Retro Fix:- Way of the Samurai

Samurai are pretty badass, right? Infallible warriors venerated and trusted by powerful nobility to fight and die in their name, whose blades are wielded like precision instruments. Typically stoic and paragons of honour and justice, well, at least in the movies. In short, their legacy is ripe for an irresistible game.

You begin Aquire’s 2002 PS2 game, Way of the Samurai with an immediate conundrum: a pack of lecherous thugs are harassing a helpless girl fleeing over a bridge. You are that samurai, a drifter in a tumultuous Japanese period where people answered to power alone. You’re presented with a deceptive number of options: call the men out and start some trouble; slash at them on sight like a beast; walk away with your head lowered, or perhaps you want to join in on their unscrupulous activities, because you’re a bad man and you must be stopped.

Say you start a fight and manage to force their leader to yield – from here you can either sternly reprimand him, or you can simply withdraw your sword as a sign of respect. Depending on your actions following the fight more butterfly effects will emerge: join their group and work for them or shoo them away and tend to the shaken girl.

This microcosm of WOTS’ gameplay structure occurs in the very first minute of the game. There is no expository cut-scene or explanation as to why you’re there. You’re a customisable avatar that can interact with feudal Japan in a myriad of ways. It’s a structure much like a choose-your-adventure book, that can veer in wildly different directions in an often-surprising, organic way.

Combat is a frequent occurrence, and the swordplay is tense and varied, allowing you a fluid rhythm of attacking, blocking, parrying and countering, where deft timing and spacing is vital. Better still, nearly every one of the dozens of swords to be collected offer a wholly unique fighting style for each, and a generous amount of moves to learn. Learning new attacks comes from using your weapon of choice as much as you can, and more effectively still by utilising a move you want to improve repeatedly à la Shenmue.

You can unsheathe, withdraw, and attack with your weapon at any point, even abruptly during conversation, and the way people will respond to your conduct is largely believable and allows for some playful sociopathy. Annoyed at the crooked cop trying to extort money from you with haughty disdain – draw your sledgehammer and shut his trap.

Your weapon can break if used with reckless abandon. Handily, the local smithy can make weapons sharper and more durable.

WOTS plays out over a two day period, and much like N64 classic Zelda: Majora’s Mask, you can always start over again and answer that nagging ‘what if I did this?’ Though you won’t be as hurried as in that aforementioned title – time passes from daytime to dusk and to evening only after performing specific tasks.

The game is set in a rural area of Japan where two samurai factions are bitterly contesting over an oil refinery, in the hope of selling it to the government for a hearty sum, with backstabbing and intrigue a regular fixture. You are the catalyst in determining the outcome of this drama and can enlist in either side, or both, or neither for that matter, which will determine which of the eight endings you will receive. Granted, the plot can be viewed from multiple perspectives so the game isn’t designed to be completed only once, which is crucial to the game’s longevity, as it can be beaten in a couple of hours.

There are a vast number of methods to make your mark in the relatively compact area you’re presented, with the time of day and your actions altering the turn of events dramatically. On the first night you’re pleaded to sneak into (or assault) a heavily guarded samurai residence to rescue a ‘comic-relief’ afroed guy who has recklessly broken in there. At the same time there are some shady individuals in another location scheming under the cover of darkness, while in another zone an ambitious woman hopes to take the head of the rival clan boss to win the heart of some bloke she fancies. There are multiple ways to approach any objective, and simply exploring and trying new things to see what happens is always viable.

The method in which you can save your progress is unorthodox. There are only a few points in the game where you can save as the story proceeds. Whether you complete your route, leave the area or get killed your game will end and you will accumulate points toward unlockables depending on your exploits – and after which you can restart the game from the beginning. Unless you’re getting killed for silly reasons, having your game abruptly ended by the wrong end of a blade and starting over isn’t as frustrating as it could have been when there are so many routes to take, and the brevity of the game helps too.

Ugly and dated looking, even in its day – I can’t help but harbour affection for this game. One anecdote sticks in my mind in particular as to why: in one play-through I was offered to stop by at a restaurant for a meal on-the-house by the harassed girl I saved at the beginning, and subsequently fought off samurai who let themselves in to intimidate her out of business. In the next playthrough I was a member of those bullies trashing the teahouse and rubbing the defenceless girl’s face in it.

“I enjoy being tied up?…” (screenshot from Japanese only PSP version)

A mean-spirited role reversal that may be, it demonstrates how much thought went into this rich tapestry of a game. Unfortunately, while the PS2 and PS3 sequels offer similar design, they don’t provide the focus and slicker combat of the original.

It makes me wonder why this Groundhog Day approach hasn’t been more popular in game design – the way events unfolding can be memorised and manipulated – giving the player the power to understand the ins and outs of each day is great game design in the same way the worlds in Super Mario Bros. 3 are impeccably designed. Seeing all there is to offer and pursuing every ending requires mastery of WOTS’ mechanics and rules.

Open-ended storytelling has been thrust at gamers an awful lot this generation. Gratuitous example it may be, in Mass Effect you are (usually) posed all of Commander Shepherd’s most pivotal decisions, which ultimately boils down to saving the world and assuming your role with such a clear head and regard for justice that light is practically beaming out of your shiny space marine arse, or instead saving the world, while dangling newborns precariously out of windows like a bigoted fruitcake and lacing your crews’ rations with rat-poison for fun, your choice. With many contemporary RPG’s, the journey and the conclusion seldom stray from the core path – they’re ultimately a big lie.

This unassuming gem of a game shows just how interesting games can be if they let you off the rails and make every path you take feel meaningful and different. I was so immersed in my role as a fearless samurai because my choices had so much impact on occurring events. I felt an odd sense of responsibility playing WOTS. In this game you’re no mere cipher in propelling the narrative along – you are the story, and the world really does revolve around you.

- Jason Borlase

Fri, May 25 2012 » Articles, Retrospectives

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