Like many nerdy young men, I’ve sometimes wondered if I could have made it in the days of the samurai. Sadly, not being born in Japan hundreds of years ago got in the way of that dream. But in Way of the Samurai 4, players can find out how they would have fared walking the world as a lone samurai warrior. Way of the Samurai 4 is a download-only open world action game for the PlayStation Network that allows the player to explore their morality or dark desires in the uncommon setting of a small Japanese village under constant conflict.
Caught between a militant government, xenophobic nationalists and a foreign body eager for expansion, you take on the role of a Japanese ronin in the year 1853. As a nameless and masterless samurai, you journey into a small township where these three factions stand at odds. It’s the decisions that you make, the missions you accept and the success you have that determine your samurai’s fate.
Right off the bat, you get dropped into a series of combat scenarios and are quickly forced to make a choice about the path your character will take. Everything seems cut and dry as you’re presented with the opportunity to save a small and delicate looking young woman from a gang of rebels. The woman is a British ambassador who has come to the small town in hopes of establishing a trade relationship while the rebels are trying to repel the outsiders from influencing their home. You can be the "good guy" and save the girl, fighting alongside the Shogunate’s constables, or take the "evil path" and take a stand against local law enforcement. As you progress, you can stick to one path, try to play all sides or skip the story missions of the three factions all together and just explore the side missions of the open world.
As I explored the story, things got creepy in a hurry. Saving the ambassador unknowingly led my samurai towards a relationship with the young woman… who appears to be around 14 years old. In other playthroughs, I was disturbed to find out the fetish-like love of torture of the Shogunate and his three daughters who run the town. Even though the timetable for the game’s story revolves around only a few days, there was more than enough time to find out some very disturbing things about the people of this small town before culminating in a three-round fighting tournament to end my adventure. Each different combination of decisions and allegiances I made lead me on a path to one of the game’s ten endings.
Because of the short length of the story — ranging between two to four hours depending on how many missions you choose to take on — multiple playthroughs are encouraged using "Proof of Life." The "Proof of Life" concept is an interesting take on the New Game+ option seen in many action games. Instead of just carrying over your previously-established character, the world around you adapts. Choosing a lawless lifestyle where killing constables was common practice leads to an increased presence of law enforcement in the following playthrough. And having an inventory of my own previous character’s items to turn to after the first battle of the new playthrough was a welcome surprise. Additionally, points are awarded after each playthrough that can be used to unlock different visual changes for each new game.
In addition to the game’s combat based story missions, there are some other diversions, like playing cards in the gambling den or attempting the act of night crawling. Night crawling helped provide me with one of the most uncomfortable moments I have experienced in gaming, even more than seeing the Shogunate’s torture room. After meeting a woman in the day time, I needed to sneak into her home and make it into her room without being caught, subsequently jumping in bed with her in an attempt to get lucky. It might be that the intended humor of the situation is lost in translation because of differences in Japanese and Western humor, what with the disturbing choice of sound effects and animations that resembled a horny teenager jumping in to bed in hopes of losing their virginity. Thankfully, you never have to see the action once you complete the minigame challenge associated with it.
The most disappointing aspect of Way of the Samurai 4 is that combat isn’t very fun. I had hoped that running around a Japanese village with a sword and an appetite for mayhem would be the most promising aspect of the game, but sadly, this wasn’t the case. To win a battle, you have to launch a constant barrage of attacks against an opponent to prevent them from having the time to recover health. Aside from the unusual nuisance of enemies being able to recover from stab wounds so quickly in the heat of battle, this nonstop attack method will result in fatigue that causes reduced damage from the player’s attacks and quicker decay on their weapons. This ends up becoming fairly frustrating early on in your career, when your number of different attacks is still very limited and you don’t have enough money to purchase many extra weapons or the items that can help them last longer. If you get caught in a battle against multiple opponents and don’t have enough weapons in your stash or vitality-increasing items, things can be over before they even begin.
Sadly, the game’s missions don’t offer much in the way of variety. Most scenarios revolve around meeting up with an NPC, finding the cause of some conflict and arriving just in time for a small battle. This scenario gets repeated with varying degrees of difficulty, but with the combat not being very fun, the missions get old fast.
Visually, Way of the Samurai 4 didn’t do much to excite me. Even though I was able to unlock more customizable parts for my character with each playthrough, nothing ended up being visually impressive. The character models are limited — especially with facial animations and range of emotion — and the animations don’t flow smoothly together. The dated animations, on top of screen tearing and random frame rate drops, killed the game’s immersive qualities.
Way of the Samurai 4 can only be played with the original Japanese voice cast and English subtitles. While this works for the fans of the franchise, this likewise may deter new players from giving the game a chance, because there isn’t an option for an English voice track. Also, the sometimes over the top voice acting makes some serious scenes unbelievable and gives the absurd scenes an even more extreme B-level samurai film feel. The music sometimes has the same problem where an uncomfortably cheerful tune will be playing over a tense encounter.
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