March 3, 2012
Like Pushmo before it, Sakura Samurai's story is simple and to the point. You take the role of a young unnamed samurai who is tasked with saving Princess Cherry Blossom, the daughter of a god who's been taken away by an evil group of people which caused the peace existent in the land to crumble. So naturally, you're tasked with traveling through a classical Japanese-inspired world map defeating several enemies and bosses along the way.
For those familiar with Japan's ukiyo-e paintings, they serve as the central artistic design style for the game and are quite striking when applied with the Nintendo 3DS's 3D effect. They really bring the game to life. These effects are most pronounced in the game's overworld and its towns, which feature over-the-shoulder mini-games that play on the "item flying towards you in 3D" effect, but in the guise of a slice-the-item mini-game using the samurai's sword. Sadly some of the battlegrounds don't look nearly as good, since most look muddy and bland, save for the boss rooms. The music also has a very oriental feel to it but isn't nearly as memorable as it could have been. That isn't to say they're bad, they don't grate on your ears at all, it's just that they're nothing too special to speak of.
The combat, however, is much more refined. As said before, the core gameplay shares a lot with Nintendo's classic series Punch-Out!!. While each battleground has multiple enemies, you only battle with one of them at a time. The combat itself involves slashing your sword with A, parrying with L/R and blocking with B. The X button also allows for moving about the arena but at the cost of accidentally opening yourself up for a surprise attack. Like in Punch-Out!!, every time you properly evade the enemy's attack just before they launch it you will gain a little bit of power in your power meter. This allows you to unleash a special attack as well as increase your evade counter, which can be exchanged for coins at one of the local towns.
But of course, there's always a catch, which in Sakura Samurai's case involves losing all of your currently stored power if you make a single mistake. Blocking with B does allow you to keep your stored power but at the cost of decreasing the defensive capability of your sword unless you go to the local blacksmith or have an extra whetstone on hand.
Sadly, while the mechanics themselves are fleshed out in a decent way, how enemies are targeted isn't. In lieu of letting the player target their opponent manually, Sakura Samurai automatically picks the target for them. This isn't an issue for the early levels which feature small amounts of enemies, but later stages cause an issue when multiple enemies are grouped together and causes the game to randomly jump between four or more enemies before picking the final opponent. Often, this causes one or more of the cycled-through enemies to attack the player from behind. As a result, you're forced to either evade or run using the X button to go through the process over again. Later levels especially love to put enemies into these types of groups in increasingly smaller arenas which only serves to exacerbate the problem.
Once you get past those minor targeting issues and start beating the bosses and eventually beating the game a number of extra modes open up. Beating each of the three boss stages opens up a 30-, 50- and 100-Thug Challenge which tests your skills in beating the stage again with the fastest time. Sakura Samurai also features a Rock Garden mode which lets you "dedicate" the steps you've incurred on your Nintendo 3DS to revitalize the cherry blossom trees. If you're worrying that it works by using Play Coins, don't be as it only records the number of steps and doesn't detract either the coins or steps you've incurred.
Sakura Samurai: Art of the Sword is a decidedly mixed bad when it comes to the 3DSWare lineup. The core control mechanics and art style are expertly well-done for the platform but the auto-targeting scheme is incredibly frustrating in practice. If you can look past that you'll have a wonderful time, especially if you're a fan of this art style, but those with a low tolerance for annoyances should be cautious as this game might not be your cup of tea.