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Way of the Samurai 4 is sequel that can succinctly be described as: "What you see is what you get." If you enjoyed developer Acquire's niche approach to serpentine, multi-threaded plotlines in past installments, there's a good chance that you'll be happy with the expansions in this sequel. If you're thinking about dipping your toe in the water, well, there are quite a few things to take into consideration. This one's got certain charms in a b-movie sense, but you'll have to dig very deeply to enjoy them.
WOTS4 follows the plot tradition established in past games. You step into feudal Japan as a nameless Samurai and based on your choices, affect the climate of your village with your sword-for-hire activity. In this case, the sequel takes place in the fictional port town of Amihama in 1855. Japan has only recently opened trade with the West, and as a result, there's strife. The British Navy has arrived to establish relations with Amihama, but the Disciples of Prajna, an anti-immigration faction, want them out at all costs. It's up to you to decide if you'll protect the foreign visitors, join the Disciples to kick them out, or work with the local government to keep the factions apart, by any means necessary. And in keeping with past games' Choose Your Own Adventure-style narration, there are a multitude of decisions that branch into various outcomes, which means you'll be replaying it numerous times to hit them all.
Above: Check out the launch trailer
WOTS4 is unapologetically cheesy in its presentation; enough so that nearly anyone who picks it up will either laugh with the game or at it. Along the way, you'll be treated to quirky characters such as Jet Jenkins, the silver-haired dandy with a metallic fist; the Kinugawa sisters, who reside over a Shogunate torture room; or Melinda Megamelons; loyal English bodyguard with a slight resemblance to Hilde from Soulcalibur. The Japanese language track gives it an extra sense of b-game authenticity, though it's hard not to wonder how over-the-top an English language dub would've been for that extra layer of Velveeta.
WOTS4's swordplay -- the most important element of the game -- has combat upgrades, customization, and the ability to melt old blades to craft new ones. But it's largely wasted on a clunky system that's bland and uninspired in comparison to more contemporary games. The system of strong and weak attacks wears thin in little time, and there's a baffling design decision to implement a super-attack mechanic to the button combination that sheaths your sword or defends against attacks. As a result, it's a gamble to decide whether to channel a combo or risk accidentally disarming yourself in front of a mob of bloodthirsty bladesmen.
And although it's a game that implements some quirky charms, it fails to explain many of them clearly. One could argue that it enhances a sense of discovery through trial-and-error, but the reality is that it feels like there are tutorials missing. It wasn't until we lost a half-hour of playtime that we realized that the photographers strewn around each section are in-game save points. It's eccentric, it's cute, but unfortunately, WOTS4 has no prompts to tell you that these jolly characters are there to bookmark your progress. Given the online integration the game touts, you'd be forgiven for assuming that you're posing your custom warrior to share his photo with your Facebook friends. The save system is indicative of what the game fails to convey as you play it.
The series is well-known for allowing you to explore its burg, and WOTS4 gives you more to do. For example, based on your choices, you can help get a foreign language school opened in town, and with it, foreigners' dialogue becomes readable. There are also gambling dens, and Night Crawling, which allows your samurai to seduce ladies. Plus, you can do fetch quests for extra money to spend on upgrades and health. The issue is that the quests feel like a huge grind (and very quickly), and while certain minigames are fun (such as the games of hanafuda you can play, or poker with Westerners), they're really rather shallow. The sum of its parts don't add up to much, since these sort of minigames have been better-executed in other Japan-centric open world games.
WOTS4 offers in-depth character customization, albeit at a cost. Want to make your vagabond into an irreverent cat person that will make the ladies coo? You can buy the costume parts. You can also buy outfits that align you with factions, such as Prajna bandannas and scarves. But while customization gives a sense of ownership, and some laughs at the ridiculous combinations, again, it's not very engaging.
The sequel has taken a cue from Demon's Souls, and allows you to upload your custom warrior to PSN's servers as a wandering NPC. If other characters come across him in their game, they can slay him to gain any custom weapons you've concocted in your playthrough. It's a good method of picking up newer, better arms, and it feels more conscience-clearing than killing an innocent NPC for a bladed bo.
But presentation and plot charms aside, the most glaring issue with Way of the Samurai 4 is that despite the number of activities, exploration, and new wrinkles to the formula, it's an anachronistic experience. Yes, it's funny and cheesy in that unique way that only Japanese developers effectively pull off, but if you want a serious open-world game with lots of engaging depth and less filler, this is not the title for you. At its core, this PlayStation 3 exclusive (available as a digital-only release in North America) feels like it would've been an utterly brilliant PlayStation 2 game.