Review: Samurai Western (PS2)

Samurai Western
Developer: Spike
Publisher: Atlus
Genre: Action RPG/Button Masher
Release Date: 06/07/05

It is very rare I like westerns. It is very rare I like anything about the Old West. Yet there are two exceptions to this rule. The first is comedies ala Blazing Saddles. The second is when there is an interplay of genres with the Western Element. Brisco County Jr for example is a great blend of Western action, comedy, and science fiction. Much better than Firefly. It’s why I am the only staff member even remotely interested in Sammy’s Darkwatch. It’s also what made me interested in Samurai Western. Cowboys and big swords! The mix sounded great to me.

Samurai Western is the newest game in a decent running series in Japan called “Way of the Samurai.” The series has gone through three different publishers in the US: Bam, Capcom, and now Atlus. The first game got a respectable 75% over at Gamerankings, and the second dropped in quality to an average of 62%. The series has gone through 3 publishers in England as well: from Eidos to Capcom to 505 Game Street. I know, I’ve never heard of them either.

However, I should tell you that if you’ve played either of those games, to not prejudge Samurai Western by your memories (for good or for ill) by the previous games. Samurai Western plays and feels completely different, which is probably why we have the name change. For all intents and purposes Samurai Western has about as much in common with WOTS 1 & 2, as the Alone in the Dark movie had with the video game series.

So let’s get into the nitty-gritty shall we?

Let’s Review

1. Story

Samurai Western takes place in the late 1800’s. You play as a young Samurai named Gojiro Kiryu. Gojiro as come to America on a quest. A quest to find a rogue Samurai and in doing so ends up getting involved protecting townsfolk from a gang lord named Goldberg. I know, I was very tempted to make a Pro Wrestling joke here.

Guess what folks? That the whole plot. There’s very little in the way of characterization in Samurai Western. The characters are very shallow and two dimensional, and the only development of the plot is in cut scenes that plays up to a lot of ‘spaghetti western” cliches.
At the same time they also have a very nice intro to each chapter. Each stage of the game begins with a diary entry from an important character in that section of the game. The character tells a little bit about themselves and sets the stage for the chapter. It’s only 30 seconds to a minute long, and it’s the most characterization anyone in the game gets.

The story of the game takes a definite back seat to the fast paced hack and slash gameplay. In fact, the story exists only to justify a chance in location and scenery of the stages. If this had been an NES game, there’d be no cut scenes. Just a 2D samurai side-scrolling through different locales hacking apart Whitey.

What little plot is there is okay. It’s a Japanese guy with a big sword on a mission who gets sidetracked helping a bunch of rednecks against some other rednecks that are evil and have guns. It’s shallow, and Spike cared very little about fleshing any characters out past hokey or stereotypical. And it shows.

Trust me on this, you will NOT be playing Samurai Western for a gripping tale filled with plot twists and character exploration. You will be playing it to watch a samurai deflect a shotgun blast into his enemies groin with his sword of choice.

Story Rating: 3/10

2. Graphics

Samurai Western has some decent cut scenes, but nothing that will wow you. The character models look at feel as if it’s a game from the beginning of the PS2’s life span. The faces are not well defined, some bodies are disproportional, and the colors are muted.

In game the characters look even worse. From the rotund crones throwing dynamite at you to the same wave after wave of generic bad guys, there is very little detail given to any of the character models save Gojiro. Even the bosses are dull and uninspired visually.

However there are some good things about the graphics in this game. The first is that Gojiro’s (or any playable character you unlock) changes appearance based on what equipment you first unlock and then equip. Yes, nowadays this isn’t THAT big a deal, but a generation ago it was a rarity.

The other good thing is there is no slowdown. Unlike other games that have less action on the screen and a lot of slowdown once the body count on the screen hits a certain level, you can gleefully chop through cowboy after cattle rustler in Samurai Western without the slightest twinge of slow motion. I’ve had 20 or so people firing at me from all angles and the game played fine. Sacrificing on graphics to ensure gameplay I suppose.

