Way of the Samurai, for those of you who may not have heard of it and are therefore living an empty and meaningless existence, is a series of action-adventure games set during the fall of the Samurai in the latter half of the 19th Century. Genuinely riveting stuff, I must admit, but not the most interesting part of the series. No, while Way of the Samurai sits in the advantageous position of appealing to my 14-year-old, samurai obsessed self, that alone is not enough to make it quite so appealing. The reason I feel that it’s a series worth paying attention to is because it’s really rather bad, but also really rather fabulous.
Firstly, let’s clear the table of all this proverbial clutter. There is a whole lot to love about Way of the Samurai, and a whole lot that will make you grind your own teeth to dust before promptly leaving the room and never returning. But that’s not why we are here today. I could write a fiery polemic about how the difficulty curve is whacked beyond the comprehension of mere mortals, or perhaps melt your icy heart with haiku about the one and only Count Jet Jenkins, but I won’t. Really what I want to focus on here is the core around which the game is built. It’s strongest attribute and it’s greatest failure.
Every Way of the Samurai game follows the same formula; you’re a lone wanderer in a strange town, there are several factions vying for control over said town, and you get caught in the middle. Do you side with the local magistrate, the rebels, or perhaps the poor villagers caught in the middle? There are 5-15 endings to find depending on which game you’re playing, some of which are fiendishly difficult to uncover.
This is about where most people would recoil in horror at the prospect of replaying a game up to 15 times and you’d be right to if each run didn’t take no more than three hours and sometimes as little as 30 minutes. This is part of what makes Way of the Samurai is unique, and also how it falls down harder than the 1939 Russian invasion of Finland.
Each run through Way of the Samurai is defined by your actions. Whether it’s stealing funds intended for a local hospital or getting beaten up by bandits during the tutorial and finding yourself hogtied to some train tracks, you have absolute control over how your mini story develops and you’ll be given ample opportunity to experiment with the outcomes in each subsequent visit. It’s a really great idea that, while sometimes working an absolute treat, often results in devastating frustration as you accidentally find yourself re-watching the same ending for the third time.
And this is where we get to the real problem with Way of the Samurai as a series. It wants to encourage you to replay the game multiple times, to find its secrets and uncover it’s treasures, but it does so little to help facilitate that. One of the few areas where it does succeed though is with the dialogue options which are painted out clearly before you, rather than in one or two word summaries. However, it’s all too easy to find yourself walking the same story path over and over again completely by accident. The systems aren’t advanced enough and the narrative signposting often lacking, if there at all.
If anything, Way of the Samurai gives you too much freedom. You could kill dozen’s of underlings of any given faction, and even shit on the boss’s biscuits, but still be promptly forgiven if you show up and say that you’re super sorry and it won’t happen again. Then do it again, rinse and repeat. This, as you’d expect, often results in one of the more lackluster endings. You could say that I should stop messing about but that discourages the aforementioned experimentation and some of the more complex endings require some duplicity. The real issue lies in the lack of direction it gives the player and often your actions completely lack any consequence outside that very particular story arc.
I love the central conceit of Way of the Samurai. Several short stories which the player explores and uncovers through multiple playthroughs is a unique and interesting way of taclking a genuinely branching narrative where wildly different stories can unfold over the course of a few short hours. Developers, Acquire, have a solid concept sat right in front of them but treat it like some gross slippery eel which they find nigh on impossible to handle with any level of grace. Sure, they get it into the pot eventually and make some eel soup, but the chef has slipped and cracked his head on the corner of the brushed stainless steel counter and there is blood everywhere.
The problem is, it’s clunky, unwieldy, and unforgiving. It’s a great concept that becomes frustrating before you can bring yourself to see all of the content. The first Way of the Samurai game had five endings, and I still constantly found myself re-watching one of the less fulfilling conclusions whilst on my quest to find the last elusive ending. With the latest installment, I’ve had the same ending four times now whilst searching for more interesting fruit. This formula can work, but Acquire don’t have the budget and, after four games with little innovation to show for it, are probably just downright unable to craft anything more than the camp, hammy splat that is Way of the Samurai.
We’ve seen developers unable to offer a truly branching and varied narrative time and time again with games like Mass Effect and Telltale’s The Walking Dead. The problem, however, is that the Mass Effect trilogy can take upwards of 100 hours to complete – it simply isn’t possible to offer the player anything other than different flavour changes. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but Way of the Samurai wants to offer a bite-size chunk of gaming that is different every time. Unfortunately, Acquire just doesn’t have the chops to make the most of the idea.
Way of the Samurai isn’t bad – on the whole I love it. But ultimately it’s just a gifted child with bad parents that will probably never meet its full potential. The strength of this format is exploring and experimenting with the possibilities, trying to find the ending where everything pans out okay for your favourite characters, or the one where you cause the most mayhem and everyone curses your name, or the one you weren’t expecting that pulls on your heartstrings a little more than it should.
Really, the failure comes from how frustrating it can be. The game is thrown together with a somewhat slapdash approach and seemingly little thought is spared on how to craft such an experience, how to develop the formula and improve upon it. If you’ve got patience, Way of the Samurai is worth a go, just to see the systems in action and think about what could have been. It’s a missed opportunity and I’d love to see what a studio with more money and more panache could do with the set-up.
With style and a smile
Jet Jenkins stole the world’s heart
Goodnight my sweet prince