Platforms: PC | Developer: ACQUIRE Corp. | Publisher: Ghostlight Ltd | ESRB: E
This week’s release of Way of the Samurai 4 on PC via Steam comes to us from Ghostlight Ltd, a UK-based publisher well-known for bringing Japanese games to the European market. The original North American and European release of the game dates back to mid-to-late 2012 on the PS3, whereas the series traces its beginning back to the PS2 in 2002. This is the first time any of the titles have made their way to the PC platform.
I very vaguely recall playing the first Way of the Samurai game. My interest in Japanese culture dates back to the early 90s when I discovered anime and the works of Kurosawa. I loved the idea of taking on the mantle of a ronin, or wandering, masterless samurai, and being able to craft a story. This is the core of the Way of the Samurai series: branching storylines. You can play as good, evil, or neutral, and the decisions you make alter the course of the narrative. This has continued throughout the series, culminating in this fourth entry, which features 10 distinct endings, with lots of story variation on the way.
It’s a game of choices, beginning with crafting the way your samurai looks. When you first play the game, you will be limited to just a handful of presets. Things like alternate hair and outfits are unlocked or purchased during playthroughs – yes multiple ones – and become available at the creation screen when you next start a new game. Appearance just scratches the surface of your character design decision making. As with the above items, your sword, or spear, and the fighting style which you use with it, starts with a small list, which is greatly expanded as you continue to play and explore the game.
All of these styles are simple visual changes from menu systems. Story changes can be much more drastic and are immediately apparent when the game begins. Your ronin, for me appropriately left with the default moniker of ‘Nameless Samurai’, is chauffeured to the fictional, feudal Japanese island of Amihama. You can speak to or ignore the rower. If you chose to talk to him, you can be abrasive or polite — your choices begin to set the tone for how your character will behave.
When you have landed, there is a little bit of room to maneuver around, though a massive crowd not far from your landing point immediately draws interest. This area is meant to set off the story, and your influence over it, while also acting as a tutorial — protip though: you can actually avoid this entire opening skirmish by skirting the edges, in doing so you will have changed the story. Engaging with the crowd triggers some cutscenes and instruction. The player is then faced with an early decision of siding with a pro-isolationist, xenophobic group, or the recently arrived British group, guests of the local magistrate.
Now, I remember, correctly or incorrectly, the first Way of the Samurai as being a straightforward game. It’s been a long time, so you’ll forgive me if I’m wrong in thinking that this fourth game has strayed from that in looking to inject that ever-so-wacky and “irreverent” Japanese humor. There’s a couple of examples of that kind of thing right away, with the British ambassador, Laura, clearly meant to be an adult character, but represented in a child-like body, and the female British commander being shown as Melinda “Megamelons”. These two facets of the culture have always struck me as a bit odd and like relics of a bygone era.
For me they sort of kick off this strange contrast of a game that wants to represent this slice of Japanese history, but also wants to embrace the outlandish portions of some of their more recent pop-culture. It’s a pairing that if properly done and approached with a full-throttle mentality could work well. I think that style is part of the appeal of other series like Yakuza. Way of the Samurai 4 never goes all out and thus struggles to hit its stride.
The character representation isn’t the only thing that feels uneven. Combat is heavily stilted in at normal speedy and then crazy fast in Spring harvest mode. I kept wanting it be somewhere in between those two extremes. Strikes come in light and heavy varieties with jump and grab attacks added to the mix. New moves are uncovered as you gain experience using your currently selected fighting style. New fighting styles are most often gained through manuals dropped by downed opponents.
The leveling up of styles is a good system idea, the trouble is that once you’ve advanced a style you’ll probably not switch to another as the base, leveled moves are so slow, at least this was the case for me. Leveling up your style isn’t the end to fighting customization. Your swords and/or spears also get the upgrade treatments, or you can even craft your own once you find the smith. The amount of styles and weapon pairings, including hand-to-hand martial arts, is fairly long. Once you’ve died, all of these things will transfer to your next character.
And you should be expecting to die. I don’t just mean, you fought too many bad guys and got killed, so hit the retry option. I mean you die and that save game is passed on to the next character. It opens up the game a lot more, and therein again is one of the oddities of Way of the Samurai 4. I helped open up a language school with my first character. When that Nameless Samurai of mine was unceremoniously murdered after a moment of triumph I was greeted with end-game statistics and the ability to save. When loading that save, I was then prompted to make a new character, who could make use of all the weapons, styles, clothing, and attachments of my now-dead champion.
Beginning the game again I would go on to find that the language school remained open and further quests were available moving on from that opening. The newer smith I helped find his calling was also there. It was if the story had continued… except that it sort of hadn’t. I had to go through the same intro story, and faction choices again. Again I was seeing an odd mix — having to repeat the same story elements, mixed in with the new ones made available by my old choices.
I found myself wishing for a Rogue Legacy type ancestral system — sans vertigo or flatulence — where the world had continued on after my character’s death, and I would pick it up from that point forward. The game felt like it hit more of a groove with my second character. I knew to pick up quests by randomly talking to people. I knew how to work my fighting style to my advantage, as it was nearly maxed out in skill points, and I knew how to go about shaping the story to progress past the point where I left it. But that’s when the repetitiveness outside of the narrative started to set in.
The areas of the game are not extensive, and though they look fairly nice, yet slightly barren, they quickly become boring due to lack of variety. The character models are nice and clean, along with the majority of the texture work. The game’s graphical settings, which will probably cause a bit of a stir, are very limited. You can push the resolution all the way to 4k, but you will be capped at 30fps and any extra anti-aliasing or similar settings will need to be added through your graphics card’s control panel. I ran mine at 2k downsampled to 1080p, with all nVIDIA enhancements maxed. It looks nice enough; graphics were never intended to be the selling-point of the series.
Everything, outside of the branching story feels limited, down to the sound effects and music, which are good, but again become repetitive. Despite the lacking features and decidedly mixed-bag feeling I had from the mechanics, visuals and quests, I still was compelled to keep playing the game. I experimented with getting my character killed — you can die within 20 minutes of the beginning if you give up during the first fight and don’t ask for help after being tied to a railroad track. I played through to my aforementioned murder as a do-gooder samurai, then furthered that alignment of play with my second character, this time ducking out of the situation before my demise. After receiving a full ending with that version of my samurai, I begin a third play as a more evil, thief style ronin.
I guess what I’m saying is that I see the appeal. I understand the niche that this game belongs in, and as I don’t think I’m ever going to get a localized version of Yakuza Ishin! or Kenzan!, I’m happy to have something vaguely similar to that available to play. The $24.99 price-tag (or $14.99 for pre-order) goes a long way towards easing the burden of proof regarding value. It’s also excellent that this console series now is available to PC players. Still, that mixed feeling remains. It would be very interesting to see a fifth title, which takes the core strengths of the series and really runs with them. Regardless of how I feel about developer Acquire’s designs, I can say that I fully appreciate the efforts of Ghostlight to bring these more niche Japanese titles to a wider audience, and to the PC platform.
Way of the Samurai 4 on PC was provided by publisher Ghostlight Ltd. for review.