Samurai Shodown reinvigorates the series’ staccato pacing and defensive play, with stylishly drawn characters and backdrops. It’s a bit light on single-player content, but those seeking rivalries against local and online competitors should appreciate the quality that went into this reboot.
Platform: PC, previously on PlayStation 4, XBox One, Switch
Publisher: Athlon Games
Release date: June 11th, 2020
Price: $49.99 via digital download
Availability: Epic Game Store
Although Street Fighter II (1991) inspired a legion of melee-driven, combo-centric fighters, it was 1993’s Samurai Shodown that established precedent for weapon-based games. SNK’s title undoubted drew inspiration from kenjutsu (traditional swordsmanship) but also decades of chambara (sword fighting movies). Revisit the Lone Wolf and Cub series or Lady Snowblood (1973) and you’ll discover brooding confrontations ended by a single, lightning-quick katana swing- and often a delightfully exaggerated crimson red arterial spray.
Delve into the recent PC release of Samurai Shodown and you’ll find the title rekindling series fundamentals. Whereas franchises like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat let you pummel opponents with a volley of kicks and punches, Shodown has forced you to play like the protagonist of a samurai film, studiously observing your opponent, before capitalizing on their imprudence. Flubbed attacks in most fighting games are frequent. With Shodown, a simple mistake can end up with an adversary siphoning off one-quarter of your health bar.
Weapons with Weight
As such, you must play methodically, often feigning and waiting until opponent can’t resist the bait. Sure, fighting game novices will find Samurai Shodown mysteriously inviting. Each character has a light, medium, heavy, as well as a kick attack and an inventory of special moves. Learn to be deliberate and strike hard, and you’ll be rewarded with a splash of your opponent’s blood and a fraction of their life, a penalty for inattentiveness. But Shodown can also be a confidence builder, letting you thrash lower-level, CPU-driven rivals. Like most of its contemporaries, the concluding boss battle wants to teach you a lesson in humility through or at least the value of exploiting a cheap attack ad Infinium. That’s one tradition that SNK needs to end.
But that’s not to say apprentices will be able to hack up veterans when they go online or complete locally. Shodown has always favored defensive approaches and this iteration is no different. Pros will not only make use of standing and crouching guards but will use employ the game’s “Just Defense”, with a well-timed block resulting in a brief stun. Let an expert in too close, and they’ll likely execute a Guard Break, which can’t be blocked.
Turning Friends into Blood Fountains
Skilled Shodowners can dodge, parry, and once their rage meter has maxed out, can disarm an opponent. Undoubtedly, these are highlights of matches, with unarmed, disadvantaged competitors lingering over their weapon, hoping for an opportunity to pick it back up. Despite being exceeding vulnerable, with no access to specials and an arsenal of weak punches, there’s a perilous maneuver called a Blade Catch. Land this and the tides will turn, sending your de-armed opponent soaring across the screen.
Another risky but potentially lethal maneuver is the Lightning Blade. Trigger this, and in true cinematic fashion, the screen darkens before revealing a blade flash. Opponents with less than half of their health will be turned in a bloody geyser. While the prospect of an instant defeat might seem abhorrent to fighting game fans, it certainly adds tension to the end of matches.
A Diverse Roster with the Scourge of DLC
The decision to use ‘season passes’ to generate additional revenue tragically feels like convention for the fighting game genre. For Shodown, SNK has created two twenty-dollar bundles that each contribute four characters. Alternatively, these fighters can be purchased separately for five dollars apiece. But oddly, these ancillary combats are confined to their own character collection screen.
On the upside, there’s a healthy number of SamSho favorites here, from the wild-maned Haohmaru, the lumbering Earthquake, and good old Galford with his trusty sidekick, Poppy. While one final character has yet to be revealed, Genan Shiranui’s absence is noticeable. Sure, he’s been missing as a playable since SamSho II, but who doesn’t love frustrating another player with a capricious combatant?
A Dearth of Single-Player Depth
Although complaining about the character selection screen might seem petty, a few other faults are irrefutable. Sadly, Samurai Shodown doesn’t keep up with its contemporaries when it comes to fleshed-out single-player content. Story mode recalls the kind of pithy storytelling from older fighting games, with occasional bits of exposition separating the component from Battle mode. The game’s Dojo is promising, building AI for asynchronous from opponent or even your own behaviors. But in execution, collecting opponent data is a bit too slow.
For those seeking challenge from a real-life combatant, the game’s online component is functional. Matchmaking is a bit elegant, forcing controller use when mouse input would be instinctive. Shodown opts for delay-based netcode, which means online matches can appear to have sporadic slowdown, especially across large geographic distances. But given the game’s tendency for staccato pacing, it’s far more bearable than most fighting games.
Samurai Shodown uses the Unreal Engine 4 to depict its skirmishes. The engine allows characters and backdrops to be delivered in a detailed, painterly quality, all while retaining a steady 60 frame-per-second output on modest rigs. Although the visuals aren’t groundbreaking, details like the accumulation of blood splatters on combatants and exaggerated weapon trails are quite eye-pleasing. Sonically, the franchise has often used traditional Japanese instruments like the shakuhachi, shamisen, and taiko. This reboot has the occasional guitar riff, but also some triumphant melodies that merge the old and new.
From The Last Blade, Ninja Masters, WeaponLord, Guilty Gear, Bushido Blade, and Soul Calibur, nearly every weapon-based fighter has drawn inspiration from Samurai Shodown. While SNK’s franchise has had its missteps, this reboot demonstrates the series on the mend. If it can add the type of single-player components that Arc System Works habitually offers, Shodown could be a mighty challenger for the fighting game crown.
Samurai Shodown was played on PC with review code provided by the publisher.