Way of the Samurai 3 is developer Acquire's first title for the PlayStation 3 (or Xbox 360). The series, perhaps worthy of being called a cult hit, is known for its "choose-your-own-adventure" style of branching storylines through gameplay. This game includes 22 different endings, and you can pursue many other objectives that don't even involve seeing any of them. A single playthrough can last anywhere from a little less than an hour to, well, however long you want to mess around without triggering the main story events.
You begin by creating your own character from what is at first a very limited palette of heads and outfits. More are unlocked by earning "samurai points," which more or less track how honorably your character acts through multiple playthroughs, but the array of customization isn't mind-blowing compared to many games today. Accessories purchased in the game allow for more satisfying customization, but it is somewhat irritating to be forced into playing a nearly default character for your first playthrough or two.
The opening scene shows your samurai, nearly dead, stumbling through a battlefield as two peasants come upon him. You are given your first dialogue choice here, and it already has an effect on how the story will play out for you in the future. Even beyond regular dialogue choices, you are able to draw your sword in the middle of most cutscenes, immediately initiating combat, or prostrate yourself in front of whoever you're talking to. Both of these features are irritating, however, because while the majority of the time they serve to effectively skip cutscenes, there are sometimes necessary at very specific moments to twist the story to a specific ending.
The story which opens after the first cutscene revolves around various factions in Amana during the Sengoku period in Japanese history. Local clan rivalries are coming to a head as rumors surface that Nobunaga Oda is preparing to invade. You may represent the Fujinori clan, the current establishment running things; the Ouka clan, who hope to restore the popularly beloved Sakurai clan that formerly ruled the town; and the simple farmers and villagers. It's not nearly as simple as simply choosing one clan and going with it, however. There are tons of interactions within each group, and it is completely possible to end up running one clan, or betraying one at the last moment, or any other number of possible twists.
If you approach the story seriously, it provides for some very immersive role-play, and on several occasions I found that I actually felt very conflicted at certain dialogue choices in which I had to choose between an honorable death and a chance at continuing the game further. I chose to start every game with a different character in mind, and every possibility is allowed from the most cowardly (including just leaving town and ending the game at any point) to the most honorable.
The level of freedom, while initially interesting, becomes frustrating at times. There are a number of side quests the player can go through, but they can become repetitive quickly, and it's not always obvious what you need to do in order to move on in any individual storyline. So you may go through several days waiting for something to happen, while at other times the story will trap you prematurely into a mission that will lead to the ending before you're ready to be done. The pacing is hard to get used to.
If you're the sort that picks up every single item in Oblivion, than you'll find this game has its own charms for you. There are over a hundred weapons in the game, mostly varieties of katana, but spruced up by spears, ninja weapons, and oddball choices like hoes and even tunas. Each instance of weapon has its own slightly different upgradeable stats. Then there are parts you find littered about various locations and in shops, which can be fused together to create your own weapons in any fighting style. After amassing enough samurai points, you can start to wield any two swords at once, and that just adds to already near-infinite variety of weapons available. These weapons stay with you from playthrough to playthrough, so the collecting feels useful and satisfying.
The combat takes on the form of a beat-em-up, requiring some skill with the controls and your reflexes to beat the tougher characters, but is also heavily dependent on your character and weapons' statistics. You can "push" or "pull" with an opponent when one of you is blocking to knock them off balance and open them up for a strike (it's sort of a rock-paper-scissors dynamic). When combined with the incredible weapon choices, the combat is satisfying, if a little frustrating when an opponent really seems to have your number. Higher difficulty levels increase both the cool factor and the irritation factor by making each hit really count, all the way up to "instant kill" difficulty, which is just what it sounds like, and extremely nerve-wracking.
As for technical details, the game doesn't fare extremely well. The graphics are a bit below average and there's some slowdown in larger battles, though it's not too intrusive. The music is well-done and fitting to the topic, but will get repetitive after several playthroughs (and the game is meant to be played through over and over). You're allowed two choices on voiceovers, English and Japanese. The English voice acting is rather pathetic, and you'll just end up reading subtitles anyway, so that's not a tough decision to make.
Way of the Samurai 3 is clearly not a blockbuster title, but if you can stay patient through a couple of confusing playthroughs, the freedom to play with different storylines and weapons becomes very interesting. It has some obvious drawbacks, but once you get on its wavelength, there's so much content to find here. Truly obsessive gamers can attempt try to find every "partner" for your samurai, create the perfect weapon, and even kill every single person in the town, all great objectives besides just finding the path to the best ending. There's a lot to explore in this village teetering on collapse, and with enough skill, you can change its fate in almost any way conceivable. It fits the Sid Meier quote that "a [good] game is a series of interesting choices" perfectly, and that makes it worth a look despite its flaws.
Way of the Samurai 3 is rated M (Mature) by the ESRB for Blood, Strong Language, Suggestive Themes, and Violence. This game can also be found on Xbox 360.