Sakura Samurai Review
by Alex Balderas
The Nintendo e-shop is on a roll: Just in these past 2 months we have gotten Pushmo, Mighty Switch Force, VVVVVV, and Mutant Mudds, all very well received by fans and critics alike. Now we get Sakura Samurai and, believe you me, it is one of the best e-shop games to date (in my opinion even catching up to my very favorite VVVVVV). Sakura Samurai brings a slew of intense, twitch-intensive action at the price of $7 (lower than both VVVVVV and Mutant Mudds), and let me tell you right now it goes out with all my recommendations.
Sakura Samura’s gameplay is narrow but deep: your main mechanics are only dashing (used to close distances or dodging) and slashing with your sword, but you will need to truly master them, as well as hone your instincts and reflexes, if you want to have a chance against later enemies and bosses (though you will get a little bit of help in the form of “heart containers”, which are found after beating every areay and increase your maximum health half-a-heart at a time). Even at the end of the game I found myself needing to learn and get better, and in fact it took me about 5 or 6 tries to beat the final boss, and that was even with use of items.
Speaking of items, you can obtain a variety of useful objects to help you in your journey. You have the typical healing item, a slimy frog that can drive enemies away, some kunai that you can throw at enemies to daze them (perfect against sneaky ninjas), a classic invincibility-granting expensive item, and whetstones to sharpen your sword. The whetstones in particular are very helpful as your sword can easily become dull if you are careless during combat: block too many attacks (instead of evading them) or clash your sword against an enemy’s weapon one too many times and you will be left with a less powerful sword to use.
Of course, if you don’t have any whetstones you can just head to the closest village and take your sword to the local swordsmith for a little sharpening. Alternately, you can choose to forge your sword and increase its power, which is almost absolutely a necessity as you progress through the game. In these same villages, you can also save your game and rest at the local inn, or buy the above-mentioned items at the story, as well as partake in a few mini-games for item prizes or gold, if you’re willing to bet it.
In terms of length, the game is more than satisfactory. My first playthrough took me about 3-and-a-half hours to complete, yet there are 3 little extra modes to play (30-thug, 50-thug, and 100-thug challenge, which are exactly what they sound like) plus an unlockable Expert Mode. In addition, the game lends itself very well to quick replays due to the nature of the fast-paced action and the ability to skip optional paths and villages, something I’m sure speedrunners will appreciate.
Now get in your time machine and travel 20 minutes into the future because, as soon as I finished writing that last sentence I got right back into the game and started Expert Mode. Expert mode is exactly what it sounds like, and you better be ready to die often if you want to get through the game. In Expert mode you are still allowed to go to the villages, buy items, and upgrade your sword, but the catch is that your health now stays constant throughout the whole game (3 hearts, no more and no less) while enemies do twice as much damage. This means that, starting from the second area, every attack dealt to you will kill you in a single hit (maybe excepting arrows, maybe). It’s damn hard.
As for the visuals, they are gorgeous in the menus and very easy on the eyes in the in-game rendered graphics. The Japanese folk style really shines through the whole game and, though the character models are not always very attractive, they are very smoothly animated and play off really well with the telegraphing mechanism of the combat.
The music is also very good, with the Title Screen in particular being a fantastic composition. Kenji Yamamoto (of Super Metroid and Metroid Prime fame) is credited as Music Director the composition credits being given to two other names I didn’t recognize. All I have to say is that, though I was skeptic of Yamamoto’s move to “directing” (which I would guess really means “mentoring”) in Donkey Kong Country Returns’ soundtrack, I can already see it starting to bear fruit (I haven’t confirmed whether some of the composers of DKCR and Sakura Samurai are the same, but I would guess they all come from a pool of mentees anyway). Of course that doesn’t mean I don’t want to see Yamamoto do some major compositions of his own in the near future, but that’s a topic for another time.
What more could be said? I’m almost done playing this game a second time, and I’m having more and more fun with it (in spite of how difficult it’s become). There’s a certain feeling of badassery (when you dodge an enemy’s cleaving attack in the last fraction of a second and deal a killing double blow) that I’ve only felt in games like Dark Souls or Metroid: Other M’s hard mode, and it’s a wonderful little feeling indeed. Like I said at the beginning of the review, I give this game all my recommendations and hope that all fans of action games (particularly those involving fast reflexes) give this title a try. For its price it’s more than a great deal, and a great indication that Nintendo does not plan to leave their online services hanging in the cold anymore.