It’s not to say that Samurai Western is ugly. It’s just not inspired. There are a score of better looking games on the market. It doesn’t even begin to push the capabilities of what we know the PS2 can do. You’ll play the game and go “Oh. I just disemboweled a faceless ranch hand. Okay. That’s a nice fountain of blood, but why are there only about 6-10 enemy models? The original Contra had more.”

Fair but not fantastic.

Graphics Rating: 5/10

3. Sound

This game has some of the worst voice acting I’ve heard in a very long time. Your lead character of Gojiro talks with a lisp and it’s hard to take him serious. Jean, the first boss you fight (and you’ll fight him more than once) is voiced with a weird accent combination of High School French and Spanish (Spain, not Mexican). The obese hobbit women who lob TNT at you sound as if they are being done by Eric Idle and Michael Plain in drag.

It’s awful. Simply awful. And all the characters say the same lines over and over again until you wish you could actually slice up the makers of the game. If I hear another cowboy say “Who are you?” after I’ve cut up 87 clones of him on just that level alone, I’m going to shriek like a banshee.

Funny enough the game was originally recorded in English. Yes, all the voice acting you are hearing is exactly like what the Japanese heard with their version of the game. But let’s take bets now on irate fanatic gamers who will say “OMGWTF! This is Atlus’ fault! Japanese voice acting is superior! I want the ORIGINAL language track!.”

The music is tepid and uninspired as well. Funny. I’m using uninspired to refer to a lot of this game. It is generic Western music with a little bit of a Japanese flair to it if you listen really closely.

Sound effects are the best bit of the Aural aspect of Samurai Western. Bullets sound like actual bullets being fired. Yes, that’s the best aspect of the sound in this game. Take that for what you will.

If I ever become a Hollywood Producer and someone comes to me with the idea for a Western TV show, I will make sure to sit them down and make them play Samurai Western and say, “If your show even remotely sounds like this bilge-water, then get the hell out of my office!”

Bad bad bad, bad bad bad bad. Mute the game while you are playing it. Trust me on this.

Sound Rating: 3/10

4.Control and Gameplay

Samurai Western reminds me a lot of Jade Empire in this area. By this I mean, amazingly shallow gameplay that is button mashing and little else. Look! I’m hitting the attack button. Slash slash slash slash slash slash slash slash slash slash slash slash slash slash slash slash slash pickup the coin or piece of poorly drawn chicken slash slash slash slash slash slash slash slash slash slash slash slash slash.

Okay, I’m being mean. There’s another aspect to the game play! The R1 button aka the “Wow! I can dodge/deflect anything, including a crapload of bullets coming at me.” If you’ve ever wanted to see something that sounded awesome in your head but turned out to be utterly broken in practice, then Samurai Western in your game.

R1, along with the circle button allows you to either dodge a hail of bullets or deflect them with your weapon. Some unlockable weapons allow you to deflect the bullets into your opponents and cause them damage. Watching your character dodge bullets or cut down a series of shots from a semi automatic is very cool and a lot of fun. For the first 2-3 stages. Then when you realize you can dodge damn near everything just by tapping on the evade button like you would the attack button, the game becomes nothing more than juggling which button you are hammering on at the time.

There’s also completely useless throw ability in the triangle button. I think I used it once to try it out and then never saw a use for it again.

The real “gem” of the gameplay is the camera. This thing makes the camera on Ninja Gaiden look reliable and excellent in terms of precision and accuracy. It is so awful only a four letter adjective rhyming with “mallard” can describe it properly. The only time, and I mean the only time you will get hit or take damage, is when the camera goes all wonky and you have to adjust it yet again for the two dozenth time in that level. It is as if the camera angles exist only to give some facade of difficultly to the game.

Spike Executive One: Hey, this game’s too darn easy. All they have to do is mash two different buttons. If they have calluses, they’ll be unstoppable.

Spike Executive Two: What if we give them the crappiest camera ever made. That way when they have to adjust to find out where the hell their samurai is on the screen, they can get shot and blow up repeatedly! It’ll make some semblance of difficulty.

Spike Executive One: I love it! Now let’s wear underwear on our heads so that we can cloak ourselves against the incoming Venusian invasion!

