Full Name: Way of the Samurai
Developer: Spike / .
Publisher: Acquire Co. (JP), Bam4Fun (USA)
Release Date: June 2002 (USA)
Rating: M for ample violence, mature situations
Systems: PS2
Genre Keywords: Fighting/Brawler, Adventure, Action, RPG
Following in the footsteps of such freeform battle classics like Bushido Blade or in a lesser way Tenchu (same publisher by the way), Way of the Samurai offers strategic, methodical blade combat, whose cohesive and coherent story may lead some to believe it is an action game. It is not; it is instead a weapon-based fighting game with a strong, coherent plot. There is also a strong collect'em all component, as successful subsequent completions of the game grant you access to new models to play the game as, new outfits, and weaponry.

The Setup

All we know is that a ronin (you) comes to Rokkotsu pass, and that it is right after the Sword Prohibition Act, in the beginning of the Meiji era, 1878. Your past is unknown (although it is obvious you are carrying a sword in defiance of the law), and so is the situation in this pass. I shall tell no more, as discovery is a vital portion of this game.

The Game

You can choose from three fairly similar characters to start with, and clothe them in 3 progressively flowery kimonos (no, really). You can give him a name or leave the "Hanjin" that's already in there, and finally choose up to three swords to take with you - of course you only have your standard "Chyuu yo to" to start with. After deciding upon your character, outfit and equipment, you are deposited directly into the game world - no cutscene or intro required. You get around Rokkotsu pass from a third person perspective (walk or run), with the camera floating freely and attempting to provide the best view for combat - this sometimes works, sometimes not. As you walk around, your sword is sheathed, and you can use the square button to interact with people (when a "Talk" icon is shown in the lower right corner of the screen), or open doors, pick up and throw assorted items - a rudimentary physics engine is in place. You can also use the X button to jump, usually over obstacles.

Rokkotsu pass is comprised of eight disparate (there are loads in-between) stages: the bridge, the shrine, the fields, the village, the railroad overpass, the foundry, the Kouro stronghold, the Akadama stronghold. These are large, detailed and elaborate, each with their own distinct identity, separately occurring events and combat opportunities (or not).

Conversations are minimal and to the point, and you get a few choices for your part. You can target any of the conversants by moving the control stick, and different options pop-up for each - sometimes it is more advantageous to talk to some participants than others. Action continues when the "Talk" icon shows up, so decide to get involved fast or your chance will pass, sometimes with catastrophic consequences. Once the dialogue window is up the action freezes, so take your time making your choice. Your choices may result in engine-built cutscenes, during which you find out more about the situation at hand; the ultimate resolution depends on you however. Occasionally you can 'overhear' conversations and butt in, resulting in more information gained; other times you are approached by characters and have to make a choice; yet other times butting in may prevent you from gaining information, as conversing parties run away - choose carefully. Sometimes even drawing your sword may have unforeseen consequences.

You have roughly two in-game days to make the most of the plot. The major event splits occur at morning, dusk and night on the first day, then morning on the next day. Nearly everytime you visit any of the eight locations throughout the course of the game something different will be happening, especially if you've taken an action elsewhere in the meantime. Whether you choose to visit a place at all might have as much effect as making an actual conversational choice, or perhaps even more.

As an unspecific example, at some point you get accused (falsely) of attacking someone, who is trying to conceal their own actions from a third party. If you had completed a task earlier for the third party, you get a chance to interject a defense, and events take one path. If you had not, your defense is ignored by all, and another path opens (or perhaps closes). The entire game is riddled with these decision foci, making for amazing replayability.

The Combat

To enter combat you must unsheathe your sword using L1. Your samurai will automatically enter a combat stance based on the sword currently wielded. Once there you have the option of a light hit, a strong hit, or block - combinations of these buttons and the movement pad/stick result in more interesting moves - same as in most fighters. Where it differs is that your move repertoire is limited to start with, but will expand as you fight, triggered by certain hidden factors (how much you've fought, what types of moves you primarily use, from what positions you parried and blocked). You are notified of each new move developed with a short message popup, and you can always pause and look up your current move list in the swords menu. This is a simple experience system that gives the game a slight RPG aspect. Unfortunately, this means that early game is fairly repetative as you build up your repertoire, and the endgame all too short - you get to use the coolest moves for the least amount of time.

You will be fighting only one opponent at a time (indicated by a soft glowing halo over their heads), even if there are multiple ones around you. Hitting a different opponent from the one you are fighting will switch the focus to that one; you can hit more than one at a time, as the game's collision detection is fairly decent - however, only one will ever fight back. You fight until either yours or your opponent's lifebar is decreased to zero - since the game is so story-based and on average longer than fighting game's set of stages, using one-hit-kill would be detrimental.

