It’s the age of the start of westernization in Japan. Different civilizations with radically different ideas are coming into contact with one another. Political sensitivity is at an all-time high. Conflicts are easily instigated. And yet, it’s also an age where carrying a real sword around with you is permitted by law. Yes, things can get messy rather easily. This is the premise of Way of the Samurai 4.
The game takes place in a fictional port town called ‘Amihama,’ around the time of the “Black Ships”—the local term referring to Western naval vessels. To be specific, this is the “second coming” of Black Ships around the middle of the 19th century, after the Second Industrial Revolution. As it has only been a couple of years since Japan ended a two-century-long isolation period, there is still tension in the atmosphere regarding the foreigners’ arrival. Your character is a Ronin (a Samurai without a master to serve) who arrives in Amihama around that time, without any goals in particular.
Way of the Samurai 4 has things in common with Western sandbox games, but in a much more limited manner. Once you take control, you’re free to roam around Amihama and do whatever the game allows. Primarily, there are branching events that you can participate in, mostly related to the three factions residing in the area.
First are the British foreigners represented by forthcoming young envoy Laura Lita and thrill-seeking vice-envoy Jet Jenkins. Then there are the Tokugawa Shogunate vassals like the loyal and steadfast magistrate Kotobuki Hikaru and culturally open-minded customs manager Moro Shigeru. Lastly, there are the militant “Disciples of Prajna” aiming to drive the foreigners out by force, led by the brash and fiercely patriotic (if also xenophobic) Akagi Reddo. There are 10 possible endings to achieve, and the game actually provides a chart showing which of the paths you’ve completed, as well as which events you can trigger from the current path, which helps if you’re intent on seeing through all of them.
Something that disappointed me, though, is that while a lot of these characters have their own unique backgrounds and personalities (complete with quirks), none of the are really developed as the storyline for their faction advances. Your own character isn’t ever really fleshed out either, for that matter. You’re effectively a freelance mercenary/bodyguard/errand boy for whichever faction you side with and never developed beyond that. I’d hoped that the game would try to make me care about my character, or the characters around me, but it didn’t really do either one, and the game’s short story campaign made this stand out further.
The general intent behind Way of the Samurai 4 appears to be providing the player with a game that’s short, but replayable. Each playthrough of the game takes place over 4 in-game days, split in daytime, evening, and night. The game never explicitly told me how or when it switches from one to the next, but from what I can tell, time passes when you enter and exit various areas of town and complete faction quests. Each event takes place on a certain day, and some events can only be triggered during a certain period on a specific day. If you intend to follow all of the events in a story path, there’s little to no free time to dawdle around and do as you please.
The problem is, this tight schedule tends to conflict with the game’s open-world design. There isn’t a very good balance between having the freedom to run around and explore, and completing key quests so you don’t miss out on any important story bits. Of course, you do have the option of skipping out on some events to free a little more time up for yourself, but this is obviously something that each player will have to decide for themselves. Personally, I wish I’d been allowed to do both.
The one aspect of Way of the Samurai 4 that does have a lot of meat to it is the combat. Maybe even a little too much meat, actually.
Pressing L1 draws your current weapon, at which point you’re locked into a straight line between you and your target. You can run around freely by holding down L2. Doing this has the side effect of releasing the target lock on the current foe and re-assigning it to whoever is closest in front of you the moment you let go of L2. Combat is executed through light attacks (Square), heavy attacks (Triangle), jumping (Circle), and X to… talk to your opponent. Talking usually doesn’t have any practical effect; most of the time, you get two choices—one to taunt and one pleading for mercy—but whichever you choose, the foe gives you a generic reply and you’re still locked in combat, regardless.
This odd, seemingly unnecessary addition made me wonder if the game’s controls couldn’t have been more streamlined. For instance, Way of the Samurai 4 also lets you kick your opponent to make them flinch. Kicking is done using R1 + Square, but the range is abysmally short, and oftentime, by the time you’ve recovered from your kick animation, you’ll find that your opponent has recovered from his flinch animation as well. Additionally, R1 + Square is also the button combination that’s used to pick up items, which wouldn’t have been necessary had a few of the more unnecessary elements from the combat system been cut. Oh, if you’re wondering what R1 does by itself, that’s the button used to guard.
(Another example of unnecessary control scheme padding is to do with items. Switching between consumable items for quick use is done using the left and right D-Pad directions, and you can press Up on the D-pad to use the item. Additionally, you can also hold Up to give the item to an NPC or opponent in battle. However, this is entirely unnecessary, as giving people items doesn’t seem to yield any benefits as far as I can tell. Oh, and good luck getting them to stay still as you line up to give them an item.)
And then there are Styles. Styles are movelists that unlock more moves as you slay foes and gain Skill Points. It sounds reasonable on paper, but each Style demands a lot of points, and the moves you get in return don’t bring anything particularly new to combat. That’s not to say that they start out with an adequate number of moves either; much of the unlocks are just one-hit follow-up attacks to existing ones. Between limited variety and slow progress, not to mention the awkward controls mentioned above, combat was admittedly not something I looked forward to.
Aside from battles and events, there are other activities you can participate in across Amihama as well, such as fishing, visiting gambling parlors (Japanese style), and casinos (Western style). One unusual minigame is Yobai (Night crawling). For a quick idea of what Yobai is, read this. In the game, Yobai is a “night-date” with two sections: one single-screen “stealth” section and one… “tag” section.
You can also open your own dojo. Once you do this, defeating various armed pedestrians non-lethally and talking to them gives you an option to recruit them into your dojo, increasing its popularity. The dojo is mostly for combat opportunities. Other minigames and side-activities in the game are more or less appropriate for the setting and time period. Just don’t expect a lot of variety or depth from them, much like the rest of Way of the Samurai 4.
Food for thought:
1. The game has various other minor flaws like how stiff combat and controls are, which I didn’t mention as those are a little more subjective.
2. The game does not give you information about anything beyond tutorial button explanations; and the digital manual accessible from the main menu (alone) has information on controls only. There’s also no internal “Load game” function (as opposed to having to exit back to XMB to load a file again). Nor is there a “Retry” option for any accidents or failures during quests.