Samurai Shodown 2019 — Issue 39

Show­ing up to show out

Vet­eran fight­ing series Samu­rai Shodown returns with few flaws

SNK has done it again. Gor­geous graph­ics, fun play mechan­ics and a solid fight­ing game engine make up the core of one of its flag­ship fight­ing fran­chises fea­tur­ing samu­rai. If you’re in the mode for beau­ti­ful fight­ing in the Japan­ese feu­dal era, you’ve come to the right place in the 2019 revival of Samu­rai Shodown.

Get­ting back to the root of what makes Samu­rai Shodown fun and unique, the 2019 reboot is basic in every way. The bare­bones options mean there isn’t much to do, but if you’re look­ing to just pick a fighter and jump in, it’s clearly there for that. You choose from 18 base ros­ter fight­ers and duke it out in feu­dal Japan with var­i­ous moti­va­tions. All are inves­ti­gat­ing a com­ing cat­a­stro­phe, but their inten­tion in the face of a sin­is­ter envi­ron­ment is unique. Timeline-wise, the game is set between the pre­quel Samu­rai Shodown V and the orig­i­nal Samu­rai Shodown. So, you’re get­ting a taste of the story before the main series even kicks off.

The char­ac­ters, as well as the back­grounds, are stun­ning. SNK has always been known for its impres­sive atten­tion to detail when it comes to graph­ics with Samu­rai Shodown, and this entry is no dif­fer­ent. The col­ors pop with an empha­sis on non-realistic graph­ics that resem­ble what we know in the West as ukiyo-e and wood­block paint­ings; every­thing is utterly gor­geous, begin­ning with the menu and options screens.

As a title set in feu­dal Japan, the music must reflect the envi­ron­ment — and it’s well done as well. The use of tra­di­tional Japan­ese instru­ments has always been present in Samu­rai Shodown and it’s used lib­er­ally and to great effect. Also, the voice work is excel­lent. We appre­ci­ate the Japan­ese lan­guage, and it sounds beau­ti­ful and clear here.

We do have an obvi­ous issue with the reboot, despite its beauty. There is a notice­able lack of things to do once you stop mar­veling at the graph­ics. Where are the modes beyond the stan­dard offer­ings? So much more could have been added, espe­cially with the series’ his­tory at hand. It’s a pretty pack­age but it’s miss­ing a lot.

Samu­rai Shodown has been around for a long time, and this revival is just that: A return to the roots of a fan­tas­tic fight­ing game series. This entry is stun­ning and grace­ful yet just enough to whet the appetite of a fight­ing game new­comer or a sea­soned vet­eran. With this suc­cess, SNK now knows what it needs to do to show up and show out with the renewed inter­est in the show­stop­per that is Samu­rai Shodown.

Ghost of Tsushima — Issue 39

A ghostly com­pelling tale

Beau­ti­ful. Stun­ning. Breath­tak­ing. The Japan­ese coun­try­side of Tsushima can only be described this way, and this is being mod­est. Immer­sion in the strug­gle and bur­den of a samu­rai lord in 13th cen­tury Japan against invad­ing Mon­gols is stu­pe­fy­ing once you real­ize that it’s intri­cately crafted in a video game. You are the ghost, the Ghost of Tsushima.

Wan­der­ing around the real island of Tsushima, Japan, in 1274 is a fairy­tale. Every loca­tion and nearly every blade of grass or tree tells a story. That story is of samu­rai lord Jin Sakai, a man des­per­ate to save his home from an invad­ing Mon­go­lian force led by the grand­son of Genghis Khan. Jin gath­ers a coun­ter­force, only to be defeated and nearly killed. In the process of heal­ing, Jin finds allies to rally to the cause and peti­tions for help from the shogu­nate to defeat the Mon­gols. You become Jin in your quest to save his home and gather weapons and sup­plies, learn skills, acquire alliances, and fight to repeal the invaders. There is much to learn and see in the open world pre­sented to you even if you aren’t a his­tory buff or care about the pol­i­tics, econ­omy, or goings on of feu­dal Japan. There are no time lim­its for tack­ling mis­sions, and you are encour­aged to free roam and explore the land.

