Long ago, there lived a god in the sky. He had a single precious daughter, Princess Cherry Blossom, who was loved by all and maintained the land’s peace. One day, the princess was kidnapped from her cherry blossom tree by an evil being. War broke out throughout the land, and as the years went by, the princess was all but forgotten.


The only one that remembered the princess was a lone kappa who lived in a pond near her cherry blossom tree. Imbuing your sword with the power of cherry blossoms, he sets you, the Sakura Samurai, off on a grand quest to find the princess.


That’s the story of Sakura Samurai: Art of the Sword in a nutshell. Think of Sakura Samurai as being similar to Punch-Out, but with swords and additional features such as special items and levelling up. You start out on the game’s “overworld,” which is populated by points on the map that you can travel to, as shown in this screen:


Each point represents a stage, and each stage has different enemies to fight. In Sakura Samurai, enemies come in a variety of types. Some of them carry swords and are equipped with light armour. Some carry swords and are equipped with heavy armour. Some carry polearms. Some fire bows and arrows. Others throw ninja stars at you, and then like to vanish in a puff of smoke. Every enemy type has its own attack patterns, and you’ll have to learn to recognize them by look.


Some of the sword-bearing enemies, for example, only swing their weapon vertically. Others swing horizontally. Then are types that swing both ways (no, not like that). The same holds true for the ones that carry polearms. Certain enemies even like to mix up their attacks using combos that switch between horizontal and vertical slashes. If you want to survive, you’ll have to learn to dodge.


Here’s how the controls work: Dodging is done using the B button. If you want to dodge sideways, you have to press B and move the 3DS Circle Pad left or right. If you want to dodge forward or backward, it’s B + Circle Pad up/down. Vertical slashes are dodged sideways, whereas horizontal slashes are dodged backwards. Forward dodges are more of a “dash” maneuver, which you can use to close the distance between yourself and an opponent quickly.


After you dodge, it leaves the opponent open for a second or so, which is your chance to get one or two strikes of your own in. Depending on the type of opponent you’re facing, it might take a lot more than one or two hits to bring them down.


You can perform a dodge move whenever you like, but if you wait until the last second, right before your opponent is about to make contact, you get a Precision Point (bottom-right corner of the screen). A single Precision Point is awarded for each successful last-second dodge. If you get hit, however, you lose all your Precision Points. Precision Points that you’ve built up can be traded in at a town for money. Building up PP is one of the harder aspects of the game, as a single hit on your person takes them all away.


Not to say that the rest of Sakura Samurai is easy. It’s a pattern recognition game, and a tricky one at that. Once you enter a stage, enemies like to surround you from all sides, until one of them decides to attack. Sometimes, the mob of enemies will give you enough time to face them one by one, but other times, they’ll attack in quick succession, meaning you’ll have to be quick to react.


The further you progress, the more enemies like to mix up how they attack you. You don’t have too much control over your movement when surrounded by enemies. Moving the Circle Pad left or right makes you shift around a little bit, but if you want to move freely to gain some distance from enemies, you’ll need to hold down the X button while moving. This can be a tricky proposition, since you’re unable to defend yourself during free-movement, and enemies love to come charging at you from off-screen. It’s a risk-reward feature, just like everything else in the game.


To assist you during combat, are items you can purchase from towns. All items are assigned to a direction on the D-pad. Throwing knives (kunai) will damage enemies from a distance, and are useful for attacking archers or ranged ninjas. You can also throw frogs, which makes enemies flinch, giving you a brief opening to attack. Other items power you up or restore health.


Finally, whetstones can be used to sharpen your sword. In addition to dodging, another way to prevent yourself from taking damage is to press R, which makes you block. Blocking is meant to be used sparingly, as it damages your sword. If that happens, you can either use whetstones to sharpen it, or have it sharpened by a swordsmith in town. He can level your sword up, too, which is very useful as you progress onto taking on tougher enemies.


Items are purchased using money, which can be gained by defeating enemies, trading in Precision Points, or partaking in minigames in town. Health-restoring items are particularly useful for taking on the game’s bosses, who you’ll encounter during boss stages. These can be hard to defeat and have more unpredictable attack patterns than regular enemies.


Food for thought:

1. Sakura Samurai has a few things in common with Zelda. Each stage you complete gives you half a heart. Two heart pieces add up to a single heart and increase your health.


2. Additionally, if you’re low on money, your kappa friend appears at one of the points on the overworld, indicating that enemies in that stage will temporarily give you more money than usual. It’s reminiscent of how Zelda games yield items that you’re low on.


3. Finally, in an “Iwata Asks” interview for Ocarina of Time 3D, the development team shared that the original concept for Z-targeting and sword battles in Zelda came from watching a swordfighting period drama set in Japan. Sakura Samurai’s combat is very, very similar in concept to Z-targeting, and as a result, is almost like coming full circle to that one drama the Zelda team watched.


Sakura Samurai will be released tomorrow (Feb 2nd) for the Nintendo eShop in North America. While we’ve used Japanese screenshots, this playtest was written based on the North American version of the game.

Ishaan Sahdev
Ishaan specializes in game design/sales analysis. He's the former managing editor of Siliconera and a contributing writer at GamesIndustry.biz. He also used to moonlight as a professional manga editor. These days, his day job has nothing to do with games, but the two inform each other nonetheless.

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