Platform: PS3 (PSN)
ESRB: M for Mature
Release Date: Out Now
In the world of games, there is a schism. A dividing line separates, both in style and culture, the East and the West, through differing ideologies and philosophies going into design and story. Way of the Samurai 4 embodies this; the mechanics of the East call upon the influence of the West, while its narrative shows peoples of the two cultures finding their way to deal with the coexistence. Foreign influence is creeping in, through the narrative and the design. Unfortunately, as every cracked history book on any library shelf will tell us, the confluence of cultures never comes easy.
It“s a tumultuous time in Japan. Western influence descends like a mist unto Japan“s culture, and the effect is polarizing. For some, it“s an absolute adherence to the old ways, ignoring so-called Western innovation for tradition. For others, the British visitors represent the world of tomorrow. In Way of the Samurai 4, players create their own samurai to decide the fate of Amihara and its three factions: The shogunate, the anti-government rebels, or the British Navy. Given that there are ten unique endings, however, it“s not so simple as choosing one of the three. A wayward decision, whether it“s dialogue, combat, or inaction, at any of the major plot points, starting minutes in, can decide the tide of the entire story.
As a staple of the series, the player“s choices have evolved a great deal. Dialogue options, historically separated into an affirmation, a negation, and information, have expanded to include more in-depth information-gathering, as well as the ability to interject into someone else“s dialogue to speak with them, other people in the room, or even oneself to decide actions or fill out a scenario more.
Unfortunately, with the exception of agreeing or disagreeing to a course of action, or deciding to leave an event to maybe return later, there“s very little actual agency here. The â€œbestâ€ ending requires extremely precise and specific actions, but very few of the other eight endings have meaningful dialogue choices, seeming to lack any meaningful impact. Ultimately, this ends up feeling feeling more cosmetic than contributive. It“s like a layer of paint slapped onto a house already a few layers thick; the curb appeal may be significantly improved, but it doesn“t hold up under any form of scrutiny.
Scrutiny is also no friend to the aesthetic of Amihara. Character models lack any sense of particular realism or even stylization, appearing to be similar to early PlayStation 3 titles. While they aren“t necessarily bad, they do have a sort of dead look that isn“t particularly endearing. Area designs are fairly true to life, with traditional Japanese architecture that looks good, but unfortunately pretty bland. When the player travels to the foreign district, the architecture becomes the much more ornate British style.
Fortunately, Way of the Samurai 4 doesn“t build its narrative as its backbone. Customization, and its wacky sense of humor, are the primary mission statements in this installment. Players can initially choose between three different faces, getting saddled with the default robe and a sword. During the playthrough, players are able to buy new decorations -- aesthetic items like umbrella hats or drinking gourds -- as well as new clothes.
The clothes do nothing more than add a bit of uniqueness to the player“s character, but the selection is vast, and mixing-and-matching is possible, so finding one“s own look can be very gratifying. Once the player completes a playthrough, they receive points measuring their â€œsamurai-ness.â€ The player can spend these points on buying certain sorts of upgrades, increased difficulty levels, skills such as dual-wielding, as well as different appearance options, such as sex, skin-tone, and body type.
Samurai often believed their weapons an extension of themselves, so it only makes sense that the sense of personalization would extend to the player“s weapon. Players can craft both swords and spears, if they have a blade, a guard, and a grip. There is a huge variety of these parts, from the bamboo shinai to things like kodachi, nodachi, normal katana, or European straight swords, all of which can be mixed and matched, so long as they are appropriate to the sword or spear category.
Any time the player collects a weapon, from killing enemies or culled from when other players“ characters enter one“s own world via â€œCrossroads Killing,â€ they can break it down at the blacksmith to gain its constituent parts, then reforge those into a different weapon. The parts contain their own stats, as well as unique stats that, when combined in a specific way, can grant special bonuses to the amount of money the player finds. Outside of that, the blacksmith, like in Way of the Samurai 3, can upgrade weapons“ durability and attack.
Once forged, a blade must then be tested in combat. Way of the Samurai 4 follows in the trend of the series, allowing for different stances and variety in combat, but it is, of course, expanded from the previous games. Sword, spear, gun, and hand-to-hand combat styles can be used for defeating enemies, and, with the exception of guns, each can be used in a non-lethal manner. Each weapon has a variety of styles associated, utilizing different stances, and further, different techniques within a stance.
No more is it the â€œChudan Styleâ€ versus â€œJodanâ€ or anything of that sort. Instead, there is a stance that uses the stances as their starting position, but each style utilizes a different array of techniques from that stance. Combat can be somewhat awkward, especially without a reliable way to switch targets, but with styles that level and grow with usage, and the sheer number of different styles, it feels versatile and compelling.
If no one style is particularly satisfactory, it is, of course, possible to invent one“s own style, once certain conditions are met. This entails choosing a base stance, then selecting techniques from every technique one has mastered that uses the stance. It is possible to just blanket-copy an entire style, which is useful if one wishes to mix and match different stances to switch between in combat. When a player has forged and named their own sword, and goes into battle with their own style, there definitely is a sense of owning that character. Creating a style can be very tedious to do, unless copying another style, and, while the requirements for creating a style are explained, the methods for fulfilling them are not.
The series has always encouraged multiple playthroughs, but Way of the Samurai 4 very literally molds its world around the concept. The new â€œProof of Lifeâ€ system causes events from one playthrough to affect each one after. If the player chooses to destroy a casino, for example, it will no longer exist next playthrough. If a mission to open an English school is successful, players can understand British citizens in the foreign district. Killing people in one playthrough may result in more security the next time around. In order to get what is supposed to be the â€œbestâ€ ending, players will have to play through multiple times to make sure the world is shaped in just such a way that events will roll out in a specific way. In this way, there is a definite sense of being a participant in the world.
Perhaps the most egregious of all the flaws are the simple technical issues, however. Clipping is an absolute fact of life in Way of the Samurai 4. Dead enemies will stick into walls, seizing. Dropped items will fall into walls or unbreakable objects and become lost forever. Character movements in cutscenes are rigid, puppet-like movements that create a frequently jarring uncanny valley effect. Worst of all, the framerate often drops for seemingly no reason. Large-scale combat may run smoothly, then Way of the Samurai 4 will languish at the strain of rendering a person walking away from a conversation. It isn“t frequent enough to break one“s ability to play, but it can become irritating fast.
Way of the Samurai 4 has short playthroughs, is thick with content, and has combat and customization that are beautifully integrated. That degree of customization of every part of the character, as well as the world-changing, but direction â€œchoiceâ€ afforded players is very Western, and fits well with the theme of the Westerners and brokering of peace with Japan. Unfortunately, Way of the Samurai doesn“t quite hold up on this. A $40 price tag on a PlayStation Network title like this is simply asking too much. The weak narrative, circumstantial sense of player agency, and unacceptable bugs show that the peace between the two ideologies still needs some work. Maybe Way of the Samurai 4 isn“t the one to create that peace. Perhaps by trying, though, it at least opened that door.
+ Interesting, diverse combat
+ Massive amounts of customization
+ Western and Japanese development interesting
- Player feels detached from the narrative
- Technically unimpressive
- Wheedling bugs
Overall Score: 5.5 (Out of 10)
Way of the Samurai 4 can be addictive and fun, but ultimately, it just isn't fulfilling.