Much like any other open world game I’ve ever played, what I like to call the “Metroid instinct” kicks in and I find myself search­ing every nook and cranny to find hid­den sup­plies and other good­ies. Dur­ing my explo­ration, of course, I come across peo­ple who don’t like Jin. I note the pres­ence of bon­fires, which gen­er­ally indi­cates who I like to refer to as “dudes.” Dudes are the type that are gen­er­ally hos­tile to me and my inter­ests. Those inter­ests involve inves­ti­ga­tion and sav­ing peo­ple in the gen­eral pop­u­lace who require the ser­vices of a skilled samu­rai and con­tract killer. This is usu­ally how the fight starts: Dudes notice me in my fin­ery and my mag­i­cal horse frol­ick­ing in the coun­try­side and now they want to get reck­less about things.

In an absolutely fun mechanic, I tend to get into stand­offs with ban­dits. Now, my fight­ing skills here with a katana and tantō are not the best, but I have been known to make dudes meet their maker quickly. Sim­i­larly, I’m not great with archery, but I make the best of a bad sit­u­a­tion and stealth kill my way through the coun­try­side cleanly and quickly. My grasp of the con­trols is ten­u­ous at best, but that’s on me and my lack of skill and “older folks’ reflexes™”. Ghost’s con­trol mechan­ics are sound and easy to pick up with a lit­tle practice.

As I explore after my fights, loot­ing what I need, I take in the scenery. Ghost of Tsushima is quite pos­si­bly the most beau­ti­ful video game I have ever seen. I’ve been play­ing games a long time, and I can’t say until now that I’ve ever been just wowed by a game where I specif­i­cally take in-game pho­tog­ra­phy to use as a back­ground. This is what you buy the lat­est con­sole for and the best TV for: mar­veling at the graph­ics. I’m not even on the lat­est PlaySta­tion model (I’m play­ing with a PS4 Pro), and Ghost makes almost every­thing else look like stick fig­ures from the Atari 2600 era.

With a mas­ter­ful audio expe­ri­ence, Ghost has the sound and feel of a Kuro­sawa mas­ter­piece. You want to feel like the epic Seven Samu­rai? Turn on the Japan­ese dia­logue and Eng­lish sub­ti­tles. It’s that type of expe­ri­ence. The nat­ural ambiance is also nice. It’s com­fort­ing to know that pay­ing atten­tion to sounds in the envi­ron­ment can save Jin’s life when I’m explor­ing. I’ve lost count of the num­ber of times lis­ten­ing for audio cues linked to bears or dudes has helped me avoid an ambush.

While it’s a great expe­ri­ence, Ghost is not with­out its prob­lems. The cam­era work doesn’t always help when it’s time to fight. Often, I’m fight­ing the cam­era to see my ene­mies and avoid tak­ing mas­sive dam­age. The cam­era could use some refine­ment in later updates. And my other issue is the Leg­ends mode, added after the game’s ini­tial release. I was all geared up to play with my part­ner and then real­ized that this long-awaited co-op mode does not sup­port local play. We were hotly antic­i­pat­ing being able to roam around Tsushima together as we’re gamers, engrossed in the tale of Jin who absolutely love samu­rai. But we were highly dis­ap­pointed to learn that the only co-op sup­ported is online. Though the mode is free, it was a mas­sive let­down to real­ize that we weren’t going to be play­ing this epic together.

Despite some minor tech­ni­cal issues, Ghost of Tsushima hits the mark in a lot of areas. A com­pe­tent nar­ra­tive, open world explo­ration, stun­ning visu­als and an easy-to-grasp sys­tem are just some of the good­ies await­ing engross­ment in Jin’s tale of revenge and rev­o­lu­tion in 1274 feu­dal Japan. Ghost of Tsushima scares up a great adven­ture wor­thy of all the praise one can muster.

