Reviewed: June 11, 2005
Released: June 7, 2005
Samurai Western is the third installment in the Way of the Samurai series, action games with a strong cult following. The game is pretty much what it sounds like. You play a samurai named Gojiro, who's on a quest to find his estranged brother who embraced the way of the gun over the sword and left for America to seek his fortune. He arrives in the New World, and you fight your way through the Old West in this game that's equal parts Magnificent Seven (which, incidentally, was based on The Seven Samurai), Tombstone, Trigun and Kill Bill. It's very stylish, and the action is hectic and enjoyable.
However, like the other games in its series, Samurai Western faces a few hurdles to clear on its quest for gaming greatness. Past Way of the Samurai titles have suffered from a lack of depth, relatively grainy graphics and a marked lack of replay value. So how does this one stack up?
Samurai Western is solidly an action title. Everything is in real-time. It starts with our hero, Gojiro (hey, that rhymes!) basically walking his bad self into a movie-perfect Old West town and summarily being attacked by endless legions of angry cowpokes with guns. Gojiro, a samurai, only has his sword to help him. Seems like an unfair fight, right? Well, sure... for the cowboys.
From the game's third-person perspective, players help Gojiro hack, slash and spin his way through each level, accruing points based on kills and stylish dodges. It's easy to start looking cool and piling the bodies up with Gojiro's amazing samurai skills. Different sword stances and pieces of equipment mix up the action. And the ability to not only block, but actually deflect bullets with Gojiro's Japanese steel back into the faces of his hapless enemies adds to the cinematic appeal of the game as well.
Gojiro can also dodge just about anything with the tap of a button. Not only is this the most useful non-damaging move in the game, it looks damn cool. Every bullet or strike that's successfully dodged results in a ghostly afterimage of him where he was a second before. With a little luck and skill, I've dodged over a dozen bullets in the space of two seconds in this way. The visceral thrill of this is not to be missed by action fans. A simple button layout manages to strike a harmonious balance between trigger-quick reflex action and a decent amount of forethought during battles, which in my opinion places it a bit above its most direct competitor, Dynasty Warriors, in terms of raw gameplay.
Another nice thing about Samurai Western is the varied enemy designs. Though there aren't a huge number of different enemies to fight, there are enough to keep players on their toes for the entire game. From basic cowboys with six-shooters to beefy mustached men with shotguns to creepy old ladies with TNT in their aprons, this game manages to make the Old West seem like just about the most unappealing place and time in history - but also a damn good stomping ground for a samurai on a mission.
While the average enemy drops like a stone under our hero's whirlwind of flashing steel, the well-designed bosses kick things up a notch with acrobatics and weaponry to match his perfectly. The boss designs are creepy, ranging from a sexually sadistic mountain of a man carrying a mini-gun to a pair of midgets in stovepipe hats with Freddy Kreuger claws. As if that wasn't enough to make players want to wipe them from the face of the planet, the bosses are actually very tough, making for a real challenge at the end of some levels.
Most levels revolve around either killing a certain number of enemies, surviving for a set amount of time or reaching a certain geographical point, so the boss battles are doubly challenging by virtue of their relative rarity. The best thing about boss battles in Samurai Western is that they take strategy and careful observation, more so than in many of today's action games. There are usually no easy patterns to discover - these enemies like to mix it up and surprise you when you least expect it. Eventually, though, you can spot when a boss will be momentarily vulnerable, and learn to exploit that weakness in between bouts of dodging and counterattacking.
Of course, there's also the Master Gauge if the going gets too tough. This gauge is similar to an Overdrive or Limit Break from a Final Fantasy game, except it fills up as you deal damage to your enemies, not vice versa. Once full, it can be saved and activated when needed. Master mode lasts roughly 30 seconds, but during that time, every non-boss enemy in the game becomes a one-hit kill. Even better, for every enemy you kill in Master mode, your gauge refills a tiny bit. This is especially useful in some later areas where the sheer number of enemies in a room or on the street is overwhelming and there's a boss to fight on top of it all. As for those boss enemies, Master mode lets Gojiro perform special, extremely damaging moves on them, which are also harder to block than regular strikes.
