October 6, 2012
For those who haven't played any of the previous titles in the series, Way of the Samurai is best described by taking the open-world genre highlighted by the Grand Theft Auto series and mixing it with an old-school samurai theme. The fourth entry in the series has players play as a nameless wandering samurai who ends up in a town called Amihama, the center of factional upheaval as foreign powers have arrived and have begun to crack the 300-year isolation of the area. Some factions want to utilize the trade and chaos for their own benefits while the more xenophobic factions want to drive the foreigners out of town.
The player's role in all of this is to roam around freely in the area for the next five days. Some players might want to align themselves with a specific faction, but others could be content doing odd jobs around the town, sleeping the entire time or even leaving the town minutes into the introduction. The player has unlimited freedom in this respect, but it does come at a cost. Unlike the previous entries in the series, Way of the Samurai 4 does less to develop and focus on the various characters and thus makes it hard to get drawn to either faction in particular. There's a few characters who are endearing, but for the most part many of the characters are entirely forgettable.
Going back to the open world system, Way of the Samurai 4 does make the player feel like they are part of the world instead of just being a spectator. It feels smaller than other open world titles, but Amihama feels like a place where the player can make a mark on the town if they so choose. This is done by coming across various events scattered throughout the city that range from short cutscenes to full-on missions. They usually involve making at least one decision, which all together culminates in one of ten distinct endings. The game doesn't outright specify what direction the player's decisions take them in, but there is a handy flowchart via the in-game journal which makes it easier to discern what choices to avoid when hunting for an alternate ending.
As each "proper" ending usually takes about 3-5 hours to achieve, unless the player purposefully goes for one of the joke endings, Way of the Samurai 4 is meant to be played multiple times over. In a unique twist, the game keeps track of your choices through each game and carries over some of the plot events from play-through to play-through. One prime example of this involves the ability to open a foreign language school. During the subsequent play-through, the NPCs will start to speak English instead of Japanese.
All of the player's decisions upon the end of a play-through culminate in a Samurai Rating which awards points based on their decisions. These points can be used to obtain new outfits and accessories as well as the ability to change gender, although the game still has NPCs address you as a male character. The variety of outfits is simply staggering, as the player could choose to walk around solely in a tutu if they so chose to do.
This revelling in absurdity carries over to the plentiful side quests in the Way of the Samurai 4. Outside of the regular quests, you can beat random villagers and steal their money or seduce women by sneaking into their houses during the middle of the night to whisk them away to the local inn. Of course, getting caught doing these has its own amusing consequences as you'll be forced into a waterboarding game (implemented in a tongue-in-cheek manner) mini-game which gains you access to the more "sadistic" women if you repeatedly survive.
To further the absurdity, players have free reign to interrupt the cutscenes by heckling, asking them inane questions or even drawing one's sword and starting a beat down. This even extends to killing off the people giving you side quests or the photographers who act as the game's save point system. For instance, let's say you wanted to buy an item but didn't have the money. You could very easily steal the item and run away as the NPC tries hunting you down. Essentially this boils down to being an amusingly good time if you open yourself up to doing whatever you feel like.
For those who've played previous entries in the series, Acquire did manage to make some much needed tweaks to the game mechanics in the series' fourth outing. Once you've mastered a particular weapon's skills and unlocked its respective style, the game no longer forces you to equip that specific weapon to use the style and instead lets you use any style with any weapon allowing players to disassemble weapons to create their own unique, ideal weapon.
Health has been split into vitality and health this time around. Vitality decreases through attacking and travel (can be regained by eating food) while health only decreases as you take damage, so as long as you have vitality remaining you will recover health. This system also applies to foes, so there's an added wrinkle inherent in the battle mechanics as the player must deal damage with the flat of the blade to bring down their vitality and cut off their source of regeneration. Oddly though the one-hit kill ability in previous entries is non-existent here so some boss battles take far longer than they normally would due to this new system.
As alluded to before through the series' previous entries, Way of the Samurai 4 still isn't a perfect game by any stretch of the imagination. Outside of a few help tips at the beginning of the game, there's little to no explanation of the myriad of mechanics woven into Amihama either inside the game or the help guide available on the title screen. The combat is also slightly wonky at times in regards to responsiveness which makes a few of the moves harder to execute than they should be. There's also quite a few graphical issues as Way of the Samurai 4 looks like a low-end launch-era PS3 title with severe screen tearing issues in a few particular spots.
All in all, Way of the Samurai 4 is quite an endearing game to say the least. It most certainly has its faults, but the core zaniness and absolute absurdity available to the player makes for an amusing game if you let yourself go hog wild and do whatever you please due to the game's focus on repeated play-throughs. Most players will take a look at this game and pass on it after a few hours, but those who stick with it will find a rewarding game hidden underneath. If you have the patience to stick with it initially, Way of the Samurai 4 will be an experience you simply can't find anywhere else.
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