Dynasty Warriors: Gundam 2 — Issue 39

Gun­dam sec­ond game not yet there

Pre­vi­ously, I reviewed Dynasty War­riors: Gun­dam 3, which set the stage for me to try the oth­ers in the series. Lit­tle did I know, I would be learn­ing a valu­able les­son: Not every pop­u­lar fran­chise will always have best-sellers. An excel­lent exam­ple would be Dynasty War­riors: Gun­dam 2.

Gun­dam 2 fol­lows the same ros­ter of char­ac­ters in var­i­ous entries in the Gun­dam uni­verse, includ­ing some char­ac­ters and mobile suits that were only fea­tured in Gun­dam movies. To com­pen­sate for a lack of a sto­ry­line, DWG2 has two modes: Story, where you can play as one of a select group of char­ac­ters from their respec­tive Gun­dam series; and, Mis­sion, where you choose a char­ac­ter with var­i­ous mis­sions set in the uni­ver­sal cen­tury time­line and you can inter­act with var­i­ous char­ac­ters from other series. As you move along, you gain expe­ri­ence points to increase your level and col­lect var­i­ous mobile suit parts. There is also a chance to earn new skills just like DWG3 as you advance to higher levels.

Gun­dam 2 also spe­cial mis­sions where you can fight against other oppo­nents to earn licenses to pilot dif­fer­ent suits, earn the trust of other char­ac­ters to fight beside you and acquire higher-level parts for mobile suits. The mobile suit lab and ter­mi­nal fea­tures help you to keep up with chang­ing events and cur­rent devel­op­ments with dif­fer­ent mobile suits.

What I like about Gun­dam 2 is that every char­ac­ter is legit in the Gun­dam uni­verse, which made me won­der if I saw the actual Gun­dam series with that char­ac­ter. Also, the open­ing cin­ema was high qual­ity, show­ing off the minor suits such as GMs and Zakus, who were observ­ing the OG RX-78, Strike Free­dom and Nu Gun­dam suits doing bat­tle while the Saz­abi and Psy­cho Gun­dam lurked in the shad­ows. Addi­tion­ally, I also appre­ci­ated Namco Bandai, Sun­rise and Koei retain­ing the orig­i­nal Eng­lish voice actors to reprise their respec­tive char­ac­ters; this gives DWG2 the needed cred­i­bil­ity as an offi­cial Gun­dam video game.

How­ever, despite the good, the bad parts stick out like sore thumbs. When I try to fight in other bat­tle­fields, I’m restricted in mov­ing, which weak­ens my attacks, and leaves me vul­ner­a­ble. Also, the in-game cam­era was VERY unhelp­ful, espe­cially in boss fights with giant ene­mies where I was pilot­ing my mobile suit on low energy while run­ning and avoid­ing attacks by giant ene­mies like Psy­cho Gun­dam, Big Zam, and Queen Mansa. I also found cer­tain parts of the game have unre­al­is­tic time lim­its to fight ene­mies to achieve cer­tain objec­tives. Finally, I found the biggest insult to me as a Gun­dam fan was the graph­ics; these feel like cheap knock-off paint jobs of Gun­dam and lower-rank mobile suits alike. To be fair, the asso­ci­ated pilots look like their anime coun­ter­parts, but the suits were not given the same treat­ment. Unfor­tu­nately, I would also be remiss if I did not include the LONG wait to obtain skills, unlike in DWG3. I could unlock and pur­chase new skills in addi­tion to lev­el­ing up char­ac­ters more effi­ciently via train­ing ses­sions in the lat­ter game’s shop.

There are hits and misses that the qual­ity assur­ance teams should have noticed, but there are bright spots such as music and voice act­ing being excel­lent. I would still play Gun­dam 2 when I have free time, but Bandai Namco did such a rush job on it that I feel jus­ti­fied almost not rec­om­mend­ing it. I’m just glad that DWG3 is a far supe­rior prod­uct and sticks to the essen­tials that make Gun­dam, well, Gun­dam. Dynasty War­riors: Gun­dam 2 is on the way but not quite there.