A special move you can develop is "awase" - the ability to block a move irregardless of your current position (in midair, midthrust, midjump). You can achieve these by pressing block a split second before you are hit by a move - you will be notified with a small flash of light that you have successfully learned how to "awase" that particular hit. You will now block each such move automatically. If this seems like an overpowered technique, the variety of sword fighting styles, each with its own array of moves means that you would have to fight a lot of enemies to gain ultimate mastery. In addition, if you block an enemy that is using the same style as you in this manner, you have a chance to instantly learn his technique.

The Swords (all 61)

Sixty one sounds like a lot of steel - in actuality there are only six stances to which each sword corresponds: upper, middle, waist, lower, single-handed and ninja. Each sword however has randomly assigned characteristics, which may change your health, attack or defense just by wielding it. Furthermore, you can visit the smith and have him work on your weapon, for a price. You can improve a sword's durability (swords begin to break when overstressed with fast, repeated hits), its attack (at the cost of defense) or its defense (at the cost of attack). You cannot add or remove the health boost. Each successive improvement costs an increasing amount of yen.

You can carry up to three swords at a time; whatever swords you have on you when you complete the game you carry over into your vault. In addition, you can leave the pass at anytime, leaving the story unresolved - since you survived, the swords also get added to your vault. Finally, you can visit the blacksmith and, for a small fee, have a single sword (per game) delivered to your vault. If you die, any swords that you were carrying (including the ones from your vault, if you chose to bring them into your game) are lost.

In addition to the vast variety of swords found on the game's "stock" characters (Akadama grunt, Akadama tough, Kurou grunt, Kurou tough, ninja grunt, cop grunt) there are special, unique story characters, each with their own sword. These characters will always carry the same sword, and the sword's stats will not differ greatly from game to game. They are usually slightly more ornate in hilt and scabbard design than other swords, but are similar to any other swords otherwise (i.e. they're not superweapons).

The Graphics

The stages are large and stylized, each with its own mood and sounds. From the quiet, dark grove where the toppled shrine hides, the desolate, out-of-place iron towers of the foundry, to the proud courtyard of the cliffside Akadama mansion, each stage's look and feel is clearly defined. While the limitations of the PS2 mean that there are jaggies here and there, and textures are often not as detailed as could have been (and occasionally tear), WotS is definitely an example of having done a lot with limited resources. The day/dusk/night cycle is also very well presented.

Models could be better. While your character and the specialized characters look great (and making them somewhat overstated works very well), the stock characters look as if an intern created them, and then someone beat them up with a hammer-to-face, rather badly. The situation is similar with animations (the stock characters' run is extremely apelike, swinging arms and gimpy legs); however, since the combat stance is defined by the sword (this means that any character's moves are created by the engine, and are not pre-rendered - lends a great believability to the battlefield, as each character moves differently based on combat style), all characters become impressively fluid in combat, pulling off acrobatic and graceful movements with ease.

The Sound

Backdrop music is excellent; any fan of Rurouni Kenshin will immediately recognize the similarity - apparently this style of light strings, orchestral synths and flaring guitars with some classical koto and shakuhachi passes for "typical Samurai music". Whether it is or not, it servers WotS very well. Assorted clangs, hits and thuds of swordfighting are all very nice as well.

The voice acting is odd, to put it bluntly. The developers chose not to provide full voice acting (perhaps in fear of having to hire dubbing talent), instead going with brief exclamations coming from the characters, and the actual text being provided by speech bubbles. So you may hear "Chotto!", "Saa", "E!", "Nnnnn..." or "Grrr!" coming in the appropriate voice (with definite Japanese inflection), and the rest of the dialogue is covered through speech bubbles. One exception: your own character has none of these grunts - speech bubbles all the way. I don't believe I've ever seen this used anywhere else, but it works surprisingly well, in a minimalistic sort of way.

Summation and Opinion

While the heavy historical background and slow pace of the game may turn off many, be assured that there is a considerable depth of gameplay here. The assorted styles, each of which demands practice until mastery is obtained, along with the many weapons (and I won't even mention the sekrit weaponry accessible only at higher difficulty levels) to experiment with, and the freeform stages (no static "rings" here, you can battle everywhere, or even escape to the rooftops if pressed too hard) all add up to an experience unlike anything else. Button mashing? Fuggedabout it.

Update: As of Oct. 2003, Acquire/Spike are currently working on Way of the Samurai 2. Check out their site for details - review coming as soon as the game makes it to the States.

Playing the game a LOT, and the official site (JP only):