Game Reviews

Samurai Shodown Review

Embrace Death

by Jelani James
Samurai Shodown Review

One draw of my weapon. A flash of steel. Blade meets flesh in a magnificent, bloody display.

Tensions mount as I try to get a read on my opponent, while they try to do the same to me. I just need one clean hit, but I still have to be cautious since every wrong move is a chance for the opponent to turn things around. And thus I bide my time, waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike and secure victory.

Welcome to Samurai Shodown, the fighting game where both victory and death are just one button press away.

Within an ever-growing sea of fighting games, the latest in SNK’s series of weapon-based fighters occupies a unique space. One that eschews the typical combo-oriented format of most fighters in favor of a focus on the neutral game, while paradoxically being both inviting and repelling towards newcomers.

It’s an odd duck among its peers, but it has one hell of a quack.

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If you come into Samurai Shodown expecting it to play like Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat or other conventional fighters, then you’re going to have a bad time. In fact, it might be a flat-out nightmare.

Why? Because Samurai Shodown is highly cerebral.

This isn’t a game where you string together lengthy combos in order to deal damage. In fact, more often than not, the most effective way to harm your opponent is to simply press one button to land a single, decisive hit.

Like a showdown between samurai in movies, Samurai Shodown is less about being active, and more about being patient as you wait for a chance to strike. You need to constantly assess your position relative to your opponent’s, understand what options and tools are most readily available to you, and know how best to react in a specific situation.

Of course, this concept is part and parcel for the genre, but Samurai Shodown takes it and ramps everything up to 11.

And coincidentally, it’s that very dedication to the neutral game that makes it so inviting to newcomers.

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One of the biggest mistakes inexperienced players make when picking up a new fighting game is that they focus on learning combos while forsaking everything else.

Obviously, it’s important to know how to do them, but what good does knowing how to chain flashy attacks into even flashier attacks do you if you can’t position yourself properly? Forget getting a proper offense started — you won’t even be able to appropriately respond when an opponent is trying to do the same to you.

That’s why Samurai Shodown’s design is so refreshing: new players can still deal high damage without high execution, so the impetus is to grasp pure fundamentals.

Positioning; Pokes; Punishes; Patience. It’s surprising how quickly someone can pick up on these when they’re the focus of the game.

Additionally, the methodical, slower pace of combat means an experienced player can’t leave a confused, defeated newcomer in their wake within the span of a few seconds. Actually, defeat may come quickly regardless, but at least the losing player can recognize and follow what was going on during the previous match.

This is particularly important because there’s just so much to follow.

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Samurai Shodown is not the fastest fighting game, but by no means is it simple — there’s a lot going on underneath the hood.

Let’s assume you’ve amassed a basic understanding of the neutral game. You know how to maintain an optimal distance from your opponent, no blocked heavy attack goes unpunished, and you’re familiar with what buttons are safe to press at any given moment.

Is that all? No, you’ve just scratched the surface.

Are you aware that you can disarm opponents, forcing them to fight at a disadvantage until they pick up their weapon? What about spot dodging (dodging in place) in order to avoid an exploitable attack? You can even use special techniques to cancel the recoil from blocked attacks if your timing’s right.

And things only get more interesting when you factor in the Rage Gauge, a meter that increases as you take damage. Based on the situation, players can wait for it to fill, gaining boosted attack power and enhancing the strength of certain special techniques, or activating Rage Explosion, which sacrifices access to the Rage Gauge for the remainder of the match, but grants access to the powerful Lighting Flash technique that can easily shave off 40 percent of an opponent’s health in a single stroke.

All of these mechanics make for a fighting game that has far more depth than what its pace would entail, coalescing into an entity of near-unparalleled excellence.

Or put in more simplistic terms: battles are awesome.

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You know the tension that usually occurs in fighting games when both characters have little to no health remaining and one (missed) attack can settle the round?

This feeling is the natural state of Samurai Shodown.

When even a single regular attack can shred 20-25 percent of your life bar in an instant, there’s a genuine fear of pressing any buttons. Sure, you can easily use a heavy slash to do the damage, but not only would most opponents expect this, but such attacks come out so slowly that you’ll likely be punished for even trying. A single button press can mean the difference between victory and defeat, so the best option often times is not to press anything at all.

And obviously, the raw potency of many attacks means the tenor of the round can change at the drop of a hat.

Did someone just land a heavy attack? The impetus is now on the victim to even the score — something the aggressor is keenly aware of. Is one of you at about 60 percent health? Know that every character has the means to cut clean through that in a single stroke. Are both of you at that same health? Be still, your heart.

I’m not kidding when I say this unrelenting tension is Samurai Shodown’s most-defining feature, and when combined with an absolutely gorgeous art style evocative of classical Japanese paintings, battles become just as fun to look at as they are to play.

Unfortunately, reaching the point where both the necessary movement and actions become second nature is challenging because the tutorials are inconsistent.

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Samurai Shodown has a host of tutorials designed to introduce players to mechanics such as Parry, Stance Break and different standard attacks, and though not on the level of Dead or Alive 6 or UNDER NIGHT IN-BIRTH Exe:Late[st] you can leave knowing you have a solid grasp on most of them.

