There are many video games released exclusively in Japan, purely because they just don't appeal to and aren't catered towards the Western audience. Occasionally, a few of those games creep through the net and score a Western publisher - Way of the Samurai 3 is one such game. It focuses solely on Japanese culture, specifically around the time of the Sengoku period and it encourages players to find their own way through this ancient civilisation, with very little guidance.
Starting out as a nameless r&333;nin, players have no idea about their past or their future. In fact, all they do know is that they took part in a huge battle on the plains of Kuchihagahara and that they were one of the few who managed to survive the conflict. From here, anything the player does is entirely up to them. They can choose to be passive with the first people to greet them, aggressive, or they can choose to kill them. However, everything the player chooses to do has a consequence of some kind.
It's one of the really liberating parts of Way of the Samurai 3. There is no right or wrong, everything that happens serves as a progression of some kind. Ultimately, players end up getting involved in the fight for power between the Fujimori clan, who wish to rule Japan, and the Ouka clan, who wish to avenge Lord Sakurai and return Amana to the way it was before Fujimori rose to power. Even this is optional though, as players can just ignore the story progression entirely and do their own thing. As liberating as it all is, there are some issues with the mechanic. For example, it's possible to kill certain people and have others still mention them as the living later on during story sequences. It can ruin the illusion that everything is connected and that consequences actually matter. There are a ton of different story branches though, so players really are encouraged to play how they want, not how the game dictates, and they can be assured that the decisions they make will allow them to see different results.
The game takes place in eight regions and each has its own inhabitants that can be engaged with. However, most of this is all superficial. While individuals can be killed, this just alters the population's perception of the character. The only way to progress the story is to view Inklings, which appear on the map. It means that players can just go from Inkling to Inkling, skipping out everything in between. But, as with everything in this game, it's about choice. The locals can be explored should the player wish, although there isn't a huge amount of incentive to do so. There are a few shops, with minimal inventories and a few NPCs that offer jobs. These two elements actually go hand in hand, as buying items and building weapons are effectively the only thing to spend money on. But curative items and weapons can just be found on the floor anyway.
One thing is guaranteed though, combat will be engaged at one point and when it does, knowing how to fight might be pretty important. Drawing sword(s) can be performed using L1 and this will automatically put them in the correct stance for the type of weapon they're using. From here, players can perform a weak attack, strong attack, or block. There are actually eleven different stances, so it's important to use a weapon that players are comfortable with. While blocking, other moves, like a kick and throw can also be performed, as well as unsoku (foot movements). Combat is a lot more difficult than it may appear on face value though, as it's possible to pull and push depending on the actions of the opponent, and also parry. Parrying allows skills to be matched, which effectively means that they won't work, as a defence has been learnt. However, learning the timing for this may take some time. The combat does fall apart a bit when used in confined spaces, especially when players circle around each other and get stuck on walls. It works very much on the principle of straight line strikes, so anything that's not in this path won't register as a hit.
To aid in combat, and help in other ways, players can also find a partner. However, there's no real benefit to doing this as again, it's just something optional that the player can do in the land of Amana. They can live with the player though and provide small benefits, or sometimes hindrances, but the player must work to gain their affection. As well as this, players can also go through an extensive weapon crafting system, where they can build their ideal blade from four found or purchased parts, but the majority of weapons that are found on the roadside perform just fine - it's more a case of how good players want the weapon to be stats-wise, as opposed to how they want the weapon to perform. After all, a weapon with good stats in a bad stance isn't really going to be that helpful.
What's also not very helpful is the game's interface. Considering the map is so important for navigation and finding out where the next objective is, it's baffling that there is no mini-map available. It really detracts from the experience to have to go into the menu system, then look at the map every single time. Fast-travel does make things a bit more bearable, but the local maps aren't exactly useful most of the time. It is possible to quickly navigate around the menu system by holding R2 in combination with another button, but it all seems more complicated than it needs to be. The game also suffers visually, as while in-game action isn't so bad, cutscenes are often laughable because they're so bad. Watching any cutscene with Genjuro (leader of the Ouka clan), is a great way to lift spirits, purely because of how wooden and automated everything looks and because of how ridiculous his model is. The voice acting doesn't really help that much and this combination makes it really hard to actually get invested in the story or the characters.
Due to Way of the Samurai's open-ended nature, there is limitless replay value. When players are killed, they have to start again, but they get to retain all of their Samurai Points, items and weapons. It makes the harshness more bearable, as players try to complete the numerous endings available in the game. It's what makes Way of the Samurai 3 quite endearing, the fact it allows players to just do their own thing. There isn't anything, aside from the Inkling indicator, telling players what to do or where to go, and even this can be completely ignored. Players are free to do whatever they wish, whenever they wish.
Way of the Samurai 3 is a game that has so much potential for greatness, but quite a lot of it is unfulfilled. Many of the aspects feel easily overlooked, but they are there for those who want them. The problem is, there just aren't enough of them and some just feel completely redundant. There are eight districts, which might seem quite a lot, but everything is actually quite small, and the production values really are quite out of date. There's still something about Way of the Samurai 3 that makes it strangely appealing though, and if they make another one, they really need to capitalise on this appeal because this game could really be a lot more fun than it currently is.