The Way of the Samurai series is as much a cult classic in Europe as it is a considered pioneer in Japan. It’s widely known that western gamers see innovation in a very different light to those in the east, and that without the visual clout to match a groundbreaking piece of interactive entertainment is highly unlikely to perform as well as even an average action-orientated experience. Way of the Samurai falls directly into this first category, regularly offering engrossing experiences as an unnamed rōnin but rarely achieving the status of some of its less inspiring peers.
Way of the Samurai 4 however, is not that videogame. Its proof that franchises without a big budget and the direct attention of a mainstream audience can still get tired and lack the innovation of its forbearers. It’s still enjoyable, for sure, but not in the same way: Way of the Samurai 4 is an interesting videogame hindered by glitches and unconvincing mechanics, as opposed to an engrossing on in which the issues are outweighed by the intense drama.
Like in previous Way of the Samurai videogames, the main character is a nameless rōnin who arrives in town unsure of what the future has in store for him. Beginning the adventure in 1855, players can choose a youth, a young man, or a middle-aged man and head for the port called town of Amihama. Along the way players will create a unique samurai and align themselves with one of three factions: the pro-government forces, the anti-government rebels seeking to repel foreigners, or the British Navy stationed in the city to negotiate a peace treaty. The choices made at this point in the videogame will significantly alter the path they take throughout the adventure and the ways in which the townsfolk will react to you.
This is Way of the Samurai 4’s greatest strength: reaction. There are many points at which the player will be given two or more options, and the path they choose to take will lead the story in a very different direction. It’s a cause-and-effect system that has far greater impact than that of any singular Mass Effect title, and yet rarely gets as much credit for it’s pushing of boundaries. That being said, it seems that with Way of the Samurai 4 the development team at Acquire has decided to rest on it’s laurels somewhat, echoing the achievements made with Way of the Samurai 3 and failing to add any new spice to them.
The combat is a fairly basic affair that also hasn’t progressed since Way of the Samurai 3. The player draws their sword with the L1 button, blocks with R1, side-steps with Circle and engages light and heavy blows with Square and Triangle respectively. It may sound lie a similar set-up to the Dynasty Warriors franchise but is a mile away from it in practice: Way of the Samurai 4 is a slow and measured combat experience, which is why its lack of complexity is so jarring. Your stances and the weaponry you choose to equip have far more effect on the outcome of a fight than the combo structure you use within.
The biggest new piece of the Way of the Samurai pie is that of the interesting PlayStation Network connectivity. Gamers online will automatically transfer their character data to the host server, which is then shared with other players online. Much like the asynchronous play of Kengo Zero: Legend of the 9, players will never directly interact with one another, but their character may well appear as a character in other player’s towns. A player can take on this character in the hope of defeating them and claiming their custom sword.
The visual quality of Way of the Samurai 4 is comfortable, but hardly striking in any respect. There are some that might suggest the quality of the graphics is little more than that which could be accomplished on the PlayStation2, but these people would be wrong. Way of the Samurai 4 is still ahead of the current-generation launch titles by a fair margin, but appears merely average for this point in the lifecycle. The sound quality is a different kettle of fish however, with a surprisingly memorable soundtrack accompanying the moments of tension in the storyline, despite the lack of English language voice artists.
While offering an enjoyable experience in its own right, there’s no denying that Way of the Samurai 4 is a flawed videogame. The interesting use of online functionality and the personalised storyline are commendable efforts, but fail to outshine that which has gone before. Sadly, a handful of new mini-games do not make Way of the Samurai 4 equate to the dramatic leap from Way of the Samurai 3 that this predecessor was from Way of the Samurai 2. Instead, Way of the Samurai 4 acts as an interesting pastime for fans of the series and of the ways of the rōnin, but it’s never going to be the title to command the respect of newcomers to the Way of the Samurai fold.