to start attacking the wrong individual. Keep in mind the fact that combat in Way 4 is built around a system that sees the health bar of both enemies and the player alike begin regenerating whenever a combatant goes a short time without suffering further damage while still having energy left in their vitality bar. Which means the lack of a lock-on feature can end up being a real hassle while trying to fight boss characters (who tend to have massive, nearly endless vitality bars in place of actual skill to begin with) while surrounded by multiple opponents. And since this a frequent occurrence in Way 4, this amounts to boss battles frequently becoming interminable affairs that simply drag on and on and on, a state hardly conducive to the sense of drama and payoff that such encounters otherwise should have. Overall there are no two ways around it: combat in WotS4 is a poorly implemented mess which in general will leave players feeling less like a master samurai and more like some stumbling, clumsy idiot who happened to pick up a sword for the first time in his life after finding it lying on the ground moments before the game began.
Also, anyone looking to play Way of the Samurai 4 should be prepared to head online and find a message board or FAQ as soon as possible. This is because beyond a very brief combat tutorial in the game’s opening moments, there is essentially no explanation included in-game for the hows and whys of Way 4’s myriad gameplay elements and subsystems. Nor can players turn to the game’s joke of an in-game manual since it only details the most basic controls and is not even accessible outside of the game’s main menu in the first place. Even something as basic and vital as how the passage of time works in WotS4 is left completely unexplained by the game, this despite said element being just obtuse enough to not be immediately obvious or easy to determine by players. Not holding a player’s hand or leading them around every by the nose is one thing; I am all for reasonable trial and error but Way 4 goes completely too far in this direction. Once again it feels less like a conscious decision on the part of the game designers and more like they were simply too incompetent or lazy to include the necessary tutorials. Basically, Way of the Samurai 4 does not just throw players into the deep end and expect them to swim; it does so while also pouring cement on their legs and chaining their arms behind their backs.
There are games out there whose visuals include a degree of beauty and depth that they go a long way to compensating for whatever other failings said titles might have. Way of the Samurai 4 is not one of those games; not by a longshot. Indeed, not only does WotS4 look awful for a late generation PS3 game, frankly in many ways it looks poor for a late generation PS2 game. To the title’s credit, it does feature a consistent frame rate even when large numbers of characters are on the screen and never suffers from any real draw distance problems. Of course that is likely because the characters in the game feature remarkably limited animations while the environments make what is supposed to be the equivalent to a bustling metropolis for the era feel more like a small rural village in the middle of nowhere. The game’s cutscenes are even worse thanks to poor staging and their tendency to highlight just how ugly the faces in this game, thanks in large part to the uncanny valley effect, are. Additionally, textures are often blotchy and unconvincing, serving to only add one more layer of distance between the player and this unconvincing world they are being asked to explore and interact with. It is also sad how dull and flat the characters in Way 4 come across despite the often otherwise flamboyant and over-the-top-nature of their designs. Aurally the game fares better, with the Japanese voice track managing to convey more genuine emotion and heft than the writing or visuals ever achieve. The game’s score is also decent if unmemorable.
Way of the Samurai 4 trumpets its open world nature and the ability to explore a full city as one of its major selling points. Only the fictional port town of Amihama that serves as the game’s setting, both visually and in layout, feels more like a theme park version of a real town (right down to the overly condensed nature of the city’s geography) that one might find in say Disneyland. It certainly never comes across as an actual living & breathing city; one that is supposed to be in the midst of such an intense cultural upheaval that it is actually radicalizing portions of the population to take up arms against their own government in protest at that. In an age where games like Sleeping Dogs have managed to create the modern equivalent of such settings with grace and ease, there is simply no excuse for a PS3 game doing the poor job Way 4 does in comparison. For that matter, if it comes to that, Shemune did a better job of creating a vibrant and believable open world than Way 4 does and it was a Dreamcast game first released almost thirteen years ago. It is just one more example of how Way 4 feels like nothing so much as a throwback to a previous era of gaming, as if someone had found the code for an unreleased PS2 title in the series and simply spruced it up to the bare minimum necessary for today’s market before shoving it out the door.
Speaking of which, I actually rather enjoyed the original Way of the Samurai and Way of the Samurai 2 when they first came out. Sure they were also games with their fair share of flaws but they at least had some ambition and a drive to stand out from the crowd. They were truly like little else on the market at the time, especially here in the US, and there are moments and characters from those games that have stuck with me even all these years later. Yet much has changed since those games were first released and in the context of modern standards, Way of the Samurai 4 simply fails to measure up on too many levels. With a price tag of $39.99, Way 4 is both too ugly and too clumsy of a game, in more ways than one, for me to recommend it to any but the most hardcore fans of the series. Those looking for an open-world game with a distinctly Asian theme or gameplay and story elements that stand out from the norm would be far better served to give titles like Sleeping Dogs or any of the PS3 Yakuza games a try instead. Those are the games that truly live up the potential that Way of the Samurai 4 squanders, a fact that, as someone with a long history with the series, it somewhat breaks my heart to say. Still, it is what it is, and in this case ‘it’ is a game best left as a forgotten relic of a now bygone era.
A review copy of the game was provided by the publisher on PS3 via PSN. The reviewer spent approximately 15 hours playing the game and completed its main campaign multiple times.
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