Version tested: PlayStation 2
Way of the Samurai is one of those games which plants you in a position and lets you pick your own relatively short path to the end sequence. Set over the course of three days in an area called Rokkotsu Pass, the player is cast as a ronin, a wandering samurai without a master on a quest for adventure and, well, profit.
Life on the road
It all kicks off as your afro-endowed ronin happens across a few nasty fellows shaking down a young lady on a bridge. Your choices here are endless - interject and frighten off the lunatics and you may find yourself invited round for tea, but kill a couple of the varmints and she'll be frightened witless. Of course, if you have a mean streak, you can always join in and make some friends on the wrong side of the law, but that's probably ill-advised - you'll be spending three days in Rokkotsu Pass, and fighting the valiant cause will yield more treats.
This is a theme which runs throughout the game. Each situation can be treated in any way you choose, which is a breath of fresh air in itself - most PS2 games set you on the straight and narrow and scold you for deviating in the slightest - and your moral alignment affects not only the things you'll do, but also the way you're treated, the people you meet and even the things they'll do for you. You have to treat it as you might treat real life, (but handily without the toilet breaks). For example, your trusty blade needs tempering now and then, which the local blacksmith is only too happy to do, but if you can't pay him he'll pick a fight and will probably end up dead, cutting off your various weapon upgrade paths completely. So, just as you wouldn't order a pizza if you didn't have any cash, you shouldn't ask for something in WotS if you can't pay for it.
Graphically Way of the Samurai could be a lot better, even on the PS2, and at times it looks very much like it belongs on Sony's last console. The character models are unpleasantly chunky, and since they all wear floppy robes from ankle to ear the distinct lack of animation is quite disconcerting, even if the combat animations are uniformly excellent. The environment suffers from the same old school feel. Rokkotsu Pass isn't too large a place, and the fields, hills and trees are all fairly blocky and the textures of quite a low quality. That said, certain objects are suitably rugged and well drawn - the bridge at the start of the game, for example, could quite easily be made of wood, and, credit to the designers, the matte of glaringly aliased grass matter does look sufficiently rough. Whether or not that's deliberate is debatable, but it does help.
Way of the Fist
Combat is a central element of the game, and as you might expect from the team that brought you Tenchu II, it's pretty well realised. You need to quickly master blocking, parrying and offensive attacks, and there are hundreds to pick from and utilise. You get better with each successful blow, but mashing the same button over and over renders you both predictable and out of moves before you know it. After all, you can't expect to thrust your sword twenty times in succession without running out of ways to better your technique. Using a varied arsenal of attacks will not only dispatch enemies quicker, but also better your overall technique.
Way of the Samurai does suffer from one glaring flaw though, and it will probably be enough to put a lot of you off your hacking and slashing. Sadly, the control system is unforgivably cumbersome, and although you'll play the game several times through without really repeating your steps too often, it's that first time which should be most memorable, and you spend the whole of the three or so hours simply arguing with the game's mechanics. Targeting a large number of enemies is far too much like hard work, and with groups as large as five or six, that's going to take its toll quickly. The camera doesn't help, seemingly ducking into objects whenever it can, and although you do get the hang of it and learn to avoid close encounters in tight spaces, that shouldn't be the way it works.
The rest of the game is also let down by some truly hopeless dialogue and compounded by diabolical voice acting, which feels a little awkward at times. Head into battle after a long monologue from a thug or corrupt government official and they'll yelp incoherently as you slice and dice their worthless hind - satisfying in itself, but a bit puzzling. The audio side of things is quite memorable however, with a nice blend of ambient music to accompany the constant wandering from spot to spot, and a pleasant battle theme borne of traditional Japanese instruments rather than rock heavy guitar riffs or wannabe marching anthems.
Way of the Samurai is a short game, but it boasts a lot of replay value. If your goal is simply to clear it, then you might as well pick something else up off the shelf, but if you can stomach a few loose ends and some sub-cartoon dialogue, you'll find a decent amount of value and entertainment in the latest Fresh Games title from Eidos. And unlike the last pair, this one really is fresh, and really is worth owning in most respects.
7 / 10