Thursday, July 9, 2009

So what IS Way of the Samurai?

Way of the Samurai (PS2 - 2002)

Way of the Samurai is lumped into the action/adventure category, and a glance at some screenshots will reveal the game to contain sword fighting and some dialogue - but you could say the same about Devil May Cry.

What makes the Way of the Samurai series unique - beyond its under-used setting - is its approach to storytelling, and the player's involvement in the narrative. It's essentially a samurai sandbox game with loading screens between areas - but unlike nearly all video games, the player's participation is not required to advance the story. If you go to a certain shrine at a certain time, you may witness a secret meeting among conspirators - but that meeting would have occurred regardless of your presence. You don't trigger events - you can only be in the right place at the right time, and let your involvement shape the story as you see fit.

Perhaps the best example is the first event of the first game.

Way of the Samurai begins with your masterless ronin approaching the bridge to a small town. The bridge spans a lovely little stream, and running towards you is a young girl. Chasing after her are some thugs - do you rush to her defence?

If you do not, they will catch her, beat her, and begin to carry her away. When you cross paths with the thugs, you have options: do nothing? Ask to join them? Demand they unhand the lady? If you take any action that is an action, you have thrown a pebble into the pool - and if you choose the ripples will grow until the very fate of this town rests upon your blade.

Too melodramatic?

Well, the whole thing is pretty much a rip off / homage to Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo - drama is the important part. Being a badass whose clever planning and peerless swordplay shapes events much larger than himself is the whole point. While the combat is only ever 'good enough' and the graphics are decidedly sub-par, the art direction of both games pops and the music is nothing less than gorgeous.

Way of the Samurai 2 (PS2 - 2004)

And - pretty much - that's the only reason why these games are special. The unique approach to the narrative is very unique. I can't place another game that uses a similar system, and not only does WotS set itself apart in story structure, it shapes itself to exploit the one jewel in its otherwise tarnished crown beautifully. WotS is a very short game - you can complete the story in ninety minutes (or you could just walk straight through town and leave without talking to anyone).

This minuscule length may sound like a massive strike against the title to you, but I assure you - it's genius. Because your involvement in the story has so many possible repercussions, its freakishly limited length is a blessing in disguise. You don't beat the game by merely saving the town - you only truly beat Way of the Samurai by discovering every possible impact your presence can have, and every resolution that's possible to achieve.

And once that's done, you'll probably want to head back in, just to work on the RPG-like sword upgrade system.

Is Way of the Samurai 2 worth picking up? Absolutely, if you like the original (and the original is worth picking up if, like me, you discovered the sequel first).

The swordfighting is less frustrating than the original, but because you feel so in control the whole time, it's also a little easier to get bored. Thankfully, the art direction and animation picks up some of the slack, and the new parry system provides an additional measure of style and satisfaction.

There's also a lot more to do in the sequel - more random encounters, more assassins hunting you by night - but most of it has less to do with the story. You can visit a sword master for training, fight for money in the festival grounds and do odd jobs for the town's three factions. The story also takes place over a few in-game weeks as opposed to the original's mere three days - but the result is a narrative that is much looser, and with the exception of the Master Samurai-rank storyline, much less involving.

But even if the sequel is one step forward and two steps back, it doesn't change the WotS formula enough to be anything less than a special title. These really are unique games, and uniquely worthy of their cult-classic status. So that, my friends, is why news of Way of the Samurai 3 getting localized deserves a 'Holy Crap!'

I'm gonna' have to rearrange my Fall Purchase Schedule.

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