Fighting games can be hard for newcomers to get into. Finding a good entry point that won’t having them walking away after a few rounds is a tough task, but if you are one of those people (or someone looking to rope your friends into a few fights) then you’re in luck. Samurai Shodown has been made with those very people in mind, but still caters to veterans who are looking for a high skill ceiling.
A lot of fighters tend to focus on learning complex combos to get big damaging results, but in Samurai Shodown a game can be won with just five heavy attacks. What this means, especially for new players, is that it won’t take you too long to get fairly good. There’s less to learn initially, so the wall seems a little easier to scale. There are more advanced mechanics for pros to master, but even these are fairly easy to learn, making transitioning from newb to pro contender relatively gentle.
The foundations are set on three strengths of weapon attack: light, medium and heavy. Like other fighters, light attacks are quick and serve as great close up pokes to stop your opponent’s bigger attacks dead in their tracks, and they contrast with the beautifully choreographed (and nicely telegraphed) heavy attack animations. For example, Darli Dagger, who’s clearly inspired by a Bloodborne Hunter, takes her serrated cleaver sword and swings it in a massive arc towards her very sorry looking foes. If this hits, not only does it look fantastic, it also knocks almost a third of your health away. Ouch!
Getting struck by a heavy attack can spell defeat in most rounds, but despite hitting hard they are easy to defend against. Holding back to block is a staple in many fighters and in Sam Sho (the cute short name for this game), pressing back just as the attack lands performs a Just Defence. This mechanic is great because you fill your Rage Gauge, you shrug off regular incoming damage and it also gives you the opportunity to perform a Stance Break. This will knock your opponent off their feet and give you some breathing room, which is great if they’ve been piling on the pressure. You can also perform a Dodge as the opponent is striking, and though this requires some practice to get right, it looks fancy and will leave your opponent confused as to why their attack didn’t hit.
Already you can see how the layers of this system are building. There’s a lot there for casual players, but the skill ceiling is still quite high, turning high-level matches into games of patience and attack baiting. One poorly executed heavy attack will be punished in a flash. I found this on the higher difficulties in the story mode as well, where I was throwing out big swings, only to be parried and counter-attacked.
One of the other fancy ways of parrying comes in the form of the Counter. If timed correctly, you disarm your opponent and leave them effectively playing Street Fighter until they pick their weapon up again. Some characters actually do OK while being disarmed, adding weaponless special moves to their arsenal, but you’re generally pretty weak and will want to pick your weapon up as soon as you can. Or, if you’re feeling brave, perform a Blade Catch on your opponent and disarm them, so you’re both playing Street Fighter! Seriously, blade catching is a ballin’ move and I have massive respect for anyone that uses them.
At the other end of the scale, the Rage Gauge is a real game changer. When full, it puts you in a Max Rage state where your attacks do more damage and gives you access to performing a Weapon Flip. It’s very telegraphed, but if you catch you opponent with it, not only does it disarm them, it also deals massive damage. The main reason for filling the gauge is to trigger a Rage Explosion. You can trigger this at any time, but only once per match. Again, your attack power is greatly increased, you can perform a Weapon Flip, but there’s also the Lightning Blade technique.
The Lightning Blade is insane. One button press and your character dashes forward anime-style, slicing at your opponent’s midriff, and dealing a ton of damage determined by how full the Rage Gauge is. I’ve seen it take 80% of an opponent’s life bar, which is just silly. It’s great to look at, though. It turns the screen bloody and your character stands there looking all smug while your enemy bleeds out.
The roster is packed with sixteen characters in total. Thirteen of these are returning veterans and they’re joined by three newcomers: Darli Dagger – the Shipwright who is totally not a Bloodborne Hunter, Wu-Ruixiang – the shy traveller, and Yashamaru Kurama – the Tengu thief. Each character has their own array of special moves and gimmicks to learn. Haohmaru is essentially your ‘Ryu’ of the game, with similar inputs for specials and even looking fairly similar, but then you have the strange Tam Tam who is always crouching and utilizes his giant blade to keep opponents at range. He can also throw three skulls in succession, varying their height to mix things up. Each character has their nuances, but all control fairly similarly. Even the super specials are the same for every character so you will never get confused.
Sam Sho is presented in a slick Japanese brushed art style, similar to Ukiyo-e but slightly modernised. Panels display the story with incredible artwork that can be unlocked and viewed in a gallery later. I mean, why wouldn’t you? It’s bloody gorgeous. The actual fighters in game are reminiscent of Street Fighter IV and are equally lovely. The team behind Sam Sho have really put a lot of effort into the visuals, making it feel Japanese and sticking to its roots. This also comes across in the sound production, with a fantastic Japanese cast and soundtrack.
I should imagine that the hardcore fan base will spend most of their time online, fighting in either ranked or casual play. The netcode prior to release has generally been fine. Out of all the online matches I played, only one was laggy and that was mostly down to a poor connection, which is bound to crop up occasionally. I do find the casual lobbies a little strange, however. All the players sit at the top of the screen in what looks like a queue system, but despite seemingly being next in queue, I simply wasn’t getting matches. Turns out that when a match ends, you need to quickly select the empty spot, otherwise you’ll need to keep waiting. It’s an odd scramble for a match and it’s made even less fun by not being able to spectate the action! That’s right, you cannot observe the fights while you wait. You can chat, but… Goddammit, I want to see the fighting!
For those less enthused by getting their asses handed to them online. Each character has their own story mode which takes you through a run of characters before facing the final boss – sadly it’s one of the cheapest bosses I’ve had to face in a fighting game. Other modes included are fighting game staples like Survivor, Time Trial and Gauntlet, which is just a straight fight against all the cast, one by one. Of course you have offline VS which was a no brainer. Athlon’s main attempt at innovation can be found in the Dojo, which is home to Ghosts.
Touted by Athlon as a revolutionary new system, the A.I. learns from how you play and then feeds this into a Ghost. Before you worry about Skynet and the end of the world, I fought my own Ghost and, despite having played over 55 matches as Yoshitora Tokugawa, I was met with a bizarre match where it just crouched a lot and tried to dodge thin air. The movement was a little erratic and I was able to beat myself with ease. Maybe it needs more data, but man, something felt off both fighting myself and Ghosts of other players I downloaded. I’m unconvinced, but we shall what happens when it’s learnt from pros that have put hundreds of hours in.