Also of note is that the game has some RPG elements. After most levels, Gojiro will gain a level (sometimes two or more, if you completed the level in a short amount of time or with a lot of style). Each level grants players three points to assign as they choose to Gojiro's stat board, which features basic stats like Strength and Defense. He also earns accessories, which enhance certain statistics, and different weapons.
The collection of weapons players accrue after ten or so levels is one of the most enjoyable parts of Samurai Western. Most of the weapons give Gojiro a different stance, from a high, wide-legged position to the classic low to the ground, sword at his side one that facilitates a running one-hit kill on many enemies. Swords have their own power and speed modifiers, as well as limitations (some disallow blocking, for example) and their own special abilities. When Gojiro's Master gauge reaches a third full, it enables each different weapon's special mode when activated. Some weapon modes make it harder to get hit, others make it easier to dish out damage, and some, unfortunately, aren't worth their drawbacks. However, the sheer number of different special modes in the game is certainly appreciated.
So is there anything really wrong with Samurai Western? Nothing huge, but there are some things that could have been better. Gojiro controls pretty well, but he occasionally gets stuck in between structures or objects, which is doubly annoying when there are a bunch of faceless cowboys shooting at you from across the street. This usually was more of a nuisance than a serious problem. The enemies regenerate a tad too quickly for my taste on later levels as well, making a hard-earned clear room not as relieving as it should have been. The few times when Gojiro can use an inanimate object (such as a crate) to carry in front of him as a bullet absorber, they don't really live up to the promise of that mechanic.
And the bullet deflection I mentioned earlier? The timing on that move is so exact that even when I just sat there fifty yards from an enemy and tried to hit his shots back, I could hardly ever do it. I'm sure I could have gotten better with a lot of practice, but considering that the rest of Gojiro's moves make him seem almost superhuman, I felt that this gameplay mechanism was something of a disappointment.
The biggest disappointment is the two player cooperative mode. Though the game claims it has this two-player mode, it's so confusing and upsetting that I'm not even going to get into detail with it here. Let's just say that you'll want to treat Samurai Western as a one-player game unless you like dying for no apparent reason. On top of that, only certain levels in the one-player campaign are playable by two players, meaning that you'll have to work your way through levels with only one player to get to the ones that allow two players (there's no dedicated two-player mode separate from the single-player campaign). And the second player isn't a samurai, but a gunslinger - a useless one at that. Just think of this game as a one-player endeavor and you should have no problems with it.
The opening movie of Samurai Western is not to be missed. It utilizes high-detail CG, but also mixes it up with a lot of silhouetted characters and solid-color backgrounds a la a James Bond opening sequence, or Kill Bill. The solid red background also appears when Master mode is activated.
During gameplay, the number of different enemies on screen at once is decently impressive, though it doesn't come close to Dynasty Warriors or Kessen on that front. However, it should be noted that all of the enemies are doing their own thing, and that there can be a couple dozen different character models all on the same screen with no slowdown.
Gojiro himself looks pretty good. His motions are fluid, and his sword moves like lightning at the tap of a button. When he dodges, the aforementioned ghost image effect is not to be missed. And deflecting a bullet, when it works, is thrilling to watch.
Overall, the game uses lots of after image-type effects. Aside from the dodge, it also appears during Master mode and some of the special weapon modes, as well as on certain boss enemies. There are also ray effects from time to time, which lend an anime feel to the action. And each individual bullet leaves a streak in the air as it flies, which looks pretty cool when three or four shotguns are fired at once.
Samurai Western looks nice, if not exactly awesome. It's also very bloody, in a samurai movie way, with sprays of red spurting from defeated enemies for several seconds in a very unrealistic, gloriously violent fashion. But the best part has got to be seeing a stern, driven Japanese warrior-noble, in full traditional garb, slashing and spinning his way through waves of gun-slinging baddies - with a big goofy cowboy hat on his head. It's an accessory you earn after the first mission - the visual is priceless.
All of the accessories in the game show up on Gojiro when they're equipped. They range from the mildly odd, such as a cowboy hat worn on his back, to the downright strange (a fox mask?). Gojiro can equip just about as many items as make sense, including objects for his torso, hands, feet and head. Although not every item has a big or desirable effect on the game, it's hard to resist mixing them up in between levels just to see what it all looks like.
