“I’ll get paid for killing, and this town is full of people who deserve to die.”
That was Toshiro Mifune in the superb Kurosawa classic ‘Yojimbo’, and it’s words that echoed throughout my playthrough of Way of the Samurai 4.
Being somewhat unfamiliar with the Way of the Samurai series I wasn’t sure what tone the game was going to take. It started off promisingly by setting the story in a period of time when Japan had reluctantly opened its borders to foreign trade. This was met with resistance from some factions in Japan and the game took no time at all in showing this. Superb I thought! This games going to be an education in Japanese culture and I’m going to get to immerse myself in it completely. All these hopes were dashed by the introduction of a Western female knight of sorts called Melinda Megamelons. That’s right. Miss Megamelons. And surprisingly she didn’t even live up to her namesake!
Way of the Samurai 4 is a free roaming third person game in a similar style to the Yakuza games. It centres around 3 or 4 days in a small Japanese town that is playing host to some British traders and nobles, much to the annoyance of a group of xenophobic scoundrels who’d rather die than see their beloved Japan taint itself with foreigner influence. As a wandering Ronin you may choose to join their fight against the dirty foreigners, aid the local Magistrate in upholding the law and eliminate them or befriend the young British ambassador and protect her in her quest to unite the two countries. Right off the bat you are given the choice of defending the British or joining the fight against them and it’s choices like this that drives the game. Whichever side you help will change the course of the game and ultimately which ending you get. Of which there are 10.
I initially chose to aid the magistrate as that would be the good and proper Samurai way and that’s how I wanted to play it. However I very quickly ended up in jail after getting into a fight with a local ruffian. Simply because you generally only get 2 dialogue options with your run of the mill NPC’s, which are “Hey” and “I could kill you if I want”. The latter of which triggers combat. I found this out the hard way. I then started worrying that all my actions could be painting me in a bad light. There’s some sort of honour system at play here though it’s very unclear what constitutes an honourable action and a dishonourable one. Obviously slaughtering innocent townsfolk is going to be bad but I quickly became aware of my smaller actions. Was the looting of bodies and brandishing my sword in public giving me bad Samurai points? I had no idea. While the game does a good job of introducing you to the rules of combat early on it gives you absolutely no help whatsoever in teaching you the many other mechanics at play. One thing I later found out for sure was even if you are on a mission from the magistrate to kill a criminal you will still get on the wrong side of the law if a constable sees you doing it. Which is absurd.
If you do happen to get caught by the coppers then you end up in some bizarre sadistic torture scene in which the Chief Ministers three daughters subject you to their twisted pleasures. There are apparently a few methods used but I only experienced getting stone slabs thrown on me while being slapped. I didn’t survive. It’s scenes like this that make Way of the Samurai a very odd game. At times it doesn’t seem to know what tone of game it is. It switches from slapstick to serious to downright odd. Whether it works or not I’m not too sure.
For example you have the option to try and court geisha’s, harlots and other women around the town. This is done through a series of dialogue chat up lines which range from “the moon looks stunning in the sky” and “open your borders to me. All of them!”. Should you be successful you can then at night time go to their house and take part in the amusing yet slightly rapey ‘nightcrawling’. This consists of breaking into their house, knocking out servants, family members and other randy suitors, avoiding detection from the law and following a turtles head to find where your ‘target’ is sleeping. Upon finding her she then takes you to an inn where she will playfully resist you while you ‘attack’ her into submission. I was utterly speechless to say the least.
The strangeness of this game isn’t just in hilariously questionable game modes but in the very game design itself. It’s hard to put into words but there’s something very odd about this game. From baffling dialogue, menu options that don’t work, vendors who don’t sell anything and long pauses in conversations; I generally got the feeling that something was very off about this game. I’d be tempted to say that it’s just a very unpolished game.
The combat isn’t bad. It feels like it could be great but it’s not. The reason why is because you defeat opponents by reducing their health through a flurry of blows. Sounds normal doesn’t it? Well it would be if it weren’t for the fact that if you stop attacking your opponent for a few seconds then their health regenerates faster than you can shout “Help there’s a night crawler in my house!”. This is a serious problem on the first playthrough as your sword will likely break after a few encounters and it’s extremely expensive to repair or buy a new one. So prolonged encounters can be a real problem. The first lackeys you encounter are a walk in the park but the first mission I did for the Brits put me up against a master swordsman who dodged, blocked and countered all my moves. Before long I was forced into fighting with a broken sword hilt. Due to the pressing need to take out your opponents quickly you find yourself spamming the same move over and over.
But it is strangely enjoyable. For all it’s serious flaws the game does have a certain charm. The tone may be confusing at times but it is rather humorous and the combat does get better, even if it takes 2 or 3 playthroughs to get there. This is where the main strength and focus of the game lies. Multiple playthroughs. It’s a somewhat short game, lasting somewhere between 2 to 4 hours, but before you spit your sake out I must point out that this is a network game. It’s intended to be played through numerous times and each time you retain the moves and fighting styles you learned and any weapons you picked up. Combat gets much easier once you have a proper sword crafted and levelled up at the smithy that’s able to survive the 100 hits it might take to beat a hardened enemy. Beyond that though you can do all the missions you failed to do last time, go with a different faction or scope out much of the game you probably missed because it does a piss poor job telling you what there is to do.
It wasn’t until my third playthrough that I noticed there was a dojo where you can recruit local thugs to train up and a language school where you can learn how to speak English and understand the strange foreigners in Little Britain. You see there is 3 time periods during a day and certain buildings will be closed at certain times so it’s very easy to miss things. I didn’t really start enjoying the game till my new game+ and the end of my third attempt was when I started seeing the game in a different light. That might have worked differently if I experienced that ending the first time. My first game had a horrible ending after all. In fact they were all horrible endings but the third was more dramatic while the others were a bit weak.
Way of the Samurai could have been a great game but it feels like a missed opportunity. The story was slightly interesting but lacking and I don’t want to have to play the game 10 times over to experience it all. The time period was a good choice and I’d have loved to learn more about Japanese culture and etiquette but there wasn’t much of that present. It got me thinking that a Red Dead Redemption style game but with Samurai’s could be something great and unique. Sort of what like the Yakuza and Shenmue series are like.
Unfortunately Way of the Samurai 4 is just lacking in quality. It looks and feels like a PS2 game and the missions are repetitive and boring. They generally consist of go here, deliver this, kill them, etc. I know a lot of games consist of that but the delivery still seems rather lacklustre. It picks up steam at a few points but it depends on what path you take and if you’re not prepared to stick with multiple playthroughs then it’s too little too late. Personally I prefer to have a more bulked out experience the first time then maybe a bit more to experience the second. I don’t like being forced into newgame+ just to experience over half the game I missed. This was my reservations about Dead Rising 2 but I won’t get into that!
So, should you play this game? If you’re a fan of the series or Japanese stuff in general then by all means give it a shot. If not then this might be somewhat of a gamble. I certainly would love to give this game Seven Samurai out of 10 but that would be far too generous so I give it:
6 succulent but sloppy sushi bites out of 10