I wont hide the fact that I’ve never played a game from the Samurai Shodown series, and for that reason, I came into the series’ latest entry, Samurai Shodown, with a fresh set of peepers. Having played a range of fighters this gen alone, it took me quite a bit of time to gel with the game’s distinct framework. However, once I did, I felt right at home. If you, like me, haven’t dipped your proverbial toes in the series’ waters yet, now is as good a time as any. Sure, it’s not quite as great as expected, but it ticks many of the boxes it needed to.
Samurai Shodown is cited as a reboot of the series; an attempt to pull the franchise from its 2D roots and breathe new life into it via a 3D makeover, at the same time as retaining its classic Manga aesthetic. The game takes place in the late 18th century, and slots in prior to the events of the original game, and after the events of Samurai Shodown V. Much to be expected, each character fits into the plot quite fluidly, in an isolated, roundabout way. Now, I’m not going to spoil any major beats here, because in truth, that would be shitty.
Whatever the case, the crux of the story sees us taken to the year 1787, the seventh year of the Tenmei era. Matsudaira Sadanobu has been appointed as counsel to the Shogun, and has been chosen to usher in a new age of reform with the Kansei era. The land, however, remains desperate; filled with fire, famine, and ruin, and all the while, sinister clouds darken the air, and bring with them a foreboding sense of dread. That’s the structure, the premise of the story, and each of the sixteen available characters piece into it, quite lightly overall.
Of the sixteen fighters, thirteen of them are returning characters, with the remaining three serving as brand new warriors. Much like most fighters, the story wont take you long to run through. In fact, with any given character, it shouldn’t take you longer than thirty minutes per-whack. Perhaps it’s the fact that I’ve never followed the series before, but I never felt all that invested in the story. The whole thing did very little to grip me, and when all is said and done, I’ve pretty much forgotten the whole ordeal already. Make of that what you will.
I’ll not be overly critical here, because I do feel that it’s something franchise fans will appreciate the most, but for me, there just wasn’t enough build-up, nor depth. Either way, you’ll take to the story with your selected fighter, and from there, you’ll take on a small band of fights until you reach the boss. Each character has a short intro that’s unique to them, followed by brief bouts of nonsense dialogue between battles. There’s the occasional cutscene here and there, but again, this does little to add any flavor to the proceedings.
Once you’ve worked your way through the stages and have beaten the boss, you’ll be taken back to the main menu (following a short character-specific conclusion) ready to jump into the fray with another fighter of your choosing. Naturally, you’re free to tweak the number of rounds per-fight, the round timer, and indeed the CPU difficulty over in the options. There’s a wealth of other options outside of this to toy around with too, including; audio, language, button configuration, and so forth. It’s relatively straightforward, which is nice.
Outside of the story mode, Samurai Shodown packs quite a lot of content. There’s a comprehensive gallery area that you can take to to view unlocked movies, unlocked artwork, and sound files spanning music and voice lines, because, why not? You can also check your overall records in the database hub; charting wins, losses, streaks, completion percentage, and more besides. Speaking of which, there’s a range of titles that you can unlock and apply, giving you some all important bragging rights when fighting online.
The only problem I have with the menus is that they’re quite sporadic overall, and there’s a slight loading time as you move between hub areas. This isn’t a deal breaker by any means, but needing to wait a few seconds per-click does get old, fast. The developer would have been wise to create a more unified system, rather than the somewhat chaotic one that’s present. When you’re not browsing gallery unlocks, checking out the database, or toggling the options, you’ll likely be spending time over in the game’s many varied game modes.
First and foremost, Samurai Shodown sports a tutorial area that allows you to get to grips with the fields of play across a range of training exercises and missions. Nothing special here, but it’s a nice addition for those that need a warm up. Here, you’ll learn how to attack, how to utilize special attacks, how to guard break, how to stance break, how to use the lightning blade, and more besides. Once you’ve learned the basics and you feel good and ready, the game’s online mode will serve as a neat way to show off what you’re made of.
