#557: Samurai Western
Initial release: January 1, 2005 (Japan)
Platform: PlayStation 2
I’ve talked in this space about the similarities between samurai and gunslingers, at least in media, for a while now. From the cultural exchange facilitated by Akira Kurosawa, to Unforgiven and its remake showing two sides of a cultural coin, to Red Sun explicitly bringing the two archetypes together, filmmakers, at least, understood the connection. And Acquire — of Tenchu fame — understood the link too, or at least, I think they did. Why else would they drop a game on us where a samurai visits the wild west and chops a bunch of gunslinging bad guys into sashimi?
Samurai Western wastes no time letting you know what kind of game it is. Straight from the title, you know what you’re getting into when you put this game into your PlayStation 2 (or load the .iso in PCSX2, whatever) and fire it up. From the flashy intro to the east-meets-west Japanese-cowboy twangy music, the game screams at you that this is a western with samurai in it.
Though developed as a spin-off of Way of the Samurai, it’s actually something of a different beast. It gets rid of the adventure game trappings of its parent series entirely; there are no branching paths, no people to talk to. Instead, it’s broken up into 16 different chapters, each one consisting entirely of a beginning and ending cutscene, and a full-scale melee where you must cut down an army of gunmen. There’s actually only a small selection of maps, and most of them get repeated at least once. Your goal for the majority of them is to just kill, and kill, and kill, until the game decides you’ve had enough and rolls the next cutscene. A few chapters have you fighting your way to a certain location, meaning you can just ignore the enemies and book it to the exit, but where’s the fun in that? And of course, there are a few bosses, all of which require a little bit of slaughtering goons before the fight actually starts.
There is a plot, naturally. Does it matter terribly? Not so much. You play Gojiro Kiryu, a samurai traveled all the way from Japan to seek his brother Rando, who murdered their mutual friends and fled. At first he possesses a single-minded drive to find Rando, but it soon becomes clear that if he wants to find his brother he’s going to have to involve himself in the local conflict: a wealthy coal baron oppressing the local towns with little in the way of resistance. Typical western storyline, really, the only difference being that instead of a sunburnt gunslinger come to tear everything down, we have a hot-headed honor fetishist with a sword. Along the way we meet a colorful cast of supporting characters, from the overweight African-American sheriff Donald to the flashy gunslinger-cum-government spy. My favorite would be “Faceless,” a masked, long-haired, ambiguously-gendered murderix with an idiosyncratic manner of speaking and a gun that pulls double-duty as an assault rifle and a shotgun. There’s no tragic backstory, no real characterization, they’re just there. It’s great. And if the voice acting sounds familiar to you, that’s because the voice cast is something of a Metal Gear Solid series cast reunion, with Paul Eiding, Phil Lamarr, Dee Bradly Baker, Quinton Flynn, Jennifer Hale, and Tasia Valenza.
Samurai Western isn’t a complete departure from its parent series. Like Way of the Samurai, there’s an emphasis on developing your stats and gear. If you’re struggling, you can very well just go back to an earlier level and grind out a few levels; changing your sword at the very least might be what you need to gain an edge. Each weapon is categorized by stance, and each stance has its pros and cons — for example, high stance swords are extremely powerful, but a bit slow, and dual wielding prevents you from grabbing items to throw them at enemies but makes deflecting bullets significantly easier. As you fight, you’ll fill a bar that, when it’s full, you can then unleash Ultimate Master Mode, a period of invincibility that allows you to ignore attacks and do tremendous damage (and features special animations where enemies get sliced in half.) Ultimate Master Mode might actually be what carries the game; a sizable portion of the levels feature boss fights, and some of these fights are extremely difficult without being able to just tank them.
I enjoyed my time with Samurai Western. Like its parent series, I don’t know that it’s strictly my kind of game — I’m not the kind of person who likes grinding out every single weapon, which is why I made my then-partner and her wife do all the grinding in Drakengard for me. But I found it engaging enough, and just this side of fair enough, that I could tear my way through a playthrough and see all the silly story and have a couple hours of fun.