Game Description: The year is 1878. The collapse of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the rise of the Meiji Restoration Era has brought an end to the age of samurai. Born to a time that no longer needs or welcomes them, these samurai are a far cry from the heroes and legends that preceded them. Way of the Samurai is a story of the samurai in their final days. These are turbulent times: on the Hill of the Six Bones, three groups wrestle for power. Into this conflict you are drawn, and your choices will determine its outcome. Alliances, deception, and betrayal are all tools at your disposal, as is dynamic 3D combat featuring 40 different swords and 200 fighting techniques. Choose from dozens of unique characters and face off against a friend.
By now, most of mainstream America is familiar with the filmmaking trademarks of Hong Kong-born director, John Woo. The New York Times film critic, Dave Kehr, declared Woo "arguably the most influential director making movies today" and the mention of his name conjures up images of slow-motion, two-fisted, gun-blazing action with white doves fluttering in the background to avid movie-goers. What most Americans arent familiar with are the reoccurring themes that characterized his most critically celebrated work before he made the leap to Hollywood and commercialized his own style into clichés.
What is missing in his most recent films are his deeper signatures of faith, loyalty, honor, sacrifice and redemption. These expressive emotional underpinnings gave his ground-breaking action-choreography motivation and substance. In Woos 1990 masterpiece, Hard-Boiled, Alan (played by actor Tony Leung) in an emotionally charged scene is forced to choose allegiance between his current gang, which he is notably loyal to and their unscrupulous rivals. In order to fulfill his duties as a deep cover police officer, he betrays his brothers and punctuates his defection by coldly executing his former comrades. Afterward, he outwardly hides his reluctance and pain while inside, he has deeply scared his own sense of self and sanity.
I thought about that traumatic scene frequently as I played Way Of The Samurai, the 3D action adventure samurai simulator for the PlayStation 2. Way Of The Samurai is like an interactive Woo film in that forces players to make tough decisions regarding loyalty, morality, and honor much like the one Alan made in Hard-Boiled. And much like a Woo film, the game resolves its conflicts with blood-drenched violence.
It's hard to paint an overall picture of the Way Of The Samurai experience to the avid gamer familiar with all the typical conventions and grammar of videogames. On the surface, one might mistake the overly pristine art direction and the lack of any graphical oomph for another wannabe 3D fighting game in the vein of Soul Calibur or Bushido Blade. Beyond the looks however, the game seems to borrow very little from contemporaries and somehow manages to find its own unique path regards gameplay design, story narrative, and role-playing interactivity.
The majority of the gameplay centers around hand-to-hand sword combat. Using Zen-like Yin and Yang martial arts principles, the developers have cooked up an ingenious battle system that allows players, immediately following a block or attack, to either push or pull opponents into moments of unbalance and vulnerability. The beauty of the system is that either combatant can be attempting such a fainting tactics during a blade exchange and success depends on skill, positioning and instinct. Another dimension of the combat system is that once special moves are blocked with a particular technique, they are disabled and automatically rendered ineffective against the fighter. The more moves a player disables, the more invincible he or she becomes.
Perhaps the most radical thing about Way Of The Samurai is the story structure. Unlike many other games that take a linear non-interactive approach, Way Of The Samurai is immersive and interactive every step of the way. Set in the year 1878, players are thrust into the role of a ronin (masterless) samurai during a pivotal time in Japan when Western influence is changing the fabric of Japanese society and the samurai warrior class find themselves no longer en vogue and their livelihoods facing extinction. The game takes place in a small area called the Rokkotsu Pass where two clans are battling for control of the territory and the player serves as the Clint Eastwood man-with-no-name x-factor who enters into the picture and can sway the tide of the conflict.
The story of Way Of The Samurai isn't told through a structured narrative. Instead, the plot details, the personality of the characters, and the complexity of the relationships are revealed through a series of menu-based conversational interactions between the inhabitants of the town and the player. Players are presented with choices during conversations and situations and those choices determine the direction of the story. Right from the start of the game, a player is presented with options to rescue a girl in distress; turn a blind eye; or even side with the assailant who is harassing the girl. Choices made during those situations set chain of events in motion and puts players on various paths of the story arc. Many decisions may or may not carry rectifiable consequences. A players final samurai rating (how well one followed the ways of the samurai) and story ending is ultimately determined by ones course of actions through out the game.
Taking place over the course of only two game days, Way Of The Samurai may seem deceptively short at first, but thats really part of the games design and charm. The point is to revisit the game repeatedly to acquire new swords (40 different ones) and techniques (200 different ones); to uncover more revelations about each of the characters; and to explore how different behaviors (good or evil) can effect the reactions of characters and the multiple outcomes of the story.
The only non-complaint I have against Way Of The Samurai is that it is extremely unforgiving in the sword collecting aspect. If a player dies, the swords currently in possession are gone. While this also adds a degree of tension in trying to survive, it is also frustrating to lose a cherished sword that one might have spent countless hours improving and polishing. I would have preferred an alternative method that somehow instilled similar fear to the consequence of dying while at the same time allowing me some sense of security in my characters development and growth (which are strangely tied to players ownership of swords).
Back when videogames was virgin territory medium for developers to explore, they were conceptually experimental and thoughtfully interactive. Classic PC games like Law Of West, Balance Of Power and Elite come to mind. Contemporary games are more concerned with replicating the gameplay of the genre leader to turn a quick profit. Way Of The Samurai is a wonderfully reinvigorating experience because it fulfills the potential and continues the legacy of those past experimental open-ended videogames and manages to be as interesting and often though-provoking as a John Woo movie. When most games struggle to artistically register on the radar of even its own field, Way Of The Samurai achieves a higher pedestal worthy of discussion and comparison. Way Of The Samurai is a step in the right direction for videogames.
