Picture, if you will, the timeless Bill Murray classic Groundhog Day, wherein Murray portrays weatherman Phil Connors, re-living the same day with no reasonable end insight. He soon learns the rules of his plight, wherein, regardless of death or incarceration, he will begin the day anew in his bed equipped with the knowledge acquired from the previous day. We follow him as he explores the limits of his humanity as a man with nothing to lose, delving into all manner of human experience.
We experience his humor and his depression. His lusts and gluttony. The depth of his selfish cunning and the limits of his capacity to give of himself. By the end of his glimpse into divine-like omniscience, we see a man that has used his time to better himself through practice and wise decision making, guided by learned skill and an understanding of the world he lives in.
Now, imagine playing Bill Murray's role, change Phil from a weatherman to a samurai, and shift the setting from modern day Punxetawny, Pennsylvania to Sengoku Era Japan.
Welcome to the the world of Way of the Samurai 3.
Way of the Samurai 3 (XBOX360 and PS3-reviewed)
Publisher: UFO Interactive (360), Agetec (PS3)
Released: October 15th to 20ish (long story)
Priced: $40-$50 new
The flow of Samurai 3, like the games before it, takes you through a series of events set against the culture and social structure of feudal Japan. The rules of the world are nearly as simple as Phil Connors': When your HP reaches zero, or when you complete the full run of a story branch, you are lead to begin your day from your first moments in Amana. The way is a bit more forgiving this time around, as the Rogue-like "You die and lose everything" penalty system is all but gone. Upon death you retain all possessions, swords, yen and acquired skill. The result is a world that runs more akin to an easy-going Dead Rising than the punitive Baroque or the original Rogue. This makes running through repeated, dangerous scenarios a bit less frustrating, though the sting of progression loss still gives your life some value.
In this third installment, the player progresses through the world over any number of days, addressing story events as they please. Unlike the strict time and location story events of the original, some events will occur regardless of time, allowing the player freedom to tinker and progress as they please.
Well what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn't one today!
And tinker you may! Way 3 has a wide range of distractions and side missions that you can sink into as you insert yourself into the tenuous societal fabric of Amana region. Your ronin can find ways to attract a primarily female cast of Partner characters to join up with him for adventuring. Though some are not terribly helpful, a number of them provide access to things that would normally require a visit to your wanderer's village home. Its a little clunky, but a nice addition. Other distractions range from delivering messages and helping old ladies across the village, to sparring at the dojo or weapon creation, to more dangerous tasks such as tracking down a murderous highwayman and chopping vegetables.
Make no mistake: danger rests at the edge of any action. Even in the game's mini-games, the rules still apply. If you die in the mini-game or on a mission, you're dead. While chopping vegetables seems safe enough, the villagers see some need to toss harmful stone lanterns into the mix, to keep you on your toes. No matter where you are, your HP matters.
Its easy enough to say this series is built on the "Choose your own adventure" tradition of branched story telling. However, its much more accurate to note that Way of the Samurai is a game about consequential intricacy. Much like Phil Connors, your path in the world does not merely form by the places you go to during the day. The nature of your interaction plays a role in the shaping of the Amana region. Its not enough that you merely show up for en event. Your actions, from unsheathing your blade mid conversation, to stern admonishment, to simply walking away, form the details of the game's outcome. Beyond the choice of a "good" mission or a "bad" mission, you're presented with a situation, and are allowed to react with a solid subset of responses.
Sweet Vermuth on the rocks, with a twist...
Similarities to Groundhog Day don't merely stop at flow and iteration. To look at either the film or this game, dated technique and quality of visuals are evident and sometime glaring. You won't find the most crisp visuals or the newest tricks in visual artisanship in the medium here. Way of the Samurai 3, as a two year old, sub-major release, has a number of visual and technical concessions to scope limitation. Somewhat bland textures and few noticeable quick-skin techniques are used in conjunction with a solid sense of cinematic presentation and deft shot composition. While one can groan at the poorly modeled and skinned feet of your default samurai body during the opening sequence, you'll also notice the extra care taken to give reasonable life to the often stern faces of the major players. Its this mixed bag that helps creates a pulp masterpiece that's one part low budget samurai popcorn flick and two parts epic samurai drama.
