A Triumphant Return To Form For SNK’s Flagship Weapons Fighter
I have to confess; I was a little worried when SNK first debuted Samurai Shodown ahead of last year’s Tokyo Game Show. As a lifelong fan of the long-running weapons-based fighting series, I was a bit let down by the past few releases, the toned-down Atomiswave outing Samurai Shodown VI and 2009’s abysmal 3D offering Samurai Shodown Sen. While I wanted to be excited about the Neo Geo developer’s latest release, I felt it best to keep my expectations firmly in check.
Thankfully, after spending the past week mastering the way of the blade, I can say my fears were misplaced. Samurai Shodown is a spectacular return to form for the franchise, offering the most satisfying swordplay the series has seen since 1994’s Samurai Shodown II.
Samurai Showdown serves as more of a reboot than a proper sequel. Its story takes place between the events of Samurai Shodown V (which despite its title was a prequel to the original game) and 1993’s Samurai Shodown. Developed by members of the teams responsible for the superb King of Fighters XIV and the not-so-hot SNK Heroines: Tag Team Frenzy, it features 13 returning combatants from previous games alongside three newcomers. Among these classic characters are Haohmaru, Ukyo, Earthquake, Genjuro, Nakoruru, Charlotte, and more. As for the new additions to the roster, they include a fearsome pirate who duels with a massive saw, a sulking samurai donning a crow mask, and a master of feng shui who can summon beasts and use trickery to defeat her opponents.
Sadly, some fan favorites like the gremlin-like Gen-an and beast girl Cham Cham didn’t make the cut this time around. But it’s nice to see the oft-neglected Mayan warrior Tam Tam and sultry, tattooed assassin Shiki among the returning faces.
The Way of the Warrior
Like the more recent games in the series, Samurai Shodown uses a four-button fighting system with light, medium, and hard slashes and a single button for kicks. The iconic Rage Gauge once again makes a return. As players take damage, their rage meter will gradually fill. Once full, you can execute a flashy super move which deals a tremendous amount of damage to your enemy, or you can perform a Rage Explosion which allows you to deal substantially increased damage until the meter drains. It’s the same tried and true formula the franchise has been using for a few decades now, and it works just as well as ever this time around. However, that’s not to say the game is devoid of new mechanics.
The most noteworthy update to the fighting system is Lightning Blade attacks. These are one-time use supers that you can perform once your rage meter fills up. They’re nothing short of devastating and can wipe out up to two-thirds of a health bar when they connect. While they’re unbelievably powerful, you can only perform them once per match. Keeping that in mind, whiffing a Lightning Blade attack early on can put you at a considerable disadvantage down the road, so you’ll need to use them carefully and make them count.
In addition to Lightning Blade attacks, a new Weapon Flipping technique allows you to counter an enemy’s slash with your blade, stunning them just like the deflects in SNK’s less-appreciated weapons-based fighter The Last Blade. Time this maneuver just right and you can even send their weapon flying out of their hands. Weapon Flips are tricky to time but immensely satisfying when you successfully pull them off, as disarming your adversary can quickly turn the tables in your favor.
While these new mechanics certainly spice up the action a bit, they don’t radically change the flow of the combat too drastically. Samurai Shodown is still a much more deliberately-paced fighter than its contemporaries. Furious combos and rushdown tactics take a back seat to careful maneuvering and spacing, as a single hard slash can deliver a crushing blow to your health bar. Though the game’s more nuanced approach to its melees may leave fans of more frenzied anime fighters like BlazBlue and Guilty Gear wanting more, it’s one of the things I’ve always loved about the series. Samurai Shodown purists will no doubt feel right at home from the moment they grip their fight stick.
Cutting To The Heart Of It
When it comes to gameplay modes, Samurai Shodown features a Story Mode which, despite its name, is more or less your standard arcade mode that allows you to plow through nearly a dozen opponents before tackling the game’s new big baddie. This mode is a real treat, as each character’s story is bookended by some gorgeous hand-drawn storyboard sequences featuring some pretty solid writing to flesh out each character’s narrative. I very much enjoyed carving my way through the opposition to see each of the 13 playable characters’ endings and toppling the boss time and time again, who just so happens to be the creepiest one the series has seen to date.
The story mode is where you’ll find the meat of Samurai Shodown’s single-player experience. However, the game also features your standard Time Trial and Survival modes along with a Gauntlet mode that allows you to battle each of the game’s characters in succession – an excellent tool for learning how to get a feel for each fighter in the game’s roster.
As far as online play goes, Samurai Shodown allows you to take your duels online in both Casual and Ranked matches. And thankfully, the net code is more than up to the task, delivering silky smooth brawls over the internet. The game also comes packed with an ambitious asynchronous online Dojo mode where players can train against ghost player data and upload their own to the cloud. It certainly sounds like it has potential, and if it works as SNK describes it, it could be an exceptionally compelling part of Samurai Shodown’s package. Sadly, this feature won’t be available until after this review is published. However, you can be sure we’ll have something to say about it after we’ve had our chance to spend some proper time with Dojo mode.
A Feudal Work Of Art
When it comes to presentation, Samurai Shodown sure does manage to impress. The characters and stages are exceptionally detailed and are all rendered with a striking pseudo-oil painting aesthetic that makes them pop. The animations themselves are mostly lifted from the 2D entries in the series, but they still look great, and it’s fantastic seeing the familiar moves and poses from the classic games in the series replicated in glorious 3D. As good as the characters look, the stages themselves look stellar as well, with many of them modeled after stages from games in the series. Genjuro’s stage, Mikatagahara field, is very impressive with its use of color and shadow with wheat blowing in the breeze. It’s an exceptionally moody stage that looked great in 1994 and still manages to give me chills 25 years later. Charlotte’s stage is also stunning and features a modern take on the gigantic painting that adorned her stage in the original game.
Another nice touch is the new dynamic damage system. As characters take damage, their clothes and bodies will become covered in blood. This feature is striking when characters like Ukyo and Nakoruru are struck, painting their white clothes a deep crimson. It’s nothing too over the top, mind you – especially when you compare the game to the recently released Mortal Kombat XI. But it’s a cool effect nonetheless that makes each bout seem more deadly.
On the aural front, Samurai Shodown is no slouch either. The game offers a wide selection of tracks, with several arrangements being remixes of compositions featured in earlier games in the series. As for the selections themselves, they range from haunting melodies played with traditional Japanese instruments to pulse-pounding butt rock. It’s all very familiar, but exactly what longtime fans of the series would expect to hear. As a person who falls into that camp, I couldn’t be happier.
Not A Revolution, But A Fine Evolution For The Series
When all is said and done, if you’re a fan of the Samurai Shodown series, then this is one reboot that you’ll want to have in your collection. While the game doesn’t radically alter the series’ established formula, the new additions like Lightning Blade Attacks and Counters further flesh things out to create an experience that feels very familiar while offering some fresh offensive and defensive options to spice things up. Here’s hoping the Dojo mode lives up to its promise because on paper it has the potential to become a complete game changer. Only time will tell.
Samurai Shodown is a triumphant return to form for SNK’s flagship weapons-based fighter series that demands your attention.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PS4 (Reviewed), Xbox One; Publisher: SNK; Developer: SNK; Players: 1-2; Released: June 25, 2019; ESRB: M for Mature; MSRP: $59.99
Full disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher.