With Fire Emblem completely out of the way, where do my 3DS adventures go from here? Well, if the graphics haven't fallen back onto their compulsive lying habits, then I begin my journey into the unknown with Sakura Samurai: Art of the Sword. So we move from a war story populated with wacky characters and tactical brilliance to a game all about slashing people up. Joy. I have to admit, though, that in some key areas, Sakura Samurai is the perfect portable game. It's not that hard to jump into, but hard to develop skill in, and it's so short that its length can only be measured in Planck Time.
That probably explains why I don't remember much about the story. Then again, since we're dealing with Super Mario Bros. levels of narrative complexity, I may just have a shit memory. And I'm completely serious about that Mario joke. Your goal, as the Sakura Samurai (I know, just go with it), is to venture to a castle, find out the princess you're supposed to save is not there, and then repeat the process until you've secured the royalty in question. The only difference is five. It's a simple story, but as all of the elements at least function the way they should, it's hard to take offense with said story. What's easier to take offense with is the graphical quality of the game. I get that it's trying to go for a storybook feel, but it doesn't work in the game's favor. Enemy forces aside, all the characters are constructed of very simple, blocky shapes, but it ends up looking exaggerated and unappealing and just plain ugly. It's almost like the game is using this art style to hide its own technical limitations. Of course, I say "almost" because it doesn't succeed in that goal.
Instead, it's more focused on dodging attacks every few seconds. I'd elaborate more on this topic, but what more is there to say? You dodge things when the game tells you and slash because the game didn't know what to include after dodging. Repeat for the length of the game. Now that may sound simple and repetitive, but it's surprising just how much mileage this game gets out of that one mechanic. It starts off rather easy, attacks being telegraphed with all the subtlety of a car alarm, but once you step out of that introductory world, the difficulty shoots up into the stratosphere. Enemy tells become more subtle, they're far more willing to psyche you out with each attack, and you'll bump into the invisible walls of the arena more often than before. Rather predictably, this is also where the game becomes significantly more enjoyable, specifically for those reasons (invisible walls notwithstanding). It's a mind game, of sorts, that you have to figure out at least somewhat quickly, the majority of the fun lying in spotting tells and using that to get the edge on the enemy. This is even more applicable to the few boss battles the game throws your way, which are far more willing to trip you up than any other part of the game. All in all, it's an effective combination of instant gratification and rewarding the development of skill.
And then there's the Precision Point system. Wait, is that meant to be a positive or negative transition? It could go either way. I mean, on the one hand, it's an easy way to reward skill. Money for not getting hit a set number of times? What's wrong with that? Only one thing, really: it's your only reliable source of income. Yes, enemies drop gold, sometimes, but certainly not enough to buy the whetstones and rice balls and frogs that you're going to need to get through the game. To buy all that, you're going to need to be good at the game, which is something I can appreciate. Yet all the grinding necessary to get those precision points is going to drag out the game far longer than it can possibly sustain itself. I'm pretty sure half my time with the game was spent preparing for the final boss. (The other half, of course, was spent dying to said final boss.) That's far too much time spent doing the exact same things again and again. Still, given how little time all of this occupies, it's hard to get too mad at any of this. I'd recommend picking up this game on the cheap if you want something to burn time on the bus, but that's about it, really.
- Once upon a time, an ugly samurai had to rescue Starfire from some other ugly samurai.
- And grind a lot because this samurai was dirt poor.
- But then came in the twitch-based gameplay, so everything's alright in the end.
Remember a couple of weeks ago, when Robotnik gave no fucks? Well, between then and now, he has not yet found any fucks to give. Selfish bastard. SPREAD THE FUCKS AROUND, EGGMAN!
I thought it appropriate that in a blog covering ugly samurai, I might as well cover ugly ninja while we're at it. Granted, the word "ninja" doesn't actually appear in the title (because the title is concerned with more powerful words), but whatever. Ninjas are in it, so it gets a pass. Now if only I could say that about the gameplay. Sneaking your way through a ninja compound and killing from the shadows? What's not to like about that? Well, how about a whole host of technical and mechanical problems that completely prevent that idea from being all that it can be?
