Samurai Shodown review - a slim, stylish fighter that proves SNK is properly back on song
Was there any cooler presence in the arcades of the 90s than SNK? There's always been something about the games from the Osaka outfit, matching impeccable style with deep tech and a serious amount of swagger. It's no wonder the likes of Garou: Mark of the Wolves and The Last Blade are still spoken about with a hushed reverence.
So it's also no wonder that when, after years of tumultuous corporate wrangling, the SNK name properly returned back in 2016, there was a frisson of excitement. The King of Fighters 14 was a fine way to mark the occasion, an intricate and expansive spin on the series, and now we have something a mite more ambitious. Samurai Shodown is a reboot of the series that helped forge the SNK brand, in all its steely cool, back in 1993. And I'm delighted to say this new entry is absolutely brilliant.
It helps that it stays faithful to the core tenets of the original, and indeed to many of the games that followed. Over a quarter of a century and multiple entries, Samurai Shodown has always been a series that's experimented with its systems, but the backbone has remained largely the same; here's fighting that's more measured, higher impact and with big consequences for those who make mistakes. Whiff, and over half your health meter can be wiped out by a single blow.
That's true as ever this time out, and it can feel absolutely brutal. That brutality is played to by violence that's comically over-played - there are dismemberments and gushing geysers of blood, smearing your character in flecks of crimson as they deal out damage - and offset by a sense of serene beauty. There are more technically accomplished fighting games out there, but when it comes to style - and to a ceaseless commitment to it - then Samurai Shodown is near the top of the pile, its rough rendition of Sakoku-era Japan brought to life with exquisite detail.
The 3D models carry thick ink outlines and parchment texture that give them a distinct 2D style, while cherry blossoms, woodblock art, hanafuda cards and kabuki theatres all pop with colour and grace. It's a comic book approach that lends a real sense of place, and gives Samurai Shodown an aesthetic that's carried through with conviction.
There's more conviction - and much of Samurai Shodown's joy - to be found in the clashing swords of its combat. At the very foundation this is a fighting game that uses SNK's standard four-button set-up, and atop that is a reliance on weaponry that enables the heavy-hitting, high-consequence tempo of its encounters, and playing into all that are an elaborate set of systems.
A rage meter fills up as you take punishment, and when full it pushes you into a state where your attacks serve up more damage. You can, if you choose, spend that meter for a chance of performing a one-off attack that'll demolish over half of your opponent's health - in a move that's told with great cinematic flair as the backdrop becomes deep red while your fighters are rendered in monochrome - but once it's spent, it's gone for the entire fight. There are supers, too, that are just as devastating, and again are limited to a single use in any given fight, lending Samurai Shodown's match-ups a stark, easy to understand sense of strategy.
Weapons can be knocked out of fighter's hands, leaving them vulnerable (and, even better, you can knock a weapon out of an opponent's hand and have it land behind you, allowing you to fiercely guard it as they come at you with bare fists in a fit of desperation). There's a counter for that, too, with disarmed players able to catch a weapon between their bare hands and tossing it aside, providing their timing and execution is on point.
It makes for encounters that are slow, more deliberate and about poking away at defenses and making sure you've got the chops to pull off a good counter. Samurai Shodown is, in contrast to many of its contemporaries, sedate and stately. It's also super enjoyable, with enough systems hanging in balance to always enable a surprise, and with the mechanics in place to ensure fights are often full of awe-inspiring moments.
For all the richness on display in the moments that matter, when you're engaged in combat, there's no escaping that Samurai Shodown is not as generous with its feature set as it is with its style. There are only some 16 characters here, which seems paltry when placed next to the likes of The King of Fighters, but they're a distinct bunch complete with some delicious flavours. 13 are returning favourites, with three fresh combatants in the form of Wu-Ruixiang, complete with traps and fireballs, Darli Dagger, whose jagged saw-sword makes it look like she's just strolled in from Monster Hunter, and personal favourite Yashamaru Kurama, a part-yokai who wields a savage nagamaki. It's slim pickings, basically, though you can be assured that whatever you do pick will be a worthwhile fighter.
Less excusable, though, is the scarcity of features. There's a story mode which really doesn't amount to much more than a small handful of cutscenes thrown in amidst a straight gauntlet of fights, a tutorial that's effective but slight and standard fare such as time attack and survival modes. Online is similarly skinny, with not much beyond casual and ranked play (though I do like the option, if you're feeling plucky, of skipping through the ranks at the very start of your online career to make sure you're facing up against the best as soon as possible).
The one claim to innovation isn't exactly that either, with a Dojo mode inspired by Virtua Fighter 4 Evo's career - this lot have taste - that is either a piece of inspired machine learning that allows players to upload and download representations of other players or, if you're feeling a little more cynical, a puffed up ghost mode. I'm leaning more towards the former, though, and while there's some spottiness and move spamming from a few too many uploads it does seem to be capable of putting up a decent approximation of an online fight.
And it's the fighting where Samurai Shodown really shines, delivering a spin on the series that's approachable, deep and full of flair. Put the package next to the likes of Mortal Kombat 11, or Street Fighter 5 in its complete edition, and Samurai Shodown comes up seriously short. It has style in excess, though, and a swagger that is unmistakably, winningly old-school SNK. What a glorious thing it is.