It might come as a heavy shock to some gamers - particularly those who haven't beaten the game's predecessor - to see the closing credits roll after only two or three hours of play in Way of the Samurai 2. If those few hours consisted mainly of wandering around slashing random strangers, some might even write off the game as pointless. It is possible to play all the way through without getting involved in much of anything, but that's why the game is so short. Samurai 2 gives you ten days to live any way you want, as often as you want.
Same day, different crap
The story follows a lone samurai in the late Edo period whose travels take him (or her) to the town of Amahara. It seems half the games I've been writing about lately involve choosing among warring factions; Samurai features three: the magistrates, the Aoto Gang, and the bodyguards at the Amakaze Inn. You can work for one, two, three, or none of them. How loyal you are to each and how well you complete the assignments they give you help determine how you are perceived by the townspeople. Play your cards one way and you will raise the town's morale and actually spur the economy, ensuring a wider selection of goods at the shops. Play it another way and children will flee in terror at the sight of you.
You'd think that these choices would lead to maybe four endings: one for each group and one for those who walk alone. Samurai, however, has more than a dozen endings. That's because there's a lot more to do than just run errands. There's trouble brewing in Amahara, and whether and how you add to it or ameliorate it decides your end scene.
The endings themselves are brief, but the story's progression decides which cut scenes you see. The path can vary wildly from one game to the next; though, unless you're referring to a walkthrough you, will come upon a lot of the same cut scenes - and probably endings - again and again. It's easy to skip through the dialogue, but it's impossible to bypass the whole scene once in it.
The problem is it's not always clear how to get a different ending from the one you saw last time. Even if you think you're going somewhere totally new, the off-ramp might curve right back around to where you were hoping it wouldn't go. My first five playthroughs only saw three unique endings.
Looking at the big picture, this is not as major a sticking point as it sounds. Way of the Samurai 2 is about exploring possibilities and discovering what was hidden. If you proceed with that in mind there is plenty to do, and what you thought was a short, easy game becomes a world you look forward to returning to.
How can a game about swords be pointless?
There is a strong collection element to Samurai that is not evident at first glance. It's most obvious when dealing with swords, but it extends to other items as well as to experiences - i.e., cut scenes and endings as mentioned above. New playable characters, costumes, and rankings also await. Accessories purchased in shops can be carried over between games to give the player that extra visual flair.
Similar to Phantasy Star Online and Ninja Gaiden, the equipped weapon will determine every attack that is available. Going in, I had no idea that this was the case, so I stuck with the same sword until I came across a ninja blade. Suddenly, my character was using elaborate leaping and flipping attacks. Switching to a fencing sword, I opened up another set of precise movements. And that's only the beginning. This is still a samurai game, so you won't be wielding nunchaku or throwing shuriken, but the selection of blades is vast and allows for a great deal of variety.
In addition, you'll spend time and money upgrading favorite weapons. As many as one hundred swords can be stored, so you can take it pretty far.
Also unlike Ninja Gaiden, the swordplay is very deliberate and relies heavily on parrying. Weapons are prone to breaking in the middle of wild combos, making it imperative to keep an eye on the sword's stress gauge. Each blade has a durability rating of 1 to 5, with the 5 bar five times as long as the 1 bar. As you put stress on your sword, the bar fills. If it fills all the way up to the end, the sword will lose one durability point and the stress gauge will become shorter. Get to 0 and the blade will snap. Fortunately, the town blacksmith can up the durability, so long as the blade is intact and hasn't already been modified too many times.
Another important point about swords is that you have to spend some time with one to unlock its moves. Occasionally during a battle, you will see an announcement that such-and-such a move was learned. You can review moves in the pause menu to see what you have and guess at what button presses you should try next.
By following the various paths, you'll find characters you thought were part of the scenery can actually put up a fight. Sometimes, vanquished foes will even drop a different sword than they did before, depending on how you finish them or some other factor. A battle with a skilled opponent can end in a big red flash if you take victory for granted, but most grunts can be dispatched with a quick parry and slash.
Sleep, little samurai, sleep
The main annoyance in the game is the frequent loading. There are ten outdoor sections in the town and each one is so small that the PS2 could probably load all at once if they weren't disjointed. But because of the way the game is structured, each one stands alone. When on a job, you might just want to pop in for a moment, fetch something, and go somewhere else, but the process takes much longer than it should because of hardware limitations.
The missions you run for the factions introduce another peculiar aspect of Way of the Samurai 2. Because you only have ten days at the most to get everything done, you'll want to spend your time wisely: furthering the storyline while earning money for upgrades and other items. But whenever you finish a mission, you will automatically end that part of the day (early morning, morning, afternoon, evening, late night) upon leaving the area. You might also run into a long cut scene that ends that part of the day, whether you're on a job or not. The second or third time through, you'll learn what areas to visit in order to get the scripted scenes out of the way, and how much you can afford to do before taking on a mission. The idea is to maximize your time, and that only comes with experience and savvy.
Swordplay aficionados, admirers of ancient Japanese culture, and gamers with good memories will get their money's worth with Way of the Samurai 2. Today's gamer may demand more modes, and maybe a versus feature (with parrying made more difficult) would have put all those swords to more good use, but the game works just fine on its own merits. Samurai are loners anyway.
Just don't use that as an excuse to leave this title sitting on the shelf.
Download the Japanese trailer for Way of the Samurai 2
(Windows Media, 1:20, 640x480, 17.6MB)
· · · Nick Vlamakis