Though that's not to say that these are the only problems the game has. For example, a horribly, horribly told story. A story so poorly told, in fact, that I couldn't tell you just what the hell it's about. All I know is that there's a princess that needs rescuing at some point, and something about a rival clan of ninjas who might also be demons. Or something. Each level exists in its own separate narrative bubble, thus hindering any serious story development, and the only context you get for your missions are ludicrously dry lectures on Japanese history, economic policies, and so many other boring topics delivered with predictably low levels of enthusiasm. Coincidentally, this applies equally well to the in-level voice acting. The voice actors don't act so much as read their scripts, sometimes with inflection. It's boring and does little to draw me into the world of Tenchu, awkward humor be damned. When the people involved in making your game couldn't give two shits about what's going on, why should you expect me, the player, to feel invested in anything?
To be fair, while the story doesn't even bother to engage, the gameplay is sort of successful, I guess? I mean, it still fails miserably, but at least here, it's trying. In case you haven't picked up on it, yet, you spend the entire game playing as a ninja doing ninja things. You know, sneaking around, killing from the shadows, marking your path with technicolor rice, the usual. If it sounds like a slow game, it is. Yes, the somewhat small levels bring it all into focus (especially later in the game), but you're still going to spend a lot of time doing nothing, just waiting. Therein lies the fun. It's all a thinking game, carefully observing enemy movements and patterns and waiting for just the right moment to dash past them in the most elegant and efficient manner possible. You know, like a real ninja, probably. Sure, some of the punishments can feel super strict (I swear, those guards still managed to track me down even after I killed them), but that only makes a successful mission feel that much more rewarding when done properly.
When the challenge is legitimate, of course. How often is that? Poor design guarantees that this isn't a frequent occurrence. Take, for instance, the enemy distance marker thing. It tells you how far you are from the closest enemy, and it's pretty much your only way of knowing where the bastards are. See any problems with this? Because I certainly do. What if you're dealing with multiple enemies? You may handle one just fine, but I doubt his friend is going to react to your brutal murders all that well. Not that you need multiple enemies for problems to arise. You're still not going to know what direction the enemy's facing. You could maybe glean that from distance becoming greater between you two, but two things: first, the enemy AI is sporadic. They prefer fidgeting about and looking over their shoulders to definite patterns, throwing something of a monkey wrench into the planning appeal from before. Second, a lot of them stand perfectly still while on guard duty. Makes it pretty hard to tell whether or not they're going to see you, doesn't it?
And yes, I know what you're thinking: "Why don't I just look at the enemy?" Oh, if only it were that simple. And so we arrive at the game's biggest problem: the graphics. Around every corner, they conspire against your success. No, literally around every corner. For the most part, the camera's glued to whatever direction you happen to be facing and will put up the biggest fight in going where you'd like it to go, such as pointing toward an enemy you're trying to get around. Wait, I'm getting ahead of myself. We're assuming that you can see the enemy in the first place, which isn't the case most of the time. Usually, the enemy will be hiding behind the black cloak of the draw distance. Behind this veil, you cannot see them, even if the distance marker alerts you to their presence. Oh, but they can see you. They can see you just fine. So if you're going into this game, prepare to get caught a billion times by an enemy you couldn't see because they were off camera and out of your field of vision.
Oh, and the controls feel stiff and sluggish in a lot of areas (basically any area that isn't forward), but I think we can agree that this game has much larger issues to deal with first. Namely, this game expects way too much of the player. Just about every system in Tenchu is designed to obscure its more redeemable aspects. Want to feel like you're part of something exciting? These twelve economic ministers or whatever should easily put an end to that, as should critical graphical problems. Yes, Tenchu, you were right to make a game about the joys of sneaking through feudal Japan, and adding a level of challenge to that could make sense. You just forgot to do any of that on purpose.
- You know what people like in their action games? Slow, scrolling blocks of Japanese text with dry English narration.
- Somebody get Ayame some glasses so she can see more than ten feet in front of her.
- Oh, and the music's pretty good, if out of place for a game like this.