On Oct. 13 – next Tuesday, as of this writing – two of the most hotly anticipated games of 2009, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and Brutal Legend, will drop into stores and kick the fall release schedule into high gear. Amid the excitement, you could be forgiven for completely ignoring a third game that also hits that day, the recently announced and little-publicized Way of the Samurai 3. If you did, though, you’d miss out on one of the more fascinating and endlessly replayable experiences of the current generation.
A free-roaming, RPG-tinged adventure set in Japan’s warring-states period, Way of the Samurai 3 might seem a little dated, with chunky-looking graphics, stiff animations and dialogue relayed mostly through word bubbles. And its standard sword-fighting action (while deceptively deep and a lot of fun) still feels like run-of-the-mill slash ‘em-up stuff, with enemies that insist on fighting you one at a time. But don’t let that fool you – underneath its ropey exterior lies a versatile, wildly customizable game that anyone who cares about story in games should at least try. Here’s why:
If you’ve delved into either of the first two Way of the Samurai games, then you already know that their main selling point isn’t the fighting, the graphics or even the customization. It’s that the games thrust you into a clockwork, Kurosawa-esque plot, which you can influence and dramatically alter, depending on your actions. The story is always fairly short, but that’s made up for by the fact that you can play through it repeatedly and experience a different outcome – and a completely different side of the story – every time.
Way of the Samurai 3 is no exception, casting players as a nameless samurai who’s one of the few survivors from the losing side of a gruesome battle. Over the course of the next few in-game days, you’re introduced to three factions, which you’re free to join, ignore or antagonize. Their story will develop with or without you; you’re there to change its events as you see fit. Think of it as like the movie Groundhog Day, but with swords.
The Fujimori Clan (the bad good guys) are the de facto rulers of the rural province of Amana, and although they represent law and order, they’re seen as usurpers and are also the ones who wiped out all your comrades. Then there’s the Ouka Clan (the good bad guys), a self-styled resistance movement who pay lip service to the people of Amana, but who’ve been taken over by thugs out to rob and live like outlaws. Finally, there are the townspeople of Amana, who kind of hate you – but only because they see samurai as the instruments of their oppression.
What happens next is up to you; you can join up with a faction and adopt their goals as your own, or subvert them from within. You can join both the Fujimori and the Ouka and play them off against each other for the benefit of the townspeople, Yojimbostyle. Or you can just relentlessly attack and kill everyone you meet, which probably won’t get you very far.
However you decide to play, there are more than 15 endings to discover – and with Achievements and Trophies to be earned as you unlock them all, just seeing what happens isn’t your only incentive.
The cutscenes in Way of the Samurai 3 can be, at first glance, irritating as hell. This is mainly because they’re filled with long, seemingly meaningless pauses during which your samurai just stares blankly at the object of his attention after being asked a question. Really, though, these pauses serve a purpose – they’re so that you can interrupt them by unsheathing your sword, an action that the game will constantly remind you is available by flashing a little drawn-sword icon onscreen.
Drawing your sword won’t just be perceived as just a warning, either; if you do it during a conversation, said conversation will immediately turn violent. And you can do it in nearly every cutscene, with or without provocation. Don’t like the looks of the peasants who’re trying to save your life? Flash some steel and scare them away. Feel like picking a fight with one of the faction leaders while they’re deciding whether or not to hire you? Go right ahead, but be aware they’ll probably wipe the floor with you.
Granted, there’s very little to be gained from this, unless A) you’ve been through the game a few times and you just want to throw down with a key antagonist before they turn dangerous, or B) you hate cutscenes so much you just want to jump straight to the action, regardless of its consequences.
The converse of drawing your sword like a goon is the “apology” action, which drops you to the floor in a low, groveling bow. Like flashing your sword, this can immediately end cutscenes – and fights, if you want it to.