Asylum Keeper: How did you two get out of your padded cells AGAIN?

That’s the only way in my head I can see the camera angle design passing muster or Quality control. What happened to playtesters in this day and age?

Aside from the camera angle and shallow gameplay, the game feels even more like Jade Empire with the promise of different combat styles that in the end all feel the same and has the same limited style of moves. They all just look different on the screen. But there ARE more options than in Jade Empire. So give Samurai Western a thumbs up for that.

All bitching aside, the controls are tight for what little there is. The game also walks you through everything in the very first stage, from cutting down support beams to how to enter “Master Mode” which varies (not really) with whatever weapon you have equipped. It’s nice to see some hand holding in a game where all you do is cut and dodge and occasionally jump. Wait a sec…

Controlwise, there is little here. It’s a simple repetitive game that can be quite fun at times, but as soon as your camera goes wonky (usually indoors) any fun you were having goes right out the window and into the outhouse. There’s nothing but massing buttons here and so I can’t give it a positive score. A three year old with sticky fingers can dominate this disc.

Control and Gameplay rating: 4/10

5. Replayability

Surprisingly this is one of SW’s strong points. There is a ton of customization you have with your character. Eventually you can unlock other playable characters and there are a lot of weapons and thus stances to try out. There’s a great deal of equipment you can place on Gojiro and it has a pronounced effect on gameplay. I was amazed how just a few points in attack or defense really showed up on the stages.

If you can access it, there’s also a two player mode. I can see two people having a lot of fun with this. Nothing memorable or worth crowing about, but two buds hanging out eviscerating things for a few hours, in the same vein that the Hunter: The Reckoning series was fun. Oh wait, no. Those games were actually excellent in addition to a fun multiplayer mode.

What I like most is that you can go back and play through previous stages. Samurai Western keeps score for you on each stage, and so you can try and beat that score in addition to seeing if you can unlock anything more. You can try out stages again and again, like the ones where you don’t swear violently at the camera, with different equipment and weapons to see what works best for you. You can also mess with the settings and create some handicaps for you. You know, in case, the stages were too easy or too hard for you the first time around.

There’s a choice between practice and normal for each stage when you first play through the game, but I have yet to see a point of using practice.

The downside is the game is remarkably short. You can beat the game in only a few hours. I was amazed to get through the first 7 stages in about an hour. There’s also the, “Do you even WANT to play the game again?”

You have a lot of options here, and that’s a good thing. It also helps to make up for the lackluster aspects in other parts of the game. But sadly, Samurai Western will chase away too many gamers before they get a chance to explore all the facets of it.

Replayability Rating: 6/10

6. Balance

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Oh that’s right. I can’t just give the silence of clenched teeth grating against each other slowly wearing away the enamel as my commentary for this section of the review, can I?

Thanks to the button mashing madness that is Samurai Western, difficulty and balance really can’t be reviewed here in a proper context. The faster your fingers, the easier the game is. The sooner you learn to equip a weapon that deflects bullets and makes those deflections cause damage, the sooner you will learn to abuse the block/dodge button. I once beat a level in Samurai western just alternating between both buttons as fast as I could while moving my joystick around haphazardly. Tappa tappa tappa. And the only damage I took came from when I had to readjust my camera because I was no longer on screen and moving my joystick did nothing for me.

The game tries to balance this issue out by just giving you enemies that randomly appear even after you’ve cleaned out a room or by giving you more enemies in an enclosed spot that would break the rule of Maximum occupancy.

And of course I could go into more detail about the camera angle, but this game has already caused me to use up all the manically insane comments I’m allowed to make in a review. Man, between this and Wrestlemania XXI, reviewing is causing me to look at picking up drinking hard liquor. Or cutting myself to mask the mental pain with that of physical. I hear a lot of teenage girls recommend that as their angst outlet of choice.

Samurai Western isn’t as awful as WM XXI in this regard, but it’s still pretty bad. You’re either going to find this game laughably easy, or it will frustrate you. But then you can just keep playing earlier stages to level up you and your weapons! YAY!

