It’s impossible not to love samurai. There’s just something about sword expertise and literal in-your-face combat that excites people. They also wear some of the most comfortable-looking robes in existence, which means they are comfy while expertly slicing people with their swords in their faces. That is just too cool. But also serious. The samurai code is not something to underestimate.
Way of the Samurai 4, though, is certainly not a serious samurai game. It doesn’t quite enter the realm of a parody or a satire, but the relatively genuine plot of xenophobia is adorned with abrupt humor and exaggerated personalities. It starts as early as the character creation screen, where the game pokes fun at your samurai for appearing too androgynous, and continues throughout the remainder of the game and characters, like the female knight “Melinda Megamelons.”
Unfortunately, a lot of the jokes — like the above-mentioned surname — feel out of place at times. Sure, Way of the Samurai has always been somewhat bizarre, but XSEED’s translation work feels almost too intrusive. In other regional translations, for example, Miss Megamelons is known by the comparatively befitting name Melinda de Cameron. Having a surname about her endowment is borderline character assassination all by itself.
Other strange instances of “humor” are less the fault of XSEED and lie more on developer Acquire’s doing. Prior to release, WotS4 received some light media attention for what is essentially a “rape minigame,” known in-game as Night Crawling. If a player has a fancy for a particular female, he can enter her home at night, sneak past her parents (or just fight through them), and then force the girl onto a bed. All the while the she will playfully pretend to resist your samurai’s advances, bringing it uncomfortably close to what Jack Thompson fears most. Again, an unnecessary inclusion.
But at the same time, I did find myself chuckling over a lot of the dialogue options (especially when flirting with girls; “I would gladly cut open my belly for you”), and characters like the Kinugawa sisters are just too mischievous to not find adorable. And if players so wish, they can make their samurai look like an utter buffoon.
One of the first problems I noticed with WotS4, before I even got into the game itself, is screen-tearing present during everything from the menus, to the save screens, and (most prevalently) the cutscenes. During actual gameplay it is fortunately much less common, but in everything else it is very distracting. On top of that, some cutscenes have strange graphical artifacts; in an early cutscene, for instance, a background ship has a black line jutting out from its side into infinity. Given the substandard overall quality of the environments and characters, I can’t help but wonder why so many graphical errors are present. An engine that is as borderline-last-gen as WotS4‘s really shouldn’t have had issues with optimization.
But with all the negatives, it should be said that Way of the Samurai 4 has a lot going for it as well. The open-world nature of the game is done very well, and is one of the better representations of post-industrial Japan found in recent gaming. There is plenty to do, from general random mayhem, to fishing, running a dojo, and side-quests, and players are able to customize their samurai to their liking as they play. Early on, the customization options are quite sparse, but eventually players will be able to change their samurai’s clothing and other adornments, as well as customize their weapon. Swords, for instance, can be pieced together from collected (or bought) blades and hilts, and nearly every enemy will drop their weapon for you to pick up and use as you will.
There is also a tangible side to the weaponry in that they will break down through usage. Blocked attacks especially will wear away at the blade, so players must regularly repair their swords (either by themselves or at a blacksmith’s shop) if they don’t want to risk becoming weaponless at inopportune moments. Players can also learn different fighting stances and attacks as they progress, allowing players to further customize the behavior of their samurai.
All this is pointless, though, without a good combat system to back it up, and here is where players will likely find themselves divided. On one hand, the combat system is realistic, with movement and reversals playing a large role, but on the other hand it feels slow, stiff, and — at times — boring. This certainly isn’t a hack-n-slash samurai game like many players have come to expect through series like Koei’s Samurai Warriors; combat here takes time and careful consideration. I feel that there is certainly an audience out there who will enjoy it, but personally I found myself finding the non-combat parts of the game more enjoyable, which is not exactly what I expected from a game based on samurai.
The story, too, is quite good, and was one of the strongest driving factors behind my desire to keep playing. As factions clash over immigration and culture (particularly from Britain), players will have to choose to side with the foreigner-tolerant Shogunates or the xenophobic isolationists. And indeed, choice plays a large role in WotS4, as player decisions will impact the course of the story — from your actions to the way you choose to respond to people, the story and world around you will change accordingly, contributing further to the theme of customizability.
I am conflicted, though, on how I feel about Way of the Samurai 4 after completing it. For years I have appreciated XSEED’s work in bringing Japanese games Stateside, but much of the time while playing I felt they could have focused on bringing over a better game than this. An involving, evolving story and effective customizability just aren’t quite enough to save a game marred by annoying graphical issues and uninspiring gameplay. As a sucker for anything historical Japan, I fell in love with the environment and story, but I couldn’t get accustomed to the bland gameplay. Fans of the series may be more forgiving, but newcomers should practice careful consideration before heading to the PlayStation Store.
Version Reviewed: PS3 (PSN)