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iPhone Review: Samurai II: Vengeance

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Fair warning before reading the rest of this review – I’m most of the way through reading Tom Bissell’s excellent (and highly recommended) book, Extra Lies: Why Video Games Matter.  The book focuses itself on narrative videogames (that would be how we spell it here at Blogcritics) and the reading of that book has, necessarily, influenced this review. 

Bissell is, amongst other things, a gamer, and a gamer who loves immersive environments with great stories, stories in which the player has some sort of agency or power to influence things.  At a basic level, and his discussion does go far deeper than this, heading from point A to point Z and being forced to hit all the other points in between doesn’t impress or interest him, nor do tales with a “laughable” story.   Bissell further argues that a problem with videogames is that good gameplay and a horrific story can result in a well thought of and reviewed title, whereas horrible gameplay and a great story doesn’t.  He wants more from videogames, and he has made me want more from them as well.

It truly is a difficult concept to fight against, particularly as games that allow you to do what you want to do how you want to do it are in fact more fun.  Games that truly draw you in to the title and make you feel as though you have a decent amount of control are better games than ones that don’t.  They resonate better emotionally, and you will spend more time playing them.

 So, here I am, reading Bissell’s critiques, comments, and philosophy on videogames and at the same time playing the exact sort of game which I fear he would put down after an hour or two.  There is a lot to chew on in Extra Lives, and all of it has been swirling about my head as I both play and contemplate my review of Samurai II: Vengeance.  A sequel to Samurai:  Way of the Warrior, the press release describes Samurai II: Vengeance as a ‘hack-and-slash action game” and further states that there are “between levels, gorgeous hand drawn comic panels” which “tell the samurai’s tale.”  Being that the story is told between levels in comic strip panels, guess how much control over the story you, as the samurai, exert in this title? That is right, you have no control over what takes place whatsoever except, that is, whether you live or die, and if you die you just restart from the nearest checkpoint (it will cost you in your point total at the end of the game, but that’s it).

It is easy to admire the gorgeous graphics Samurai II sports on the iPhone 4.  It is also important to note that the game has a very good control scheme, with a virtual d-pad in the lower left and three buttons (two attack types and a roll) in the lower right.  However, every step I make my samurai take in the pre-determined direction I am forced to go in makes me lament the fact that I have absolutely no choice about what is taking place, none.  I find myself completely offended that the option to skip past the anime-style comic that gives the story between chapters is boldly displayed and that skipping the story panels does not affect a single thing (except that you miss some of the vaguely offensive caricatures).  And yet, it is fun to literally take apart your enemies, and that is partially where my problem lies.

If you play Samurai II, unquestionably you will remark how beautiful the title is, how great the massive swinging scythes look, and the detail of not only the buildings, but the clouds as well.  As you earn experience, level-up your samurai, and learn new attacks, it is impossible not to note the devastating and detailed nature of your strikes.  The game is an excellent example of hack-and-slash gameplay, and has a lot going for it.  It is playable in bite-sized chunks, with your progress repeatedly saved for you so that you can play when you have five minutes here or five minutes there to do so.  It also attempts to be more than just a button-masher, even if the combos you learn don’t always seem to work as promised.  The smoothness with which it plays out – except for the times when it stumbles and pauses – is truly impressive on the iPhone and it features Game Center support and achievements if that’s your sort of thing.  There is also a Dojo section to the title where you can just take on wave after wave after wave of enemies to see how long you can go without dying.  The music and sounds are nowhere near as impressive as the graphics, but they don’t offend either.

As I have gone through the game, figured things out, and defeated some impressive bosses, I have found myself enjoying the experience of Samurai II.   However, Bissell’s critiques still nag at me and I know that in the end he is right – Samurai II is not a title that I will ever feel like I need to revisit.  Once it’s done, it’s done and great games don’t make me feel that way.  It took me weeks to sit down and write  my review of Assassin’s Creed II because any time I thought about writing it I realized that while I had finished the main story there were eight million other things I wanted to see and do and experience and that without accomplishing all those side tasks, without standing on the top of every building, getting every feather, etc., I simply wouldn’t have done enough.  That is a game I still think about on a regular basis, and Samurai II: Vengeance will never make me feel that way.

How then do I rate Samurai II?  Do I say that for iPhone game or for a hack-and-slash game it really is above par and give it four stars?  Should the same depth be expected from an iPhone title that I would want on a console?  Should even the hack-and-slash genre allow for choice?  The Blogcritics scoring system tells me that three stars is the appropriate score for an “average” game, but is that average in terms of what games should do or what games actually do?  I would call Samurai II a better than average hack-and-slash iPhone affair, but a game that I still wanted more from in terms of choice and in terms of story.  So, it seems to me that what I ought to do is average those things together which leads me back to an overall “average” score.  That is an unsatisfying answer but after much hemming, hawing, and gnashing of teeth it is the only one I have.

Samurai II: Vengeance is rated 12+ for Infrequent/Mild Profanity or Crude Humor, Frequent/Intense Cartoon or Fantasy Violence, Frequent/Intense Realistic Violence, and Infrequent/Mild Horror/Fear Themes.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.