Here, you can take to ranked matches, casual matches, or browse the leaderboards. There’s a few preference-based filters to tweak should you want to alter how matchmaking works, but due to some questionable localisation, some of this went over my head. Just one example, for instance, is the ability to cater your search based on opponent rank, but the options you’re given here consist of general location, specific location, and anyone. Once again, this isn’t at all a deal breaker, but some more insight would not have gone amiss.
Either way, all of the expected online multiplayer aspects are present and accounted for, collectively bulking up the game’s replay value and worth. If, however, you prefer to play more locally, Samurai Shodown has you covered. The battle area spans a total of four modes; versus, gauntlet, survival, and time trial. Versus is pretty self explanatory, offering a mode that allows you to play against other players, or of course, the CPU. The game’s time trial is equally as understandable. Here, you’ll defeat as many foes as you can in a set time.
Survival, however, sees you taking on endless battles until you eventually bite the proverbial dust; a neat mode if you’re looking to see how far you can get before hitting game over. Then, that leads us to gauntlet. Gauntlet is a watered down version of survival, in which you’ll take on every character in the game in rapid succession with only one life to rely on. There’s a bit more to Samurai Shodown than that, mind. The game also sports a distinct dojo area that houses two modes of its own; ironman challenge, and ghost match.
Samurai Shodown’s ghost system is quite interesting. The game’s ghosts are CPU controlled, but constantly learn their opposition’s attacks and movements, and then develop a unique fighting style based on mimicking everything you dish out. You’re free to fight not only your own ghost, but the ghosts of other players too, which is exactly what you’ll be getting up to in the aforementioned ghost match. The ironman challenge is certainly not for the faint of heart. This mode lets you take on up to one hundred ghosts in a row. Good luck to you all.
That, ladies and gents, is the sum of the game’s depth. The developer has promised post-launch support through the introduction of new fighters, which should definitely sweeten the deal if you’re already on the fence. Though, even as it stands right now, there’s a wealth of content to sink into already. Sure, it may not be quite as varied as the content found in its contemporaries, but it’s hard to scoff when Samurai Shodown manages to cover many of the basics from the off. That said, how exactly does the game handle? Actually, quite well.
The game’s handling is precise and fluid, giving you plenty of flexibility as a result. I’ll say this, Samurai Shodown is a fighter that’s only going to appeal to a specific crowd. Unlike Tekken, Mortal Kombat, Dragon Ball FighterZ, and (dare I say it) Battle for the Grid, Samurai Shodown is much slower paced, but much more in your face due to how the game’s framework functions. This alone makes things automatically tense, with each and every character offering unique playing styles in regards to both their capabilities and reach.
Fighting in Samurai Shodown isn’t about leap hitting in the air or beating your opponent to a corner, no, not by a long-shot. Instead, you’ll spend more time goading your foes to step forward, baiting them towards a beat-down. I say this because the damage output in Samurai Shodown is insane. So much so, you could wipe out half of your enemy’s health in a single standard attack if you timed things right. Like I said, it’s all about patience and tactics. If you come into this with the expectancy of anything else, you’re in for a rude awakening.
The game’s attack and movement commands (by default) are well mapped, and accessible via the pause menu. The same can be said about the move list. Here, you’ll be free to browse the capabilities of each and every fighter, giving you firm insight as to what button sequences you need to press to pull off some gratifying feats. Outside of standard attacks, you’ll be able to execute a range of distinct moves; specials, command moves, weapon flinging techniques, super specials, and so on. It’s not overly deep, but deep enough.
It helps that you don’t need to remember a ridiculous chain of commands to achieve even the most taxing of moves, everything is neat and concise. Though, in truth, it really doesn’t matter how much thought you put into each fight, because in Samurai Shodown, being slapped just once can be the difference between winning and losing. Every single attack has the ability to wipe out large chunks of health, and I’m not exaggerating there, I mean that literally. Several times I found myself beaten to a bloody puddle from merely a few hits.
