One sorry samurai.
Over the past few weeks you may have noticed an influx of samurai games passing through the GR offices. First came Seven Samurai 20XX , the lackluster brawler loosely based on the Kurosawa classic. Then came Onimusha Blade Warriors, Capcom's lackluster melee fighter based on the successful action/adventure series. Today, Mr. Mailman bringeth Samurai Jack: The Shadow of Aku, a lackluster action game based on the popular cartoon series.
Am I reviewing all these samurai games because of my intimate knowledge of the sword? Could it be my background in Japanese history? Or is it just the cold hard fact that I'm a glutton for punishment? Three Mountain Dews and two hours later, I've come to the realization that it's the last reason. Maybe it's time for seppuku'but first, the review.
For those of you unfamiliar with the cartoon, Samurai Jack is the story of a young samurai trained from birth to defeat the sinister, shapeshifting master of darkness named Aku. But before Jack could accomplish his task, Aku tore open a portal in time and flung Jack into the future, where Aku's evil is law. Now Jack seeks to return to the past to undo the future that is Aku.
The game features Jack's adventure in the future as he fights hordes of mechanical monsters in a basic action/platformer set up. Chop bad guys, grab power ups and collect relics to purchase minor upgrades. For those keeping score, the Start to Crate ratio is approximately 37 seconds. It's all stuff we've seen a zillion times before with Samurai Jack skins thrown over everything. Cookie-cutter franchise game - 1, Creativity - 0.
Jack is outfitted with two simple attacks, a jump and the ability to launch throwing stars and shoot arrows. There aren't very many standard attack combos and the interesting ones all must be "learned" by finding the hidden training scrolls scattered throughout the land. In addition, Jack is able to perform a dodge roll and double-jump downward slash, both of which are pretty useless as button mashing attacks do just fine.
The only thing that could remotely be construed as interesting is Jack's Zen energy meter. As Jack defeats enemies, he builds up Zen power, which he uses to unleash the deadly Sakai Attack Mode. In Sakai Attack, Jack goes into overdrive, moving faster than normal and dishing out attacks with ease as time slows. This allows you to wail on any hapless enemies in "blade time.'
Naturally, Jack mainly uses his trusty sword as he travels through the four different realms to defeat Aku. As the game progresses and Jack rescues helpless villagers, you'll be able to imbue Jack's magic weapons with the power of fire, crystal and electricity. Each uses up a little bit of Jack's Zen power, but causes 25% more damage to specific enemy types. Finding out the secret weaknesses of each enemy would be pretty helpful, but seeing how the enemies are so easy to begin with, doing more damage almost makes it feel unfair.
And when I say easy, I mean really easy. Almost all of the enemies in Shadow of Aku are pushovers for button-mashing attacks and some of them will even destroy themselves as you hold down the block button and deflect their projectiles back at them. The remaining bad boys require you to circle around to smack them in the back. Even the bosses are wimps! It's all just way too easy, especially considering that sushi life-ups are generously strewn throughout the levels.
Sadly, the unique visual style of the Samurai Jack cartoon gets lost in the 3D shuffle of Shadow of Aku. Environments are very sparse and there is little to interact with outside of the occasional destructible object or switch. The caves, forests, and cities that Jack travels to are totally plain and Jack himself just doesn't translate well into the 3D realm.
Despite low-quality visuals and a relatively low enemy count, Shadow of Aku still manages to chug along with slowdown popping up almost at random. Sometimes it will happen as you fight a group of three enemies and other times it will rear its ugly head as you simply explore the area. It isn't a show-stopping stutter, but you'll definitely wonder what's causing the mess.
If you do manage to make it to make it through the game, all you'll be rewarded with is a small art gallery and no real reason to play again. Wait, was there a reason to play it the first time?
At least the audio is top-notch. All of the original voice actors are on hand to deliver a few lines, including Phil LaMarr as the voice of Jack and the mystical Mako as the malevolent Aku. Appropriate background tracks and sword sound effects also do the jobs nicely.
With all the things Shadow of Aku does badly, nothing is more disappointing than the fact that that it doesn't capture the charm of theSamurai Jack cartoon. Jack's usually entertaining battles have been reduced to button-mashing attacks and the "story" part of this episode has been cut down to a few meaningless cutscenes. Familiar faces like the Scotsman and Mad Jack are present, but they only make brief appearances toward the end of the game.
Samurai Jack: The Shadow of Aku doesn't do anything good for the franchise. Ho-hum gameplay combined with simple annoyances make this game a shadow of the popular cartoon it was based on. Young samurai might be entertained for a few hours, but experienced warriors won't want to bother dirtying their blades.