The concept of bushidō is often crassly articulated in gaming. Action-based titles such as Samurai Shodown and Brave Fencer Musashi- typically forgo the tenets of honor and loyalty to focus on the thrill of sword fighting. Similarly, games like Blood Will Tell and the Onimusha series dilute the depiction of the warriors’ code to wallow in supernatural spectacle. Beyond Bergsala LightWeight’s adored but defunct Bushido Blade series, stateside gamers have relied on the Way of the Samurai franchise to deliver a taste of feudal-era intrigue. Much like previous installments, the fourth iteration in the series is full of bewildering quirks- some comical and others confounding. Yet, for the player who yearns to step into the waraji of a stalwart warrior, most of Way of the Samurai 4’s transgressions might be pardonable, considering the scarcity of console games which treat the shogunate periods with a semblance of seriousness.
Certainly, few titles take advantage of Samurai 4’s rich context. Amidst the late Edo period (specially called Bakumatsu or “end of the curtain”), when Commodore William Perry strong-armed Japan into ended its isolationistic practices, the setting represents a pivotal moment in the country’s history. While European entrepreneurs were eager to make economic gains, the Japanese were enthusiastic to procure some of the technological advances of the West. While this seems like a win/win situation, not everyone in the game’s fictitious port town of Amihama shares an eagerness for the cultural collaboration. The Disciples of Prajna- a staunch anti-immigration group commence the game by attacking convivial government officials before opening fire on a group of British diplomats.
Following this introductory set of cutscenes, players may choose what faction to side with. Aligning yourself with the migrants plots a course of dialog-based diplomacy, while supporting the Prajna favors the sword over any conversational subtlety. Alternatively, players can even approach the game Yojimbo-style, pitting both groups against each other- although if players are too reckless with their actions, they can prune whole branches right off of the narrative tree. Like previous titles in the Way of the Samurai franchise, actions speak louder than words- unsheathing your katana in the middle of a conversion often ushers up a drastic shift in NPC demeanor. Unfortunately, this type of threat isn’t comprehensive- a few loquacious fools blathered on obliviously during the slash of my sharpened steel.
Being able to harass or hack up Amihama’s constituency is certainly empowering; few games allow you to you slice a game-saving avatar to pieces. But more importantly, this freedom challenges players to live by the bushidō code, obeying the interests of their selected sovereign rather than your own individual whims. Regrettably, this sense of autonomy isn’t often applied to Samurai 4’s macro-perspective; too often it feels like your choices don’t have any organic effect on the game world. The one memorable exception can be found if players persuade the shogunate to open a foreign language school. If your efforts are successful, you’ll be able to communicate with the town’s immigrants. Ideally, there would be more gratifying payoffs like this during the initial and any subsequent playthroughs.
As a trademark of the Way of the Samurai franchise, once players view one of the games ten endings, they are invited right back into the fray. Not only do honed weapons, currency, and costume items transfer into the next playthrough, so do elements such as comprehending a foreign tongue. Sadly, exertions in the game’s torture room- where criminal characters are forced to atone though acts like being pelted with rocks or tied to a water wheel- don’t seem to offer any type of benefit during successive lives. As least the more menial errands such as slogging as a gardener or catching fish pay dividends.
While Samurai 4’s swordfights should be the antithesis of tedium, they often fail to deliver. Sure, players can add additional attacks and stances to their arsenal and melt any found old, dull swords into a sharp, new blade- but the game’s actual swordplay remains a bit too simplistic. Oddly, foes persistently act politely, with each enemy combat taking turns to oppose the player. While the game does reward a prudent defense (Although blocking too much wears away your sword) and players are able to instigate a reversal, showdowns are bit bland, lacking any type of cinematic verve.
At least part of the blame lay in the game’s animations which feel consistently austere, whether they are conveying dialog or duels. Visually, Way of the Samurai 4 also suffers from some pretty unsightly screen tearing, which can even occur during mundane conversational sequences. While some will be able to overlook these graphical blemishes, XSEED’s translation is a bit more worrisome, changing conventional names into monikers like “Melinda Megamelons”.
Evident beneath Way of the Samurai 4’s glitches, graphical oddities, and stark sword play are a number of elevated ambitions. It’s as if Acquire had envisioned the key concepts, but lacked the coding proficiency needed to fully realize these aspirations. Still, for those obsessed with Japanese lore, the title can be indulgent, offering the ability to shape your destiny with sword and spoken word. Like the last remaining Shizoku, Samurai 4 is largely elevated by the absence of any true competitors.