Games that time forgot: Way of the Samurai

Try as I might, I can never choose any character model but the one that looks like Toshiro Mifune. Call me a traditionalist.

This week’s “forgotten” game (I use quotations because, once again, it’s reasonably well known) is Bam! Entertainment’s Way of the Samurai. It’s an entertaining, highly original, nonlinear samurai adventure, and it’s a kind of game we need to see more often.StoryYou create your own Samurai from a choice of about a half a dozen character model and clothing combinations. The game takes place between the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the rise of the Meiji—this is a familiar time to buffs of either Samurai flicks or Japanese history in general, because during this period, the remaining Samurai of the Tokugawa period were forced to become wandering ronin, trading their lives at the top of the Japanese social ladder for one of wandering, begging, and often times, crime. Your Samurai enters Rokkotsu pass, a small village about to be taken over by the centralized government. As a result of this, the village is being fought over by two opposing gangs: the Kurou family, who wishes to control the village so they can sell the metal foundry and railroad stop to the government in exchange for profit, and the Akadama Clan, who wish to drive the government out completely in an idealistic attempt to return Japan to the age of the Samurai. Caught in the middle of this are the village’s civilians, including a restaurant owner, his daughter, and a black samurai who has sworn to protect her. The player must choose which gang to side with (if any), who to kill, and who to save. There are six different endings to the game, all dictated by the player’s actions.Yes, that is a black samurai with an afro. Strangely, it's not played for comic effect.GameplayWay of the Samurai is, in several ways, a video game version of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. The very first choice you make in the game happens almost immediately: Suzu, the aforementioned restaurant owner’s daughter, is being kidnapped by some Kurou thugs. Do you save her? Ignore her? Try to join the thugs? The decisions you make (sort of) influence how other characters in the game treat you, so it’s important to choose wisely.The game, on one playthrough, is only about two hours. This may be irritating, until you realize that on the first playthrough, you haven’t even seen a tenth of what the game has to offer: because the game is on such a strict time system, you, by design, cannot participate in every single event in just one playthrough. I’ve finally seen everything there is to see, but it ended up taking about 20 hours of playtime, and that was with a powered-up sword. In addition to discovering different battles, missions, and endings, the game adds replay value through allowing the player to collect over 40 different swords, and over 100 different combat moves. You can only learn a move by either experimentally using it against an opponent or having it used against you, and you can only get a sword by taking it from a fallen enemy. The swords are fun, and each have their own special moves: every once in a while I’ll load up the game and try out a new sword for the hell of it.The save system of Way of the Samurai is something that will definitely distance a lot of players. Basically, if you die once, it’s game over. You can only save if you have to quit playing, and once you load that save back up, it is immediately deleted. This may seem like a counterintuitive idea, but it proves to be extremely effective at creating tension. Knowing that one death sends you back to the beginning of the game forces the player to fight conservatively and intelligently, instead of acting like Mugen from Samurai Champloo. I would go so far as to compare the save system as an extension of the one in Dead Rising, which I know irritated a lot of people, but was a system that I personally enjoyed. As gamers, we are becoming too used to infinite retries, so we aren’t careful in our actions: Way of the Samurai doesn’t tolerate that kind of recklessness.Also, considering the game is only about two hours, and it has to be played through without dying once, a playthrough of the game feels very much like you’re watching a Samurai movie. Again, this leads to replayability. It’s like looking through a collection of DVD’s when you’re not sure what movie you’re in the mood for: “Hm…Kill Bill, Yojimbo, Seven Samurai…hey, Way of the Samurai.” It’s a game that, once you get relatively good at, you can pick up and finish it in a relatively short amount of time and still get a great deal of satisfaction from it. SHHHHHHIIIIIIIIIIIIIIINGWhy you maybe haven’t played itIt wasn’t really a failure, to tell the truth. It may not have been enormous in the western world, but it was popular enough in Japan to warrant a sequel (which I haven’t played). Nonetheless, the bulk of video gamers have little interest in a realistic portrayal of samurai, which is what Way of the Samurai offers. Sort of. While you have to make many important choices, and while one death means the end, it’s strange that the game chooses such a typical fighting system. Though the different combinations of swords and moves make dueling really fun, all of the characters can take a great many hits before dying. As a result, the duels begin to feel less like quick, brutal Kurosawa showdowns and more like protracted Final Fight-esque brawls instead of the quick, cool, Bushido Blade one-hit-kill fights they could have been (the fights are so long that a Street Fighter style fighting mode is available, where you fight one on one against story mode characters without engaging in the story missions at all). This is but one example of the game almost taking wholly original path, before settling for something much more familiar. For another example, the brevity of the game allowed the developers to make almost any character in the game killable. Keyword being “almost.” You can engage in fights with story specific characters at any time—it doesn’t matter if you’re at the Kurou boss’s headquarters at the very beginning of the game, you can throw down with him if you want. However, if you try to “kill” a story specific character through a fight, they just run away and swear revenge. While it’s understandable that the devs wouldn’t want to write themselves into a whole by allowing the player to kill every character indiscriminately, it’s a bit disappointing that the player is denied that freedom.Many American reviewers harped on these points, which resulted in the game getting reviews ranging from“slightly less than decent” to “slightly more than decent”. While it’s a pretty damned good game and reasonably well-known in Japan, it’s not inconcievable that the lukewarm reviews made many western gamers all but ignore it. Plus, it seems like there’s eight hundred Samurai games coming from Japan every year, and using a generic title like “Way of the Samurai” doesn’t really grab the attention of an audience that has grown tired of Japanese men with swords.Anyway, I’d highly recommend picking this game up. It’s fun, it’s original, and it forces you to reconsider what the structure of a video game is supposed to be. Rent it, buy it off eBay, do whatever—it’s definitely a game worth remembering.

Anthony Burch