#541: Way of the Samurai
Initial release: Feb 7th, 2002
Platform: PlayStation 2/PlayStation Portable
Samurai and ninjas have been a fascinating part of Japan’s cultural history for decades. From Japanese chambara films of the 1960s to the abundance of ninjas in American films in the 1980s, these relics of Japan’s feudal past continue to live new lives in media. And long before games like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, or Ghosts of Tsushima, Acquire — the original developers of the Tenchu ninja games — was making a splash on PlayStation 2 with a unique samurai classic: Way of the Samurai.
Way of the Samurai is, on its surface, a very short game. You can finish the storyline in about an hour if you’re particularly slow. But this is only scratching the surface. What starts off as a story about a village suffering under the conflict between competing samurai clans — a law-and-order family in blue versus a fiery anti-government traditionalist clan in red — in Meiji-era Japan rapidly gets complicated as the Imperial government has its own plans for the placid Rokkotsu Pass; depending on your actions, you can score one of six separate endings. Over the course of two in-game days you can meet different people — some of them quite colorful — and ally with a faction, or betray them for someone else, and so on. Events will go on with or without your presence, because the game is designed around multiple replays — there’s simply no way to see every event in one playthrough.
You play as a wandering samurai; though the days of samurai are numbered, your hero — canonically a man named Kenji, but you can give them any name and unlock different heads and bodies that you can mix and match, some of which are female — eventually comes across a bridge just outside of town. A young lady is in the process of being kidnapped by a gang of ruffians; you can either ignore them, offer to join them, or rescue the girl. Whichever you choose has different outcomes. As you explore the Pass and get to know its people and places — from the abandoned Buddhist shrine to the decrepit farmland outside of town — your options will become more clear, as different characters may be in different places depending on the time of day. You don’t even necessarily have to do anything — you could just hang back as a neutral observer, though you do still have to talk to people to advance the plot. The dialogue system is actually pretty unique; a symbol appears when you’re able to say something; you can often interrupt people, or direct your attention to someone else in the conversation. You can even talk in combat, the game helpfully pausing for you while you choose what line to say.
Of course, when you’re not walking around or talking to people, you’re fighting them, and this is where the game’s combat system comes into play. It’s deceptively simple. You begin with a single sword; attacking requires first unsheathing your weapon with L1, then attacking with either □ for a light attack or △ for a heavy attack. Your moveset to begin with is pretty pitiful; but as you fight enemies — and pick up their weaponry — you’ll gradually get more and better moves and techniques, which you can refer to in the pause menu. You can also upgrade your weaponry in a variety of different ways by visiting the blacksmith just outside of town — though finding the money for it may be difficult if you’re not part of one of the feuding clans. Finishing the game — and this includes just bailing by taking the road out of the pass near the railroad tracks — allows you to carry your weapons over to the next playthrough, alongside all their learned moves, which will make future playthroughs a tad easier.
There admittedly isn’t a whole lot else here — Way of the Samurai is a game built on replays and unlocking stuff. If you die, you’re sent back to the start; and while the game does have a save feature, it’s only at the end of a time of day and the save is deleted once you start the game back up again. The storyline is so short that none of this matters all that much; even if you get your ass handed to you at the end, by the time you get back to that point, with a little bit of work and luck you’ll have better weaponry. Or you could always beg for mercy — the game lets you do that too.
I enjoyed my time with Way of the Samurai. Despite some localization issues and an overall sense of jank that I can’t quite completely attribute to Acquire — we are talking about a PlayStation 2 game from 2002 after all — it’s one of those games that are deceptively small but surprisingly deep. I don’t have it in me to try and get every sword maxed out — that’s not how I play games — but the sheer breadth of options in your kit and how you navigate the complex politics of Rokkotsu Pass is impressive enough.