He Who Lives by the Sword
Japan’s Sengoku period was not an enjoyable one; historians also call it the “Warring States” period for a reason. Natural disasters, excessive taxation, and a feudal system of government combined to put the population on edge and at odds with itself. Competing localities, and competing classes within localities, hacked each other to pieces for more than a century.
Way of the Samurai 3 warps players back in time to this period, and combines a number of great ideas in doing so. The game features the swordfighting of the three-dimensional Zelda games, the open-world gameplay of the Grand Theft Auto series, the multiple endings of a Choose Your Own Adventure novel (remember those?), and even a touch of the emphasis on character stats and alliances that an RPG has. Not everything here works, but enough of it does to make Way of the Samurai 3 a recommended buy.
As the game begins, you’re injured, and several men offer to help you. If you go with them, they nurse you back to health and ask you not to cause trouble in their homeland. You’re then released into a fictional land of competing factions called Amana. The territory’s feudal lord is named Shuzen. The Fujimori clan is the most powerful one, but it has been forcing the members of the Takatane Village to work too hard and pay too much in taxes, and they’re growing angry. The Ouka Clan, meanwhile, is made up of malcontents who’d like to defeat the Fujimori clan and overthrow Shuzen.
As in a Grand Theft Auto game, you’re given a wide variety of missions to choose from. But unlike the famous street-crime franchise, Way of the Samurai 3 makes your choices count for something almost all the time. You lose points for wanton murder, and while you don’t need to join any particular faction, helping one can turn the others against you. At any point during a cutscene, you can draw your weapon and escalate the situation with the press of a button. You also navigate dialogue trees that affect the game. Depending on how you play your cards, you can see more than 15 different endings.
To encourage players to get the most out of the multiple paths, the game is actually built to be replayed. Your weapons and statistics carry over from game to game, and some bonus features don’t unlock until you’ve played a couple times. Each playthrough lasts only a few hours, but there’s always a different choice to make in the game’s universe. What would happen if you just started killing everything in sight, right off the bat? You can whack almost every character in the game, save children and animals; you can also “blunt” your attacks so that defeated characters come back. What if you allied with the Ouka instead of the Fujimori? What if you avoided fighting whenever possible? Here you can go ahead and find out. Be careful when you die, though, because if you choose not to save, you start back from the beginning.
Unfortunately, each playthrough is less impressive than the last. There are only eight areas to explore, with loading times between each, and while the game’s visuals aren’t awful, they don’t do much to hold the player’s attention. The normal open-world glitches show up (different leaves “pop in” on the trees periodically), there’s not as much detail as one would like, the non-player characters aren’t too interesting, the facial animation during cutscenes is awful, and there’s quite a bit of aliasing. The sound seems a bit outdated, with the characters speaking through text bubbles (the sparse voice acting is an odd mixture of Japanese-sounding grunts and the occasional English line, so you have to read most of your conversations in text bubbles). It’s not a fair comparison, given that Grand Theft Auto IV cost around $100 million to make, but it has to be said: Amana is no Liberty City.
One aspect of the game that does maintain its interest hour after hour is the fighting system. The basics are easy (block, quick attack, strong attack), but you can develop your abilities and your character in any number of ways. As you fight more, your weapons level up (or sometimes break), and you can spend money to make them better. A variety of special moves expand your options, and you can even fight bare-handed. There are more than 200 parts you can find and use to assemble a weapon that suits your fighting style.
Maneuvering can be a little clumsy sometimes, and it doesn’t make any sense that you can eat food to improve your health in the middle of a bloody fight (radishes, rice balls, and the like are used the same way Bioshock’s health packs are), but this is a definite bright spot for the game. It’s incredibly fun to go on killing sprees with the difficulty low, and to master tough opponents on the higher settings. Hopefully future titles in the franchise will feature one-on-one online matches.
A few small annoyances are worth mentioning. For some reason, when you try to grab an item you don’t have room to carry, your character picks it up and promptly drops it, which can be confusing and looks ridiculous. While various characters explain the techniques, they appear too late in the game to do much good. You’ll want to consult the manual often. Also, you have to navigate the pause menu every time you want to see the map, which is more than a little obnoxious even in such a small world.
The game would be better without its flaws, of course. However, as it is, it’s a fascinating combination of different gameplay elements, and it works surprisingly well. Anyone who likes swordfighting, the freedom of an open-world, and the opportunity to shape a story would be well-advised to pick it up. It turns out that Japan’s Sengoku period is a blast, at least when the blood’s not real.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.2 Graphics
The game looks okay, but it’s far from a visual masterpiece. 4.1 Control
The combat controls can feel awkward from time to time, but otherwise everything seems completely natural. 2.9 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The music is fine, but the voice acting is too sparse. 4.1 Play Value
The game is short, but it rewards replay. 3.8 Overall Rating – Good
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.