Originally released in 2012 as a PlayStation 3 exclusive, Way of the Samurai 4’s open-world, ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ style gameplay was met with a distinctly mixed reception. The core experience was flawed, but the quirky Japanese humour and decent replayability made WOTS4 a potentially great title for anyone prepared to look past its many foibles.
So you might have assumed that developer ACQUIRE, would have used the last three years to add some polish to their unique Samurai-sim, but unfortunately you’d be mistaken. In fact, little seems to have been changed at all for this new PC version, shy of a slightly improved UI, bug fixes and keyboard support. There are no graphical options except a choice of screen resolution, and the framerate is capped at 30. So as ports go, it’s a little lacking. But does the game itself still warrant picking up?
The set-up is an interesting one, casting you in the role of a nameless Samurai arriving in the Japanese port town of Amihama at a particularly tumultuous time. It’s 1853 and the Black Ships of the English have arrived following the country’s years of self-imposed isolation, but not everyone is thrilled with the idea of opening up to the West. Three distinct factions have formed and it’s up to you who you’d like to side with. The nationalistic rebels who want to preserve the Japanese way of life, the English foreigners looking to establish trade links, or the Shogunate government attempting to keep the peace in town.
It’s in this choice that the series’ signature gimmick is revealed, and the flow of events in Amihama is determined entirely by which group you choose to work for. You might zealously sympathise with one particular faction, in which case your time will be spent exclusively taking on missions for their cause. You might choose to work for one group for a while before betraying their trust and aligning with another. Or if you like, you can ignore the lot of them, whiling away the days sleeping, fishing, or undertaking side-quests for the typically work-shy townsfolk.
To keep track of all the options open to you, a flow chart in the main menu illustrates what tasks are still available, and what time you’ll need to do them in order to end up at one of the game’s ten different endings. With each playthrough averaging between two to four hours, Way of the Samurai 4’s ‘stories’ aren’t exactly lengthy, but there’s a decent amount of replayability here for anyone determined to see all the possible outcomes. To help facilitate this, a kind of ‘new game plus’ system lets you carry over acquired weapons and items to your next character, and certain decisions you make will impact on subsequent playthroughs too. Successfully reaching any one of the endings will award you with a title, and ‘Samurai Points’ to spend on unique upgrades and customisation gear.
Unfortunately, the question of whether or not you’ll want to return to Amihama so many times over, is one you’re likely to have answered by the end of your first run-through. The scenario has a tremendous amount of potential, but the tiresomely repetitive mission structure of ‘meet here and fight the guys’ wears thin horribly quickly. Non-player characters are given little in the way of personality, and it’s hard to feel sympathetic towards any one of them, with the majority being bland and uninteresting, and the rest looking and acting like Dynasty Warriors cosplayers.
In (presumably) an attempt to be funny, the English are all portrayed as Oxfordian academics, effeminate dandies and gothic-Lolita schoolgirls, each with inspired names like ‘Melinda Megamelons’ and ‘Laurie Lita’; and this juvenile sense of humour leaves the impression that WOTS4 just can’t decide on a tone.
After years of playing and reviewing Japanese video games there’s very little that fazes me anymore, but a moment came after I’d successfully ‘romanced’ a female NPC, and I was invited to her house near the docks that evening for a date. On arriving I was kicked into a ‘Night Crawling’ event, where a young man wearing a loincloth explained to me that I must sneak past the house’s residents to the futon where my date was sleeping, before throwing off the covers to begin the ‘Sexy Time’ minigame.
Perhaps my sensibilities have changed as I’ve gotten older, but the whole scenario wasn’t quite ridiculous enough to be funny, and instead just had an uncomfortably ‘rapey’ vibe to it. This sort of thing is practically a trope of Japanese comedy, and is usually executed with enough tongue-in-cheek insincerity to still be funny to a Western audience. But like every other attempt at humour in WOTS4, it’s just not quite far enough over the top, coming across as bizarre at best, and downright offensive at worst.
All of the comical inconsistency and lacklustre storytelling might have been forgiven if the game’s combat was even remotely enjoyable, but unfortunately it too leaves a lot to be desired. Most encounters rely heavily on bombarding the enemy with enough attacks to ensure they don’t have a chance to recover their health, but tougher foes will effortlessly dodge, evade and counter long enough to regain all their life several times over, dragging out combat indefinitely.
Difficulty is horribly inconsistent even on normal mode; with some enemies falling to a handful of blows and others that require wailing on for what feels like an eternity. And of course repeated wailing wears down the durability of your weapon, affecting its efficiency and eventually resulting in it breaking. This can make early encounters especially frustrating, as buying new swords or repairing old ones is expensive, and most found weapons are completely ineffective.
Once you have enough coin, the local smithy can bolster a sword’s strength for you, making it less likely to break in combat; so you’ll soon learn that good blade maintenance is essential for staying alive. Between the various different weapon types/styles you can adopt and customise, there’s admittedly some depth here, but it takes some persistence to unlock any of the really interesting stuff.
Overall, this port of Way of the Samurai 4 isn’t a particularly impressive one, and does nothing to address the issues at the core of the original. It’s aged horribly and even by the standards of the previous-gen, looks cheap and unpolished. There’s a decent musical score buried in there, and the extensive customisation options are worth a special mention, but there’s nothing here to justify the boring story and repetitive gameplay. It took us just three playthroughs before we were left despairing at the idea of a fourth, and what’s really upsetting is just how much unrealised potential there is here.
The Way of the Samurai series is one that’s barely changed at all since its first iterations on the PlayStation 2. And what should have by now evolved into the open-world, Edo-period-adventure gamers have been crying out for, instead seems content to wallow in mediocrity and squander some brilliant narrative potential.
I’m not mad, Way of the Samurai… I’m just disappointed.