Nobunaga’s Ambition — Issue 39

Ambi­tious guide to greatness

I’m appar­ently no bat­tle­field gen­eral. I learned this fas­ci­nat­ing tid­bit about myself within a rather rough short sea­son of my gam­ing life through dis­as­trous deci­sions and lack of prepa­ra­tion. My troops weren’t ready, I didn’t have enough horses and my crops failed to sus­tain my gar­ri­son. Even my samu­rai and ninja were taken out quickly. I was out­manned, out­matched and dec­i­mated before I knew what hit me. Suf­fice to say, if I had been Oda Nobunaga, feu­dal Japan would have been in sham­bles like my men­tions on Twit­ter these days. That is the way in Nobunaga’s Ambition.

Ambi­tion is not for the faint of heart. It requires seri­ous plan­ning, thought­ful tac­ti­cal strikes, and good resource man­age­ment. At its core, Nobunaga’s Ambi­tion is a war sim­u­la­tion that takes you through feu­dal Japan’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary period, where uni­fi­ca­tion was the goal and Nobunaga was the man to do it — pos­si­bly. While you can choose to be Nobunaga, you can be any other num­ber of gen­er­als from dif­fer­ent regions of Japan at the time. You’re tasked with rais­ing an army, gath­er­ing and main­tain­ing sup­plies, and defend­ing your region while con­quer­ing oth­ers in a bid to unify all of Japan under your shogunate.

You roam around the Japan­ese coun­try­side with your troops and chal­lenge the other gen­er­als in a turn-based bat­tle some­times to the death. If suc­cess­ful, your name will be men­tioned in his­tory as a great gen­eral and the uni­fier, much as his­tory played out with Nobunaga’s vic­tory over Shogun Ashik­aga Yoshi­aki in 1582 and his suc­ces­sors’ bat­tles after his death.

The premise is unique, though to fully appre­ci­ate what it is you’re doing and why, you prob­a­bly will have to be a his­tory geek or inter­ested in Asian his­tory. It’s niche but fun with a lot of his­tor­i­cal edu­ca­tion thrown in.

Its niche con­text aside, the game is fun to play once you fully get into the sim­u­la­tion. It’s a very 1993 pre­sen­ta­tion. The graph­ics are small for the maps, but they’re rem­i­nis­cent of the graph­ics of the time for the SNES and Win­dows games. The stand­out among the graph­ics, though, are the gen­eral por­traits. They’re col­or­ful — as are the other graphic ele­ments — but are also beau­ti­fully detailed. For a SNES game, the graph­ics are top notch and still can com­pete with the big titles of the era.

The music can be a lit­tle grat­ing but it’s not overly ter­ri­ble. There are a few dif­fer­ent songs for the menus and bat­tle, and while slightly tinny, they are OK in a short-term play setting.

If you’re into strat­egy sim­u­la­tions and Japan­ese his­tory, let curios­ity strike and set­tle in for a rous­ing bat­tle. Nobunaga’s Ambi­tion is enough to get you started in the genre and is des­tined to lead to greater things.

Yakuza: Dead Souls — Issue 39

Yakuza and zom­bies mix well

In my vast inven­tory of inter­ests, mafia movies are one that would make me curl up on a week­end after­noon with pop­corn, drinks and other treats in hand. While I know that some famous mafia movies and tele­vi­sion series are being devel­oped into video games, Sega’s Yakuza series is already a per­fect com­bi­na­tion of action, adven­ture, and the mafia. I was thrilled to com­bine my love for the series with zom­bie ele­ments in Yakuza: Dead Souls.

Set a year after the events in Yakuza 4, an unknown dis­ease out­break in the dis­trict of Kamurochō has affected its res­i­dents, turn­ing them into zom­bies through bites. As a result, the Japan­ese Ground Self-Defense Force has been called in to assist with the slow and expand­ing quar­an­tine. Dur­ing this chaotic time, cer­tain ene­mies of the Tojo clan have arisen to take advan­tage of Kamurochō’s suf­fer­ing. The fate of Kamurochō and Japan rests in the hands of four men: Shun Akiyama, a loan shark try­ing to save his sick recep­tion­ist; Goro Majima, a feared yakuza and con­struc­tion com­pany owner who is fight­ing his own infec­tion; Ryuji Goda, a dis­graced yakuza and takoy­aki chef whose clan has a tie to the out­break; and, series pro­tag­o­nist Kiryu Kazuma, who runs a children’s orphan­age and returns to Kamurochō when his adop­tive daugh­ter is kidnapped.