Not to assert so much that the visuals are designed for total kitch or ironic value. The graphic elements are by no means this item's strong suit. But to discount the work for its technical merits in graphics alone would do a great disservice to the game's success of creating an adequate play space for the proceedings. The art direction of the game, though at times spartan beyond reasoning, is commendable. The sprawling and regal Castle Amana stands in stark comparison to ramshackle Ouka Stronghold. The dead battle field of Kuchihagahara comprises a different world and mood from "The Road", a nature filled temple passage set adjacent to a waterfall vista. Stopping for a moment to reflect, tree branches sway in the breeze and lighting motifs are executed adequately. The world is crafted and alive, regardless of the lacking texture complexity and asset clipping.
Sound plays a large role in the experience as well. The music of this series has always been a mash up of modern and traditional styles, and the latest iteration is no exception. As strange as it is to feel a cool, dub-style bass thump mixed against japanese flute shrills, the end result meshes well with the lively ambient sound of tree insects and local rivers. When battle flares, its a frenetic mix of folk guitar twangs, melody/theme runs and the clash of swords. Aside from an english dub that registers anywhere from flick-dub melodramatic to flashes of sincerity, the sound lays the ground work for the action perfectly..
Now don't go saying you don't remember me because I sure as heckfire remember you!
Oh yeah, there's a fighting game built in here to boot! The fighting itself is a solid mix of straight up beat'em-up fightan and Bushido Blade-esque, sequence timing tactics. Street Fighter III and Devil May Cry fans alike may find themselves right at home with the surprisingly nuanced battle gameplay. Attacks can be simply blocked or, for the more technical fighter, precisely parried using a well timed block button tap at the point of impact. Mastery of the parry skill leads to instant kills and chain kills. Unlike the second installment of the series, merely pulling or pushing your opponent off balance will not insure an instant kill. For those players willing to explore the depths of the system, you will be rewarded with what I gather to be an especially satisfying mash up of QTE and actual skill based gameplay. I've yet to master it myself, but it seems like a pretty righteous method.
True to form, the breadth of variety in sword stance and style returns to this installment. Improvements include a dual wielding with any two single blades, improved spear stance (no longer an imitation of side stance), and the inclusion of open palm fighting. While bare-hand fighting can only parry attacks (you can't block a sword with your hand), and can only be expanded through scrolls, its an exciting addition to the series' purely weapon based tradition.
You know I was waiting for midnight!
To round things out, the game holds a treasure trove of unlockables that can both be purchased in game, as well as unlocked by increasing your "Samurai Points" that are awarded based on how honorable and true your actions were to the code of bushido. Avoiding death and preserving life yields positive results to this effect. Notable unlocks include a futuristic powersuit, instant kill difficulty (one hit to you or your opponent results in death) and playing as any NPC that you've defeated with your blunt strikes (Kenshin style).
All told, Way of the Samurai 3 is a unique statement in the lexicon of game experiences. Too easygoing to be a straight beat'em-up. Too twtichy to be an RPG. Too low-budget to warrant cutting edge graphic work and major release advertisement and hype. And perhaps, just too janky to reasonably award a "10", despite having logged 20 thoroughly enjoyed hours of it. But for my money and time, Way of the Samurai 3 provides one of the most uniquely realized and satisfying gameplay events in the paradigms of samurai genre fandom, existential repetition and good old fashioned Japanese quirkiness. Under the pretense that you're even considering this niche title, you'll do right to pick this game up and add it to your collection.
I'm *A* god, I'm not *the* God
Available for $40 to $50 new, and, frankly, possibly available used for $20 to $30 very quickly.
- If you dig samurai genre fiction, and japanese quirk: 9 -- must buy!
- If you're at all curious about what lies under the surface of mainstream gaming: Gamefly at position 1!
- On the Destructoid Scoring Scale: 8 -- Great (8s are impressive efforts with a few noticeable problems holding them back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth your time and cash.)