Way of the Samurai 4 is my first foray into the Way series by developer Acquire. I’m more familiar with some of Acquire’s other work, most notably their stealth assassin series Tenchu, and more recently their Shinobido sequel on the Vita. Suffice to say, I was ill prepared for what I was getting myself into with Way of the Samurai 4, as I’m sure fans of the series might understand.
I’m not quite in love with my experience, but it’s certainly going to stand out as a unique game that I’ll remember for quite some time. And it’s not a game that I’m necessarily done with, even if I’ve played through to “completion”, which quite honestly, feels like I’m just reaching the tip of a very large iceberg.
For those uninitiated with the series, like myself, I’ll attempt to elaborate on what type of game Way of the Samurai 4 actually is. You’ll take on the role of an unnamed ronin, a master-less samurai, who arrives via boat to a small port town called Amihama. This town is in a state of unrest, with British officials currently making political in roads with the Shogunate, much to the chagrin of a handful of local rebels. These three sides end up creating factions within the game world that you can either help or hinder throughout the main story, often allowing you to switch sides at multiple points, which plays into one of the major selling points found in WotS 4, its branching path storyline.
Way of the Samurai 4 breaks up the events that comprise the main plot over the course of a handful of days. During these days you’ll have options on how to spend your time and advance the plot, usually played out by meeting with certain characters at certain locations across a relatively small map. Time plays out with a full 24 hour cycle, so sometimes you’ll need to meet someone during the day, or may need to return at nightfall. There’s elements to this system that remind me a whole lot of Capcom’s Dead Rising series, but with way more options to explore outside of succeeding or failing.
The concept of branching paths for the story is pretty fun to explore, and with 9 or so different endings, you’ll be able to play through the game multiple times and often not see the same event twice. Your character’s morality comes into play quite often, allowing you to basically side with whomever you want, and even sit out current events altogether, keeping your interests more neutral as a result. The way you tackle available events will lead directly into the events that’ll be available on the next day, and so on until the game ends. Playing through from one beginning to one ending isn’t particularly time consuming, but the game is literally filled with optional side quests and activities to pursue, enough so that you’ll never be able to accomplish them all in 2 or 3 playthroughs.
However, as interesting as the branching path concept would tend to be, it’s not nearly as consistent or world changing as I would have preferred. The biggest time this stood out was when the game’s central bad guy first appeared. During this appearance I was given the option to draw my sword during the cutscene, which in turn triggered his foot soldiers to attack me while he withdrew. I slew the soldiers and walked away, and eventually wandered back to his location, where again I was attacked. However, this time I was given the offer of joining him, which I refused. But just a short while later I was once again allowed to work on the same side as the character, even being invited into his inner chamber, and could essentially switch sides at the drop of the hat.
I understand the need to not want to lock you out of potential relationships with all the sides in play here, but I do wish that my actions had a more lasting effect on the way NPC’s would react to me. I literally went hand to hand against the local police force a time or two, and then could turn right around and work with them to take down the guys I was previously helping. It just seemed odd that nobody would mention my prior involvement during these instances, and if I wanted to, and time allowed, I could have easily switched sides again. With a game clearly designed around multiple playthroughs like this, I felt like these inconsistencies could have been handled a lot better.
Also worth mentioning, the game is kind of a mess on the technical side of things. It has an obscene amount of screen tearing going on, which you’ll constantly notice. Even as someone that isn’t generally bothered by a bit of it here and there, I was pretty taken aback at how prevalent it was throughout Way of the Samurai 4. And the framerate isn’t always the best, oftentimes slowing down quite a bit when you’re stuck fighting against multiple opponents. And on a more aesthetic note, I’m not particularly fond of the character models in this game, or the animation quality both in and out of cutscenes.
And I was pretty iffy on the combat mechanics, which at first seemed deep and interesting, but often resulted in me spamming a handful of effective sword thrusts over and over again. You can tell there’s a lot of effort put into the system, with a whole pull and push system that’s meant to draw enemies in for strikes, and push them away as a defensive tactic. And there are a crazy number of stances, fighting styles, and weapons that you’ll come to find every time you play through the game. But despite all this stuff, I found the combat to be a little tedious and boring after a while.
Still, there’s some charm in Way of the Samurai 4 that’s worth seeking out. It’s certainly not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and I’m not sure that this experience had really sold me on backtracking through the previous games, but it’s certainly something that’ll stick in my head for a bit. How this stacks up to previous games, I honestly don’t know. But if you find yourself hungering for a new experience, I think Way of the Samurai 4 can certainly fill a bit of that need. Just be prepared for a little lack of refinement along the way.