Tench! Bless you...
Way of the Samurai, published in the States by BAM! (always a great name to break up the flow of a sentence), doesn't take the same approach as the Tenchu games. For a start, you're not actually a ninja, you are ronin, a wandering samurai without a master, and the game charts your three days in the area of Rokkotsu Pass, beginning with a chance encounter on a bridge outside town.
On your way through the area you come across a band of vagrants hassling a young lady, and you have a number of options to take the game forward. You can do the honourable thing and defend her from these thugs, allowing them to scarper and receiving an invitation to lunch in response, or you can go one step further and slaughter the ringleader and/or his entourage, frightening the life out of her and building up your merciless reputation. Of course, a real warrior engages only the worthy opponent, and thus you can simply ignore the conflict and march on by, but this could lead to some awkward situations later on. Or you could join in…
It's at this point that Way of the Samurai seems less like the boring hack-and-slash it could have been, and more like an extremely enticing prospect. We don't see many of these open-ended games, and they do tend to gravitate towards either the brilliant or the horrendous. When they're good though, they are good.
The best form of attack
This open-endedness is reflected in the combat system, too. You start off relatively weak, with only a couple of attacks, positions and stances, and have a number of paths to choose from. Learning new moves is a process of repeating and thus gradually improving your mastery of the basic attacks, with more impressive moves subtly opening up to various combinations of the face buttons, but this is the game's dark side, and you will hit a performance ceiling pretty quickly.
Developing a greater range of moves by performing them in different stances and positions leads to a more versatile and fluid fighting technique, and it is this which allows you in turn to better defend against attacks. Although you can often see when and where an opponent is moving to strike, it's easier to deflect or even evade completely if you have been concentrating on your abilities all round.
Another aspect of the combat system is your choice of weapon. Although you are no slouch with a blade, the true warrior is a master of all weapons and his surroundings, and in Way of the Samurai you can hone your skills with axes, hammers and other implements, and you can replace your trusty sword with a slightly trustier one. Furthermore, one of the characters in the game is a blacksmith, and he will happily alter your blade, improving its abilities in certain situations, as long as you can pay him. Otherwise he will get a bit upset, and you might have to bump him off, but a replacement doesn't just spring up overnight, so you might want to preserve your healthy relationship there.
Losing its shine
One of the areas where Way of the Samurai falls down is in its general composition. Although the premise is certainly intriguing, and the possibilities could have you playing through the game over and over again, you will find more than just rogues and vagabonds fighting your progress; the visuals are rusty and unimpressive, and the written dialogue is rustic and unbecoming.
For a game which could have boasted a lot of emotional depth, Acquire's design choices, like giving your samurai an afro (why!?) and adopting such a forgettable script smack of laziness in the process of conversion. The visuals are not all that detailed, and in places are just downright plain, spoiling the mood somewhat, and there is next to no ambience, with the only real lighting effects artificially installed to complement a particular section.
In the game's defence, the animation in battle is fitting and detailed, and the graphics aren't incompetent, they're just not up to the standards of the current PlayStation 2 crop. It's also nice to see that Acquire isn't afraid to splash a bit of claret about the place to punctuate battles and emphasize damage. As Hideo Kojima said of Metal Gear Solid 2's violence, blood is used to deliver the message that violence has consequences, and although he didn't mean it in this sense, in Way of the Samurai blood is a message which reads 'stop trying to look like Yoda and learn how to block'.
The cutscene elements of the game, used to advance the static areas of plot that do exist, are probably the worst aspect of the game though, as bad as the dialogue in general. They may as well have taken place in real-time to marginalize the poor acting a little, at least you could have cut them up if you got bored, but no…
Fortunately, as you can probably tell, Way of the Samurai is more good than bad, and we've hardly begun to uncover everything in the NTSC version. The obvious longevity which stems from the open-ended premise is inviting and manageable. Not everybody can deal with a 50-hour trudge through a game like Final Fantasy X, but bite-sized, memorable adventures on Rokkotsu Pass could be very enjoyable, and we've often said that the linearity of the FF games steals a lot of the possibilities from each of the worlds Squaresoft creates.
This concept obviously has a lot of promise, and the ability to replay the game and spin an entirely new yarn for yourself is bound to be a compelling argument for the purchase of the game if and when it materialises on these shores, especially for those of you who are growing tired of following the straight and narrow albeit glossy path through more traditional adventures. This is one to watch, and as far as the more creative and artistic of developers go, one to draw inspiration from.