To illustrate his experience with Way Of The Samurai, Chi compared the game to John Woo films, specifically Hard-Boiled. The film is used to indicate his feelings that there are underlying themes of loyalty, morality and honor. I also thought of an influential filmmaker and film while playing this game. Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing was always on my mind. However, the reason goes deeper than the Afro Samurai Don and an angry rant about stereotypes. More subtle and impalpable are the issues at which this game hints—of perspective, of the misunderstandings and growing fermentation when perspectives clash, and finally, the eruption of violence that was more or less unavoidable.
Do The Right Thing's setting is a small neighborhood like Way Of The Samurai's Rokkotsu Pass. There is growing suspicion and agitation in both communities. In the film, it is between racial groups. In the game, it is between two families with different political agendas. There are other correlations to be made between the two works, but the main difference lies in the role of the audience. As the audience to Lee's uncompromising story, we are able to see the different perspectives of the conflict, and we understand how the growing agitation within the community was the catalyst for the violence at the end of the film. Films can do this because they are telling us a story, and Lee asks us to empathize with the characters. Way Of The Samurai is inherently different because it is a videogame, and the audience is an active participant in the story being told. However, the manner in which this game story is told elevates this game to what Chi describes as a "higher pedestal worthy of discussion and comparison."
Let us consider an early scene among of many possible scenarios in the game. You had just saved a cute girl from a kidnapping, and you accept her invitation for lunch. Shiretoko, swordsman and advisor for the Kurou family, struts into the restaurant during your lunch. His cronies trash the place, but not before threatening the inhabitants to leave. More than likely, you will come across this scenario your first time through the game, and you will see Shiretoko and the Kurou family as a people without scruples, especially after you hear the explanation from the girl that they've been bullied to leave for little reason. But what if you were to choose a different scenario the next time around? What if you joined the Kurou family instead? Witnessing the actions of their leader, and seeing Shiretoko again when he's not all business, will reveal that the Kurou are not, in fact, contemptuous of honor and morals. The same goes for the Akadama Clan.
The game's narrative structure is often compared to the "choose your adventure" books of yesteryear. Read the story until some decisions are presented. Make your decision, then turn to the page indicated and continue until the story ends somehow. However, because we are talking about a game, the nature of games as youthful things consequentially bring about ease in seeing the narrative as similar and simplistic. The game isn't that simple though. This game features six different endings, including an ideal one. To reach that ideal goal, you have to use what you've learned through trial-and-error. As you play, you realize through various events that it doesn't occur to these people what is being done to them, how a huge invisible force is playing their hands. Only you, as the player, have the ability to see all sides of the conflict, and using your new eyes, you can bring about the ideal situation for everyone, which inevitably erupts into violence against the previously masked evil of the Meiji government.
On the technical side of things, Chi had already discussed all the aspects of the gameplay itself, and there is not much say but agree that the fighting system is effective for the most part. But the spinning camera makes it difficult to perform moves when your sense of direction is disoriented. I also agree that the punishment of losing a sword, one that you may have worked hours on, is unnecessarily frustrating. In addition, the translation is lazy and shoddy, occasionally ignoring logic, coherence and even the sex of the main character.
Way Of The Samurai does not touch on things as complex as race. Ironically, the conflict and issues in the game are much more black and white than in Do The Right Thing, a penetrating piece of work about racism, a huge invisible force playing our hands, like some masked evil. But videogames now have the faculties for artistic expression about things like race, war, class struggles and the human element. Way Of The Samurai has shown me that potential with its perspective-based storytelling. Life isn't as simple as a game, where we can deftly play one side against the other until everyone responsible for our troubles is dead. But we can still be challenged to ask ourselves some difficult questions. What if I was to be in another's shoes? How would they see themselves? Can something be done?
Chi was also on the money to see the game's themes of loyalty and honor. "The ills of mankind are largely the consequence of disloyalty rather than wrong-headed loyalty," said American theologian Josiah Royce. Living in a postmodern world, Royce is criticized for the single-mindedness of that philosophy. Disloyalty arises because our will is free, and that not everything are inevitable consequences of preceding sufficient causes. In the context of the game, we can distinguish between competing loyalties and we have the ability to act on that distinction if we want to. That is what it truly means to have a "choice." Granting us that sense of freedom of choice, Way Of The Samurai lashes out against the determinism that restricts videogames, a medium usually understood to be determined by rules. And, hopefully by consequence, more games in the future will recognize that our will is free, and the rules aren't always black and white.
According to ESRB, this game contains: Blood, Violence
For parents, while Way Of The Samurai contains no obvious profanity, sex or use of the drugs, but the game allows players to be righteous and good as well as evil and manipulative. I would recommend that parents carefully monitor their child playing this game and perhaps use it as an opportunity for discussion and morale lessons. The game might also serve as a quick history and architectural design lesson in Japanese culture and history (so long as you can ignore some of the more outlandish costumes in the game).
Fans of weapon-based 3D fighting games like Soul Calibur and Bushido Blade will find much depth and challenge in the fighting engine, but just be sure check any preconceived notions based other fighting games at the door before playing.
Fans of open-ended gaming can brush off the nostalgic cobwebs in the head and admire Way Of The Samurai for its bold and refreshing approach to the entire concept what it means to play a videogame. For gamers who dont like constant pivotal choices or short games that depend on repetition for replayed value, the what-if concept of the game may prove un-engaging.