Balance Rating: 2/10

7.Originality

Well I like the “Bushido Sense” idea, and it’s a very nice touch for the first half an hour or so. There’s also the fact that Spike went in a totally different direction from the first two WOTS games. It’s nice to see them going out on a limb like that. I also enjoyed the mixture of genres and thought that for what little plot there was, it was interesting to see a mixture of Old East and Old West.

The mixture of locals and the fact the game feels like a strange combination of action, RPG, wonky camera from hell, and even a little bit like a 2D shooter what with the hordes of enemies far outside anything in reality vs. one lone guy aspect, really helps to make sure this game stands out compared to others you might have played.

If you’re really looking to have a game about a psychotic killing machine with a heart of gold waging war of robber barons and lusting after revenge against a rogue Samurai, well then… this is your game.

However, if you’re looking for a good Asiatic action game, I suggest turning off the PS2 and turning on the Xbox for Ninja Gaiden or Jade Empire. This is one of those times where thinking outside the box and doing some new and interesting things just didn’t churn out so well when the finished product reached my hands.

Originality Rating: 6/10

8. Addictiveness

The game is quite engrossing at first. That first cut scene is excellent and the first stage was a tremendous amount of fun. So was the second stage, and the first boss fight against Spanch (or would it be Franish) Jean. But the more you play, the more you realize it is the same thing over and over again, but with more enemies. The plot never gets thicker, the game never gets harder. It’s just the Genjiro against a lot more enemies than the last stage. It disappointed me to see a game I was having a lot of fun with in the first 15 minutes quickly become tiresome and boring.

It starts out great, but then the game falls flat on its face. And because it fell down, you won’t get the “no knockdown” bonus at the end of the stage. Alas.

Addictiveness Rating: 5/10

9. Appeal Factor

There’s a lot of people who like action adventure games. And I’m sure there’re some people who like button mashers. The mix of Western and Samurai genres is bound to be appealing to a group of people as well. But when it comes towards actually playing this game, it will drive most of those people off.

Still, if you go into the game knowing the faults, you may be able to steel yourself and have some fun with all the options and maybe even beat the game for reasons other than “Alex, you poor [mother hubbard], you have to review this game.”

Remember, this is one man’s opinion, and I think a lot of people, should they hear about the game will be interested just to see what it is like. Or a bunch of sick masochists will read this review and insist on playing it simply to rate the bad factor.

Appeal Factor: 5/10

10. Miscellaneous

Samurai Western had a lot of promise and I was looking forward to it. There was so much potential here, but Spike dropped the ball big time. As big a quality gap as there was between WOTS1 and 2, there is an even larger game here. This should have been the game to revitalize the series, instead it has become the final nail in the coffin.

Atlus is a consistent reliable publisher. They’ve won the “Best Publisher” award from the the IP higher ups two years in a row. An Atlus label almost always designates quality. They gave us Shining Force on the GBA when Sega wouldn’t. They gave us Megaten and Ogre Tactics. But every so often they localize a real stinker of a game. This would be it. But hey, no one’s perfect, right?

Samurai Western is not a horrific game, but it does have some horrific aspects. Overall the game is below average, and certainly not worth forty bucks, but co-op mode, a ton of customization, and some parts of the games can be very fun. But in the end, it’s still a poorly made game, and I can’t recommend it.

Miscellaneous Rating: 4/10

The Scores
Story: 3
Graphics: 5
Sound: 3
Gameplay/Control: 4
Replayability: 6
Balance: 2
Originality: 6
Addictiveness: 5
Appeal Factor: 5
Miscellaneous: 4
Overall Score: 4.3
Final Score: 4.5 (Below Average)

Short Attention Span Summary
Frustrating and yet amazingly easy. That’s the paradox Samurai Western leaves you with. If you’re looking for a game of mindless killing where tap tap tap tap tap tap is the extent of your gameplay, than Samurai Western has been just the game you’ve been salivating for. For the non lobotomized gamer, try the Hunter: The Reckoning series. You can get all three games in the series for the cost of this, and they’re both plot and continuity in addition to mindless hack and slash gameplay tempered with some deeper gameplay. Still, it is fun cutting up cowboys at times. Just not a lot of fun.