Character tutorials on the other hand? They’re non-existent.

Needless to say, this is a problem.

Samurai Shodown boasts a solid launch roster of 16 characters, and the cast is incredibly diverse.

For instance, with a balanced mix of speed, power and range on his normal attacks, those who seek simple, yet effective characters should look no further than Haohmaru. Meanwhile, Nakoruru, with a combination of quick kodachi strikes and her companion, Petshop Mamahaha, is the perfect character for those who prefer speed and finesse. Lastly, if you just want to brute force your way to victory, then Earthquake is your man.

Each character is unique, possessing their own moveset and distinctive qualities, which make them extremely fun to play as. More than that though, they’re so expressive in their movements and actions, you’re instantly captivated and almost want to be them.

Going back to Earthquake as an example, he is an obese Texan, but happens to be deceptively fast due to his training as a ninja and present occupation as a thief. He wields a kusarigama, breathes fire, and can teleport to body slam his opponent all while slapping his stomach with glee. Between his attacks and general mannerisms in battle, you’re not just playing as him — you feel like you are Earthquake.

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And it’s for that reason that the absence of genuine character tutorials are so keenly felt.

With the level of care SNK put into designing the roster, you would think it would include some kind of guide or tutorial to help players understand how to use them. By no means was I expecting some thorough rundown of each character’s moveset, but even SoulCalibur 6 detailed each character’s more notable attacks, noting their properties and/or the ideal times to use them.

The cast of Samurai Shodown could have really used them, too.

I would have loved to see some in-game advice on how to effectively use Poppy while playing as Galford, how to combine Wu-Ruixiang’s various specials to exercise more control over the screen, or what the hell I’m supposed to do with Tam Tam.

Instead, the only option I had was to constantly check the stock move list while messing around in the admittedly highly-adjustable training mode.

Overall, I would say the inconsistent tutorials are the worst part of Samurai Shodown, though the single player content might compete for that position depending on what you want out of the game.

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If your goal is to improve and continually play this game online or in some competitive setting, then Samurai Shodown has everything that you desire.

Dojo Mode will take time before it’s working in full since it relies on taking data from the online leaderboards to create ghosts for you to spar with, while the online itself, though not functional as of writing this review (there will be a future update of some capacity detailing the state of online), has both ranked and casual matches, with the latter supporting lobbies of up to 10 players.

But if you’re looking for that genuine single-player Samurai Shodown experience, then you best look elsewhere because you sure as hell won’t find it here.

The story mode was obviously not going to be on the same level of something from NetherRealm Studios in terms of format or presentation, but it even loses out to the likes of Dead or Alive 6 — even with all of its faults taken into account.

The gist of it is that it’s 1787 and there’s some great evil that’s arisen which is threatening a newfound era of peace, with your goal always being to set things right. And though I don’t know what I was expecting out of it, I certainly didn’t foresee it being a glorified Arcade Mode with a prologue, epilogue and sparse dialogue that’s dependent on the character you’re playing as.

If there is one favorable thing I will say, though, it’s that the final boss isn’t a cheater. She can teleport to mix you up with projectiles, and starts the second round by instantly doing a super attack, but she’s not bad at all.

And if you’re not interested in the Story Mode, then you can do Time Trial, Gauntlet or Survival, all of which are enjoyable if they’re treated as filler, but aren’t likely to hold up on their own as a prime source of content.

Aside from that though? A true marvel.

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Really, I just want to express how thankful I am towards SNK for even deciding to make another Samurai Shodown title. Not just for the game in of itself, but what it represents.

It’s been 11 years since the most recent title released, and though it would’ve been easy to simply fall back on overused franchises — much like many other developers are wont to do — I appreciate that it decided to step out of its comfort zone and add a few brushstrokes of originality to an increasingly homogenized genre.

Bandai Namco did this recently with SoulCalibur 6, and now SNK has done the same with Samurai Shodown. Maybe if we’re lucky, we’ll see The Last Blade in the future.

In the meantime though, hopefully this serves as the bellwether for other developers (read: Capcom) to revisit some old, but unforgotten fighting game titles of their own.

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The Verdict

Samurai Shodown does not disappoint. Despite the inconsistent tutorials and generic single player content, this is a game that can appeal to players of any experience level. Newcomers will relish the opportunity to jump in and feel like they’re button presses actually have an impact, while experienced players will appreciate its tone and commitment to the neutral game.

Its slow pace belies a depth that rivals any fighting game, while still providing an experience unlike almost any other. If the stunning visuals don’t leave you breathless, then the unrelenting tension felt during combat certainly will.

"loved"
loved

Samurai Shodown (2019)

  • Available On: PlayStation 4, Xbox One
  • Published By: SNK, Athlon Games
  • Developed By: SNK
  • Genre: Fighting
  • US Release Date: June 25, 2019
  • Reviewed On: PlayStation 4
  • Quote: "Despite some shortcomings, Samurai Shodown doesn't disappoint. Its slow pace belies a depth that rivals any fighting game, while still providing an experience unlike almost any other. If the stunning visuals don’t leave you breathless, then the unrelenting tension felt during combat certainly will."
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