Tuesday, February 24, 2015

We got one hella interesting ass game goin on right now: Way of the Samurai

at 6:00 PM

That's right. Way of the Samurai for the PS2, the first in a series of four puzzling but presumably niche (and accordingly "budget") samurai games. Widely ranked as one of the five most unsolved mysteries in modern anthropology, the question of "Who is the Way of the Samurai?" piqued my interest enough to prompt an extravagant $6 expedition to the Amazon. Below are my findings - perhaps this new research will lead to the ultimate unraveling of how each game in the franchise could have drawn reviews ranging from the rock bottom (5) to the tippy top (9) of the standard 10 point scale.

I don know if this is Zoness??? [the reason], but it turns out Way of the Samurai is basically "an arcade man's Shenmue". It's a open-world real-time quest-driven dialogue-centric occasional-brawling and cheesy atmosphere. Seems like the game mostly consists of wandering the countryside picking up odd jobs. Chat up a guy, choose to help him or choose to fight him, maybe it'll trigger a story event or point to a longer-term objective. Move on to the next whatever. Sometimes you'll be wrapped up in scripted scenarios ("missions") but it seems more often like individual storyline progress is player-driven (making them "quests"). I can't say I've played Shenmue, but the brawling stitched into this RPG framework looks like what I know of it.

Also a thing I think I've heard of from Shenmue (and if not, at least Majora's Mask): everything in Way of the Samurai  has a daily schedule, so non-player characters can be found at scripted points doing scripted things at scripted game-times. The schedule kicks off in real-time from the moment the game starts and runs for two days (there might be a specific event that triggers moving from one day to the next, not sure about that yet). Dying resets the entire (<2 hour) campaign and there's no saving, so the whole thing is pretty much meant for a single sitting (there is exactly one mid-game suspend point that allows a minor reprieve). For the record, that's what's meant by "arcade-style" - that there's no saving. That word gets used in a lot of disparate contexts. Anyway, just because you only get one life doesn't make the game a rogue-like for god's sake. 

But Way of the Samurai does feel rogue-likey. Although the environment, population, and schedule are identical from game to game, interactions with non-player characters tend to be mutually exclusive - as in, if you fight a guy, you can't also sign up for his club. Even combat provides more than a binary outcome - dying ends the game, but the player can also choose to surrender, allowing them to continue with the story having lost the fight. A player who sucks at combat can still finish the game, even if they'll miss out on most of the story branches. And because the population operates on a schedule, deciding to visit X person at the Y-minute mark might necessitate missing out on something else. With an open world and no overarching objectives, playthroughs can feel pretty completely different and experimentation becomes necessary. Ultimately that's the "Spirit of Rogue-like". Of saaaaalesmannnnn.

A task-based upgrade system spreads that experimentation to combat and character building. New fighting moves can be unlocked in a weapon's repertoire by performing specific actions in certain contexts or sequences. The objectives for learning these moves aren't explicit, so the player needs to explore the combat system to discover them. The reward for experimentation is layered - if the player accidentally lands on some random unlock combo, the bonus is temporary (because the unlocked move goes away when the game is reset), but if they understand what they did they can repeat the unlock every time they start a new game or get a new weapon.

From a couple hours of messing around and completely sucking at combat, Way of the Samurai feels like a pretty interesting game. In the last year or two I've really picked up on the potential of short RPGs - sadly that's generally restricted to redundant rogue-likes, but you get the occasional gem like Crimson Shroud. I like character-building and story-influencing *IF AND ONLY IF* I'm given room for experimentation instead of being committed to every ill-informed choice for 72 hours. Way of the Samurai offers not only that, but also Soul Calibur-esque 1-on-1 brawler combat. That's a good recipe. A good recipe for destruction!


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