The main downside to the graphics is that they're somewhat on the grainy side still. I'm not talking about the stylish CG, or the special effects. The plain old regular gameplay mode looks as though it were designed a couple of years ago. In Samurai Western's defense, there's a long draw to the horizon with no fogging to speak of, and everything is decently detailed, from enemies to stagecoaches and barrels. However, it just isn't all that great to look at overall. It doesn't help that many of the regular enemies are generic in design, even if the bosses are some of the most creative I've seen in an action game.
I get the first level theme from Samurai Western stuck in my head all the time. That's a good thing. It's a whistle-and-guitar, spaghetti western sort of song that adds a surprising amount to the gameplay experience. The rest of the music in the game follow suit. There's a wistful guitar piece that plays during the intro to each level (which are told as journal entries from various characters). Each song fits the situation well, though the scores for the boss battles are somewhat forgettable. Overall, the main problem with the music in this game is that there isn't a whole lot of it.
Voice acting is average, but in the case of this game, that means great. Why? Because it's supposed to look, feel and sound like a bad western film cross-bred with a cheesy samurai movie. The voices are supposed to be bad. And the most important part, inflection, is just about perfect. Gojiro sounds like a walking kung-fu movie, while still managing to add emotional depth to his character at times. The unpleasantly large sheriff, Donald, sounds just as stereotypical. And this game is as much an homage to its genre as it is a valid piece of entertainment on its own, which means that stereotypes are what works.
On the down side, the limited number of comments that Gojiro's enemies can spout off get old after a couple of levels. When the 300th cowboy to fall under his blade asks for the 250th time, "who are you?," before slumping to the ground in a heap, you'll want to scream "I'm Gojiro, you dumbass!" at the TV in frustration. And the sound effects, while enjoyable, aren't anything more than stock for the genre. The level of effect detail is only so-so as well. If you can look past these limitations, though, Samurai Western is an enjoyable game to listen to.
Samurai Western offers a decent handful of levels, with a good number of tough boss fights to mix things up. And it's certainly entertaining enough to want to play through it to the end, even if you can see it coming from halfway through the game. The fun comes from anticipation of the final showdown, which serves as a good catalyst to drive gamers to keep playing.
The game also keeps score on every level, and allows players the chance to replay any finished level at any time for a higher score. If the arcade-fast action gameplay is your cup of tea, this certainly adds a good amount of value, though the average gamer will probably not care to replay levels all that often. The number of different configurations for Gojiro's sword and accessories allow a challenge-minded gamer the chance to take on a particularly hard-won level a second time with a less useful weapon or accessory setup.
With a cast of over 25 unlockable playable characters (wow!), upwards of a hundred accessories, and a handful of unlockable extra levels, this game should offer a very good amount of replay value - if it keeps your interest that long. It's more of the type of game you'll find yourself picking up and playing here and there, rather than sitting down and blazing through. And though it's a fine action title in its own right, it can't hold a candle to the inventiveness of God of War or the pulse-pounding action of Devil May Cry 3.
And don't even get me started on the hideous mess that is two-player mode! It's a game for fans, fans of Way of the Samurai and fans of old kung fu and samurai flicks, and they should be satisfied with it. Though it's a solid title, I recommend renting this game first for the rest of you.
Take an old franchise - Way of the Samurai - and up its anime influences. Add in a good shot of Kill Bill, wrap it up in David Carradine's Kung Fu TV series and skewer it with The Magnificent Seven. There you have it, Way of the Samurai 3 - Samurai Western. The gameplay is similar to Dynasty Warriors, but with more depth in the controls. The story is cheesy as all get out, but fun enough to want to play to the end. The wealth of unlockables are a nice bonus. And the graphics and sound, while not spectacular, are satisfying and fun.
The Western setting is good for the series, which has always had a spaghetti western feel to it even though it took place in decidedly un-western settings. And the action is nonstop, while a decent amount of stat and equipment customization add enough RPG elements to sate gamers who aren't normally about pure action. Overall, Samurai Western is a success - just don't expect a competitor to the big boys of the field. Dynasty Warriors fans, you owe it to yourselves to see what you're missing. The rest of you should remain cautious - but do give this game at least the honor of a good look.