Wednesday, September 2, 2009

PS2 look: Samurai Western

With Way of the Samurai 3 hitting our shores in the near future I decided to check out the first two games to see how they hold up as well as put together thoughts on what I'd like to see changed or improved upon and see how the upcoming game compares. As you can tell by the title of this update however this isn't the case. Samurai Western is developed by Acquire. If you haven't heard of them do know that they were the ones behind the Tenchu series and eventually went on to do the Tenchu-esque Shinobido as well as the Way of the Samurai series. Wow a developer who makes nothing but Ninja and Samurai games. Can't ask for much more than that right?

In another tale of East meets West a young man from Japan heads out to find his missing brother and wacky hijinks ensue. Okay I just put that in there cause hardly anything really happens. There's a corrupt mayor with a huge nose, a dopey sheriff(who is a fat black dude with an afro..yikes), a saloon owner who forgot to wear a dress that covers the top half of her butt-crack, a mysterious stranger, an art-obsessed frenchman, crazy midgets, and so on. Despite the colorful cast they do little to make this adventure very interesting. Furthermore the hero has zero charisma. All you ever hear from him is speeches about Samurai honor and wanting to kill his brother. It is my recommendation that if you pick this game up you mash the start button through every cutscene and skip them all. 

The concept of this game is simple. You're the lone Sam Rye and you have to face off with hundreds of guys with guns. How you accomplish this is also simple. Your sword is capable of deflecting bullets and sending them to the enemies that fired them. There really isn't much else to this game and despite running at over 20 levels you'll soon discover that there's little variation outside of the concept I just described. In each area you slash through several foes until eventually the level ends or you trigger the bossfight. There's no goalposts to run through or arrows to lead you to the exit. Heck the game doesn't even point out which enemies are the ones that'll end the stage. There's one stage where you actually have to reach a goal and another where you disarm bombs by slicing them up with your sword. Outside of these two stages you just kill people until the game decides you're done.

Killing people is extremely simple. Despite your lack of gun you have more than enough options to get close and run outlaws through. To start with the game has an experience point-based system. When you complete levels you get exp. With each levelup you earn three points to distribute among HP, MP, POW, & DEF and you also unlock new swords and accessories. All equipment is leveled up through the collection of gold & silver coins. The swords come in five stances and these affect the style of play. If you go with dual wield for example you become basically a whirlwind of destruction as two swords are more likely to deflect shots and few enemies can stand such an assault for long. These stances also come with a Master mode. What this does is it adds a particular ability but gives a major disadvantage as well. For example dual-wielders can become invincible but every attack they make drains life. Master mode is tied to your MP and when you max it out you can trigger Ultimate Master mode. This mode basically turns the game into something like Pacman. All of the enemies go down in one hit and even deflected shots will cut foes clean in half. Couple this with an exceptional running speed, invincibility, and the ability to do super combos on bosses and levels become no problem. To keep UMM running you have to keep killing foes, which depending on the location can either be very easy or extremely difficult.

Accessories do more than just make your Sam Rye look goofy. By equipping them you gain stat bonuses and if you acquire certain pieces you can create an accessory set. For example if you wear a pirate hat, a pirate cape, and a parrot you get a major bonus to a couple of stats. It's a nice touch though once you start unlocking other characters you'll find that none of the accessories fit them very well.

The controls to this game are surprisingly simple. Deflecting shots is as simple as swinging your sword though I tend to favor the dodge move. By tapping R1 and moving in the right direction I can not only avoid bullets but also pull off a counterattack that does double damage. As a bonus if a multitude of shots are dodging in the row you'll see "Hot dang!" pop up on the screen and nearby enemies will stomp their feet in frustration or look perplexed, leaving them open to attack. Jumping is always handy and jump attacks are easy to perform though for most stances you don't swing in mid-air, which can be extremely frustrating for enemies on slightly higher ground. 

That's pretty much the entire game in a nutshell. Once you learn the basics you'll soon discover that's all you actually need to get by. There's no great train robbery and you're not going to be riding any horses or doing any showdowns while the tumbleweed rolls by. The game has maybe 7 or 8 environments and all of the levels are split among those. The foes you face aren't terribly creative and most really aren't all that threatening. The major exceptions however are these little fat guys that throw dynamite or roll bombs. Explosives do a ton of damage to the player and since they can be damaged while on the ground getting surrounded by dynamite after being knocked down is a guaranteed death. Other than that the only real worry is possibly being juggled to death by several guys with machineguns. Besides if things aren't going you way you can always trigger master mode to get away for awhile.

There's a scoring system in this game and at the end of each level you're handed points for a variety of conditions. Taking damage means you lose points but by doing combos, kill-combos(enemies you slice up while in UMM), not getting knocked down, and playing skillfully you can get some impressive scores. It's a fairly well done system though unless you're really into the game you'll probably only beat the high scores to collect more unlockables.

If the player wants to make the game a real challenge they have access to two additional difficulties but what they can also do is add extra goals. What these do is that they create conditions for the player to follow like beating the level without grabbing anything(wait I didn't mention the grab? well that's cause it's useless), without getting knocked down, under a certain time limit, and without using master mode or stuck with it for the entire level. Breaking any of these conditions will kill the player instantly. Adding these in however can unlock some additional bonuses as well as double or even triple the experience gained from beating the level.

This can be quite an ordeal due to the shoddy level design though. Most of the time stages are pretty bland and are little more than an arena for you to cover in blood. The one real exception is the coal mine stage. There are a lot of cliffs, bridges, and generally things to fall off of. In fact towards the end there's a long vertical shaft that can lead to many headaches. If you're going for the Ultimate Master Mode challenge in this stage you'll soon find that there's nothing worse than missing the last enemy and falling all the way to the bottom. Thankfully all of these challenges are completely optional. It still doesn't excuse the level design but I guess it's just as well when the focus should be on killing people and not intricate platforming or figuring out mazes.

The mechanics for this title are a bit too sound I think. When attacking enemies there's no grey area about which parts of your attacks are fatal. If your sword doesn't touch them, they don't bleed. This can be infuriating depending on the stance as some enemies are likely to be placed on top of crates or other objects where most standing strikes will miss them entirely. Thankfully there are other options to take them out but some kind of projectile would have been nice. A second player can actually join in as a gun-man but that requires a friend or random person you hired off the street to play videogames with you.

The framerate is probably the worst thing about this game. It starts off at 60 fps and that's great but it can drop to as low as 10 or even 5 fps and that's really bad. This is of course due to the number of enemies and the complexity of the environment(don't forget the special effects!) and the framerate will jump all over the place. Over time this game gives me serious headaches but I guess I can only blame myself for that as I'll spend quite a few hours playing this game at a time. The levels are short enough that this shouldn't be a problem and maybe it's just me but eh there you go.

If you're a fan of unlocking this is a good title to pick up. Every other level-up you unlock a new accessory or weapon, hidden wanted posters unlock new characters, and so on and so forth. If you're the type of gamer that plays games simply to unlock everything this is definitely worth picking up. On the other hand I did pay $8 for this game so I'm liable to be more favorable towards games I get at cheap prices. I guess in the end I'd consider Samurai Western a game you can do without. It can be entertaining and its simplicity makes it easy to get into but it really does nothing exceptional. There are a few things I haven't really talked about in this game either. For one there are moves that can be performed while grabbing someone or something and I didn't really talk about the other weapon stances. I consider this another point in the game's favor as it is open-ended enough that there's multiple ways to play through it. Hopefully in the future I'll get a hold of more games by Acquire as open-endedness seems to be their style in game development.

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