Dead Souls is an open-world game that com­bines action, adven­ture, and sur­vival hor­ror ele­ments. The plot is one akin to samu­rai movies where there are four chap­ters with four parts for each char­ac­ter with the final chap­ter reserved for Kiryu. Con­trols for move­ment and the game cam­era are sim­ple with the ana­log sticks. You will also be given “memos,” a list with spe­cial sec­tions to teach you basics such as using weapons, eva­sion, and close quar­ter com­bat, which help when fac­ing off against the legion of zom­bies. I appre­ci­ated the abil­ity to level up each character’s attrib­utes through use of soul points that upgrades abil­i­ties to carry more items, improve knowl­edge of zom­bies, weapons mod­i­fi­ca­tions and pro­tec­tive gear, and mas­ter advanced close quar­ter com­bat techniques.

As the game pro­gresses, your cur­rent char­ac­ter will be assisted by three NPCs: Reiko Hasekawa, a researcher who offers infor­ma­tion and rewards for com­pleted tasks; Gary “Buster” Holmes, a firearms expert who helps the pro­tag­o­nists and their tem­po­rary com­pan­ions with gun train­ing; and, Renji Kamiyama, weapons seller and mod­i­fier of weapons and pro­tec­tive gear who can also be used as a pawn­bro­ker to buy rare items.

I also appre­ci­ate the clas­si­fi­ca­tion of var­i­ous zom­bie ene­mies; that orga­ni­za­tion method can help you plan the appro­pri­ate strat­egy or sim­ply avoid con­tact with them. While you’re run­ning around Kamurochō, pay atten­tion to the music. It’s one of Sega’s best sound­tracks in the mod­ern era and puts the Yakuza series among Sega’s go-to ros­ter of great soundtracks.

The graph­ics are OK for the time when it released. It’s good for an open world game, though there’s room for improve­ment. Though, com­pared to other games at the time, Yakuza: Dead Souls doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily out­shine the com­pe­ti­tion; it just merely com­petes. The only real prob­lem I have with Dead Souls is the inclu­sion of sce­nar­ios where you must chase down peo­ple while fend­ing off zom­bies. I know a yakuza got to make his money, but Sega was putting these char­ac­ters in dan­ger­ous con­di­tions with­out any pro­tec­tive gear, which is slightly unrealistic.

Dead Souls is great to play on a day off or slow week­end, though I would offer two pieces of advice: Do not play late at night, and do not play while COVID-19 is still around. It’s a nice attempt to mix mul­ti­ple gen­res. I can say this with no doubt: Sega’s got a smash hit ready to secure all bags and show its com­pe­ti­tion why it does not pay to under­es­ti­mate the Yakuza.

Fun Facts:

* Yakuza is the term given to transna­tional crime orga­ni­za­tions based in Japan. They are also known as” boryoku­dan,” which the Japan­ese police advise for pub­lic media to use when cov­er­ing yakuza-related sto­ries. The yakuza also call them­selves “ninkyo dan­tai,” or chival­rous groups.

* Accord­ing to Japan’s National Police Agency as of 2020, there are at least 25,900 active yakuza mem­bers, despite rigid leg­is­la­tion aimed to com­bat yakuza involve­ment with the Japan­ese pub­lic. These mem­bers are accounted among the three major yakuza fam­i­lies: Yamaguchi-gumi, Somiyoshi-kai and Inagawa-kai.

* Yakuza groups have been known to oper­ate in major U.S. cities and use Hawaii as a hub to con­duct var­i­ous legal and ille­gal enterprises.