That’s not to mention the rage bar. This beastly mechanic sees it filling every time you take damage or deflect an attack, and you don’t even need it fully charged to slip into rage mode. When triggered, you’ll enrage, and in this mode you’ll be free to utilize special moves or lightning blade. Each can be evaded, but on the flip-side, each can damn near kill your opposition in a single blow via a slick flashy cinematic. Super special moves are a bit harder to utilize, but as expected, tend to dish out even more damage if used smartly and correctly.
Every fighter has distinct specials of all flavors, and they’re all just as stylish and just as devastating as the next. These can also be dodged thanks to how well balanced the game’s fighting mechanics are. That’s the beauty of Samurai Shodown. Despite the fact that a fight can be over in the blink of an eye if you get sloppy, there’s always room to maneuverability, and there’s a counter for almost every situation. You’ll need to spend a bit of time practicing how to master the game’s controls, but do so, and you’ll be a force not to be taken lightly.
It’s all, for better and for worse, so streamlined and seamless. I doubt those that favor the traditional fighters will find a great deal of enjoyment to be had here, but if you’re looking for something more classy, something more balanced, and something that’s easier to sink your teeth into, this is for you. The whole thing is very risk vs. reward throughout. Do you attempt a super special very early on even though you can only use it once, to force your foe into desperation? Or, do you hang back and wait for them to showcase their traits?
These are the sorts of questions you’ll ask yourselves during each and every bout, be it against the robust CPU or real world players. Because of that, Samurai Shodown is much less about combos and much more about composition. I found it very handy to spend time in the tutorial areas; adjusting to how breaks work (they work well), learning how to defend, how to weapon fling, how to counter, and so forth. Collectively, it all makes for a fine balance, ensuring that you’ve always got wiggle room to evade, counter, and strike back.
Knowledge alone will only get you so far though, for the most part, this is a fighter that has you reading your enemies and deducting the best approach on the fly. Like I said, it’s very slow, but very fierce when the action picks up. Each system and each element feeds into one another remarkably well, and per-fighter, whom are all diverse in their own right, this ultimately makes for a well rounded affair. That’s not to say that the game is flawless though, because it’s not. It’s a good game, but there’s a few issues that surround the trek.
I’ve already touched up on the awkward menus and the somewhat dull story, but there seems to be some slight performance issues present too; the odd drop in frame-rate. Thankfully, this doesn’t occur all that often, and only tended to show when action and effects filled the screen mid-fight, but it does grate. This also occurs during cutscenes and animations, which is a shame given the game’s development length. Nonetheless, and overall, in the face of everything that the game gets right, this is fairly easy to forgive.
In regards to the game’s visual and audio design, Samurai Shodown gets a thumbs up. The developer has done a good job of modernizing the game’s design without sacrificing its distinct presentation. The end result makes for a bold looking fighter that looks and sounds decent. Everything from the crimson bloodiness of your attacks, right through to the character and dojo design, has a sharp tasteful manga-like thickness to it all, with audio cues that sound as gratifying as they look. Even dismemberment looks nifty, if somewhat basic.
The bottom line in all of this is that Samurai Shodown isn’t going to revolutionize its field. Hell, I doubt it’s even going to provide much competition for the genre’s leads, but, it certainly manages to get a lot right. The game’s well balanced and easy to learn but hard to master gameplay will please fans of the franchise, whilst leaving the door wide open for newcomers to fit right in. If you’re on the fence, I would certainly recommend giving it a spin. It’s a solid effort on the developer’s part, and a welcome return for a classic series.
Samurai Shodown marks the return of a beloved classic, and although not quite as refined nor as deep as its modern contemporaries, the game proves that there’s still plenty of life in the franchise yet. Through staying faithful to the series’ roots, Samurai Shodown offers up a different kind of fighter, one that retains the strategic action and high levels of tension that put this saga on the radar to begin with. Whilst not great, it’s certainly bold and unique.
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version.Want to keep up to date with the latest Xt reviews, Xt opinions and Xt content? Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.