It seemed like we had seen the last of Genndy Tartakovsky’s time-traveling warrior Samurai Jack back in 2017, when the classic early-2000s series was gifted one final season by Adult Swim to revisit the incredible characters and wrap up the long-unfinished story. This year, though, Adult Swim Games decided to take one more final ride with Jack by putting together a video game spin-off to the iconic action series.
These days, when you hear about a video game spin-off from a cartoon series, you’ll probably imagine a pocket-sized mobile game or a flawed, low-budget console release. Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time breaks that unfortunate tradition by taking us not only on a journey through the past of Samurai Jack, but also through the past of action games.
The original cartoon got a pretty conclusive ending in the final episode of its 2017 run, and Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time doesn’t attempt to ruin a good thing. This game instead weaves its way between the chapters of the series, fleshing out a brief half-minute off-screen sequence from the final season into a six-to-ten hour journey.
Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time is just as dedicated to the iconic visuals of the original cartoon as it is to the story and characters. The game even opens up with the original narration and opening animation from the cartoon. Footage from the show is mixed into the rest of the game now and then, but most of the experience is a cel-shaded 3D adventure that does an incredible job of capturing the original aesthetic of the series. Characters maintain their same blocky, hard-edged proportions, and cutscenes often employ the same long, drawn-out cuts you’d see in the cartoon. While a few awkward animations make their way into the cutscenes, for the most part the combination of cel-shaded character models with rich color and detailed shading is a gorgeous recipe for success.
For someone who has never seen an episode of the cartoon, you’ll likely be left with a heaping helping of confusion throughout this game. Who is Ashi? Why is that dog talking? Did that Scotsman just use his leg as a machine gun? The game picks some of the most iconic characters, environments, and enemies from the original cartoon to populate the game-world with, so long-time fans will have a constant surge of nostalgia as they revisit past worlds of Samurai Jack.
The most surprising thing about this action-game retelling of Jack’s biggest adventures is how dedicated it is to being a product of the show’s original era. In a world where so many action games today ape off the success of the Souls series or the metroidvania genre, Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time feels like an HD remaster or remake of a PlayStation 2 classic.
The Ninja Gaiden veterans at Soleil Ltd. have put together an old-school 3D action game full of flashy combos, arenas of enemies, and score-based rankings. This isn’t as much of a grueling character-action challenge as it is a flashy fan-pleaser. Doling out slick combos with Jack’s magic sword or swapping out to a variety of other weapons in the game like clubs and bo staffs is a delight, and while higher difficulty settings can help add some challenge to the experience, I was happy enough with the balance of lenient difficulty that the standard experience gave me.
Unfortunately, a few watery game mechanics end up souring the otherwise delightful experience. Some of these problems stem from the old-school action game design of Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time that I just finished praising. Much like an old-school console action game, there are some infuriatingly unfair checkpoints should you end up dying through a particularly tough segments or tricky boss fights. The upgrade system is also awkwardly gated off with multiple currencies and forced progression. It left me unable to actually obtain a few of the combat skills I was most excited about due to a lack of resources in the second half of the game.
One particular issue, though, is an awkward modern design element that feels like it had no place in the game. Jack can employ a variety of different weapons, with certain enemies having certain weaknesses that pressure you into swapping your loadout often. Each of these weapons is also saddled with an annoying durability meter. You’ll burn through weapons just as frequently as you can find them, leading to pure time-wasting as you constantly refresh your loadout or swap out broken weapons throughout the game.