Way of the Samurai 3 (Xbox 360)
Way of the Samurai is a fantastic idea. Instead of leveling up a character by trawling through dungeons, why not work your way through a flexible short story, doing it a few times over to see how it can play out differently? Each time you restart, you make new choices about how you'll interact with the same characters, what sorts of relationships you'll form, which objectives you'll try to meet, who you'll help, and who you'll fight. Once you've gotten to the end, you reboot it all and try again, keeping your experience points and loot. Imagine a "Groundhog Day" role-playing game. This one is set in feudal Japanese village where the peasants are caught between two competing factions. You're the stranger coming to town over and over again. Would a "Yojimbo" reference be too highfalutin?
You go back, jack, and do it again
If you haven't played a Way of the Samurai game, it can be hard to get your head around. You might dismiss it as superficial, and awkward, and short on gameplay. You wouldn't necessarily be wrong. You might think it's repetitive. You wouldn't be wrong about that either, but you might be missing the point. Way of the Samurai is about learning the ins and outs of a few storylines. It's supposed to be repetitive.
The series began in 2002. It got a sequel in 2004. And now it's getting a third game. Way of the Samurai 3 deserves kudos for being less tedious than the previous games. You can glide quickly through the cut scenes, and you can easily fast travel from place to place on the map. Since each playthrough requires laying some of the same groundwork, this is crucial.
Like in the previous games, the storyline is rooted in Japanese history and culture. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but for those of us who played the last two games, there's going to be a powerful sense of d?j? vu. Or whatever the Japanese word is for d?j? vu. Here is a village, here are feuding clans, here are their henchmen, here is a romantic subplot, here are brothers at odds, here is the waif, here is the warrior turned repentant farmer, and so forth. These sorts of broad strokes might work if they were better written. But Way of the Samurai 3 is like reading a bad translation of a Russian novel. It's awkward and tedious. In other words, a typical localization of a Japanese RPG.
Gotta collect 'em all
But the real obstacle is that Way of the Samurai 3 is hopelessly outdated in a number of important ways. You will best enjoy it if you haven't played any other videogames in the last 10 years. The first but least important problem is the graphics engine. This town consists of small coarsely built and sparsely populated areas, connected by loading screens. Poorly animated character models move around, many of them duplicated. You'll see a dozen copies of the same old lady shuffling around town, bent over and wearing her purple kimono. The less obvious but deeper problem is an apparent lack of effort when it comes to building a convincing world. You do the same missions over and over again. The side jobs are ridiculous, and not in a good way. I leveled up more than one sword by whacking on a slab of fish meat. There's very little detail and almost no interactivity with the world. It's enough to make a guy long for a forklift race, or an action-figure collection mini-game, or a gratuitously placed Space Harrier machine.
Way of the Samurai 3 consists almost entirely of button pressing through dialogue trees and one-on-one combat. And neither is good enough to sustain the game. The combat system is based on different weapons, each with a type of stance. Every stance includes a set of skills you can learn. Weapons can be upgraded by paying a blacksmith. There's also a crafting system to make your own weapons using a terrible interface that guarantees it's more trouble than it's worth. Racking up samurai points and costume doodads are pretty poor excuses for RPG carrots. And that's pretty much all there is to the character advancement. It's not really character advancement, come to think of it. You are a collection of esoterically named swords and their associated combat moves.
The game that time forgot
So why did I enjoy Way of the Samurai 2 back in 2004 and the original Way of the Samurai two years before that? My theory is that this was a time when open-world games were finding their way, so we accepted they were going to be stilted and often awkward. This was before Fable informed our sense of what a slick, easy-to-play RPG could be like. It was before games like God Hand gave us over-the-top, imaginative fighting systems in narrowly built game worlds. It was before Demon's Souls managed its haunting, seamless marriage of repetition and gratifying combat. Back then, we could work our way through the stilted historical village of Way of the Samurai a few times over without thinking of the better games we could be playing instead. Way of the Samurai 3 is a casualty of the modern age.
This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 game provided by the publisher.