Despite billing itself as a revival of the Way of the Samurai series, players who expect something similar to the gameplay of past titles in Katana Kami: A Way of the Samurai Story need to check their expectations out at the door. While swordplay is indeed similar to past games, Katana Kami borrows heavily from the roguelike genre – where honing your own skills is its own reward – and comes with all the perks and drawbacks of the genre.
In this game, you play as a wandering samurai who happens upon the hapless blacksmith Gunji Dojima, whose daughter Nanami has just been taken away as collateral for his debts. You quickly agree to help Dojima pay it off, but only if he’ll be willing to offer Nanami’s hand in marriage to you. At night, the lone oak tree glows, and you wander inside to find out that the mysterious Jikai world lies within, full of materials and katanas to collect from fallen enemies who are nearly all hostile to those from the land of the living.
If you’re thinking that there is more to this story, well, there’s not much. Initially, I thought the debt system in this game was similar to that of Tales of Xillia 2, where your amount of repaid debt would unlock the next story scenario. However, what you see is what you get. Apart from a cutscene or two that you can rewatch every time you clear the Jikai dungeon, you’re not getting any story until you repay all of Dojima’s debt (which version of Nanami you get back depends on what you gift her during her captivity the main game).
Instead, most of your time will be spent doing one of two things – managing Dojima’s failing smithy, and traveling through Jikai to collect swords, money, and materials. Only by doing both are you able to earn enough to pay back the current installment of Dojima’s debt, especially since Dojima needs the collected materials in order to forge more katanas.
So if so much of the game is focused around its top-down action roguelike gameplay, how is the gameplay itself actually? At first glance, it’s easy to compare the game to a game like Diablo, and the developers have admitted that they wanted to make something similar before branching out into the Way of the Samurai series tie-in. However, having the swordplay combat from the series (with new features) gives the game an edge that you won’t find in a game like Diablo, especially how you can switch up tactics on the fly, sheathing and unsheathing your sword, depending on the amount and types of enemies remaining. The new Katana Time and Kiwami attacks are also very helpful, the former being a super mode that you charge up with orbs from defeated enemies, and the latter being a counter attack done when you block or evade at precise timing. Kiwami attacks that kill enemies can start chains of Kiwami attacks which are extremely useful when swarmed, so it’s a risk-vs-reward where you want to assess whether you should try going for the Kiwami instead of dodging earlier.
Katana Kami is developed by Spike Chunsoft, and they heaped their love for the roguelike genre into this game. While your levels and stats are reset to Lv 1 every time you enter the dungeon, your sword levels are retained, meaning that you’ll easily unlock new moves, new titles to give the swords, and more. Of course, this is all moot if you die, upon which you revive above ground while losing all items and every sword you had equipped. However, due to Katana Kami‘s action genre gameplay, you rarely feel as boxed in as you can be sometimes in the Mystery Dungeon games. It all works together to create a fun game where it feels great once you get over that skill curve, truly meshing the action and roguelike genres together.
That said, it’s let down quite a bit by the fact that you’re essentially descending through floors of one very giant cave. This means that you travel through the tutorial floors quite a bit, and other dungeons are only accessible by going through previous floors (plus anything below Floor 20 of Night Labyrinth Forest, the first real dungeon, is locked until post-credits). Even if the gameplay is fun, there’s only so many times you can go through the same locales and enemies before it gets tedious. Even if the barebones plot was already enough to turn fans of the previous games off from the game, the repeated dungeon floors surely won’t help either.
All in all, if you are the type of player who enjoys a good roguelike, this game can be very enjoyable once you get over the speed bump in the skill curve. However, it can be frustrating until you do, and if you’re here to see story, or don’t like the genre, it’s hard to recommend. Even for fans, you might find that going through mostly the same dungeon every time can be quite hassling.
Katana Kami: A Way of the Samurai Story is available on the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and PC.