Author: John Legendoffzelda
In its own uncommon and assertive way, First Samurai demonstrates a lot of potential. With a shirtless samurai warrior at the center of its fantasy mix, Kemco and Vivid Media’s platformer could make its hodgepodge of 2D action-game elements succeed with the radical confidence of something like Shatterhand or Skyblazer. The game’s stocky protagonist swings a magic katana at his enemies and can jump like he’s on the moon, only a few of the bizarre ideas here that can provide the basis for an eccentric success. But beneath these ideas the game turns out to not have that much confidence, and early into a regular playthrough, its potential falls apart. Too many sticky design choices affect what could have been effortless if the developers trusted more of their high-flying instincts.
The game introduces itself well, at least. Players are in control of the first ever samurai in the history of Japan, still under the teachings of his sensei. A malicious entity called the Demon King attacks, and with his last dying action, the sensei unleashes the Wizard Mage, forcing the King to retreat far into the future. Bent on avenging his fallen master, the samurai asks for the use of the Mage’s beneficiary magic, and with his aid prepares to chase the King forward into time. With his journey starting in the early 1700s and continuing to a dystopian vision of 1999 Tokyo, the samurai fights his way through hordes of bugs and demon beasties in each of the levels. He’s capable of taking out these enemies with fairly minimal problems, and with his jumping and wall-clinging skills, he’s agile enough to maneuver through each level at an engaging pace.
He effectively has two health bars, one for himself and one for his main weapon. Should he run out of his life energy marked by a picture of his forearm, his sword energy is transferred to revive him, and he must fight more enemies to retrieve magic so his blade may return to him. Prompts in the introductory stage explain what additional features are in the game to make it unique, among them environmental obstacles and non-linear checkpoints activated by transferring sword energy. Some obstacles are a matter of slicing through a breakable wall, but the more intimidating ones are paired with mystic bells the samurai can use. Ringing them summons the Mage, who casts a spell to affect a designated area of the level in some way and make progress easier.
The balancing act of keeping yourself alive and keeping your sword by your side is part of what drives the action in this game, with the other part being how to maintain progress and exploration. Both components shine during the first level, especially when paired with the enemy-attacking spiked satellite that tags along with the samurai and the Handel music that plays when the samurai finds a picnic basket full of food. Seeing such witty details introduced early makes it the more sobering to find that after the first level, First Samurai starts to become dull and long-winded. For some players, it happens with the first boss fight. If they lose a life to the serpentine twin dragons which mark the end of the first stage, they go through a sequence of the camera panning back to the last activated checkpoint and the samurai re-materializing next to it, like the sequence which begins the game. From there, they must go back through enemy territory just to begin the fight again or even to retrieve their helpful spike thingy if they want to.
While that checkpoint animation isn’t so bad by itself, given the available option to speed it up, seeing the game slow down for it after powering through the level gives an indication of how much filler is put into the overall content. There are similar animations for summoning the Mage with those magic bells, where he creates an elaborate visual to put out a fire or create an extra ledge. The bosses are not directly at the end of a stage; they must be summoned by acquiring five glowing runes and bringing them to a certain area. The bells must also be looked for to gain access to these runes along with making progress in general. The game turns out to eschew the streamlined rhythm of its introductory level to be a shaggy collect-a-thon where the player must go through increasingly wider boards, with plenty of grinding associated with basic combat. As the first stage has moments of cramped space scattered through an idea of getting the samurai from point A to point B, subsequent stages make him travel farther in all directions as point B becomes an arbitrary location and the need to find every last necessary item gets overbearing.
Latter stages in the game become mired in obnoxious item placement and difficult enemies. Seeing how the game only has five stages, it’s surprising how fast everything starts to atrophy. Using your katana against them should make the most sense, but at a certain point in the game it starts to not be enough by itself. The enemies start appearing faster and brandish more potent weapons. The samurai loses his health faster when trying to defeat these guys, and when it’s gone, so is his sword. There starts a long process of spawning creatures to punch and kick in order to farm for the manna that brings the sword back, provided the player keeps safe when the farming ends. If he takes more damage, then he either looks for food or gives up his sword and restarts the process. If he loses to another boss, it’s back to the last checkpoint to survive past more enemies and maybe avoid the farming if he’s fortunate.
Almost everything in this game is about looking. Look for the runes, and the checkpoints, and the magic bells which alter the level in some small way. Look for enemies to kill so you can build up sword magic when you’re without your blade. Look for the sub-weapons you can use against enemies, and the spiked thing that in fairness can at least facilitate the grinding by letting the samurai keep out of danger. What action there is to experience, the leaping around and slashing demons, gets neutralized with incentives and challenges that don’t allow the game to have enough fun. They slow down the pace considerably, and in this one end result they cancel out whatever strange personality is exhibited. This game combines beautiful Japanese visuals with bursts of classical music and features a bullet train traveling through the space-time continuum, but darned if these bits don’t seem like they just recess into the background. In some bizarre act of defense, the developers seem intimidated by what this game could be, so they dilute its possible free-association coolness with conventional dross. They replace surprise with disappointment.
There’s much more First Samurai could be, if it weren’t so non-linear or if its focus weren’t on lengthy collecting. One of the two could have made the difference in improving how enjoyable it is. But as it stands, this title is a novelty and a half in need of a better game.
Three out of five stars.
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