Friday, 4 June 2010

Samurai Shodown: Sen

"With all due respect, you have no idea what you are talking about. This is what happens when you have WoW geeks playing and reviewing fighting games. They love the simple inputs of 2D fighters. First and Last of all, no respectable 3-d fighter would even think about using the analog stick! To say anything else to someone woefully unqualified to render judgment on this IMO is pointless."

Samurais haven’t had a great time of late, what with last month’s notorious recipient of one measly star, Way Of The Samurai 3, now joined by SNK Playmore’s latest attempt at franchise resurrection, the rather lacklustre Samurai Shodown: Sen. The series’ latest foray into 3D is a peculiar one; so bland is the presentation, so unwieldy are the controls, that you wonder if the developers were stuck in some late-90s mindset whilst making it, unconcerned with competing against today’s more accomplished and feature-heavy titles.

o even describe Sen in three-dimensional terms is approaching something of a trade-descriptions baiting act. The fighting may take place in a format where an impression of depth is created, but in reality there isn’t much opportunity afforded to use this extra plane. Unlike in Soulcalibur, where moving vertically through the battleground is smooth and usually encouraged, Sen makes this simple tactical manoeuvre extremely difficult to pull off using the analogue stick (it works better with the d-pad). If it’s through choice then one of the key foundations for a 3D fighter are lost, and the game is poorer as a result; if it’s through the sluggish nature of the controls – as seems more likely – then it’s just another flaw to add to several others that ultimately serve to stifle much of the base enjoyment.

Even the practice of moving your character forward and back only seems to be achievable with an effort at odds with the desired on-screen action. Much of the blame seems to lie with the animation: whether playing as Jinbei (the standard wise master archetype) or the recognisable Charlotte (whose key trait is supposed to be speed) you’ll struggle to see much difference in character movement. The problem may be aesthetic, but in a genre where matches can often be decided on the minutest of frames, it’s a rather large one. In fairness though, Samurai Shodown: Sen is meant to be a far cry from the pyrotechnics and oddities of Namco’s hugely-successful if overrated weapons-based fighter, but it nevertheless feels frequently clumsy.

Played at the pace the developers have, possibly inadvertently, forced upon you, Sen is mostly tolerable. The fighting system is, much like the rest of the game, starved of detail, resting as it does on the fundamentals of grabs, slashes, kicks and blocks. There is a POW meter that is slowly charged as damage is taken, which unlocks special attacks, but that is about as fanciful as it all gets. Unfortunately newcomers to the game will, we guess, be put off far quicker by the considered pace and average looks than they will be the way the game actually plays. Certainly against friends and online it’s solid if a little disposable; the problem with the latter is that we struggle to see a community developing. Sen will mostly trade on nostalgia, but this in itself is a precarious position, as fans with fond recollections of the earlier games, whether from arcades or those ridiculously expensive Neo Geo ports, may find themselves looking for the depth and technical inspiration of old that is sorely lacking in Samurai Shodown, model 2010.

Not that you would be able to date the game as a new release based purely on its visuals. It’s a shame that the impressive hand-drawn art from the character selection screen and, er, the front cover of the box, doesn’t carry over into the main game. The characterful and cutely stylised drawings are suddenly replaced in-game by bland, often downright ugly, rendered models. The environments are slightly more impressive, with small pleasing touches such as the windy fields of Mikatagahara and the twilight blossoms of Amori Castle, but it’s not enough to save the poor work elsewhere. This unimpressive presentation is carried over into the game’s paucity of modes, and their poor execution.

The story campaign doesn’t exactly go out of its way to make you care about the ensuing rounds of combat; each character’s journey starts with a scrolling screen of text and Japanese narration, with the few weak cut-scenes used thereafter recycled between characters. Say what you like about Tekken’s absurd way with a story, but at least its CG work is impressive; Sen’s approach, in comparison, is pitiful. Survival mode takes a similar no-frills approach, while the training feature isn’t particularly instructive, though it is a helpful way to examine how tricky the AI can quickly get. This lack of detail, evident in the entire package, quickly becomes dispiriting

For all its problems Sen is just about salvaged by the fact that it isn’t completely broken. The fighting style, taken on its own stubborn terms, is serviceable; SNK Playmore have at least also thrown in a few cute gestures to please fans (Achievements, for example, poke fun at the series’ reputation for poor translations, with one description reading: “To have Xbox LIVE fighting for once”), and the new ability to dismember limbs never gets too old, if only because the subsequent spurts of blood are so comical. But Samurai Shodown: Sen exists in a context where the fighting genre has seen something of a renaissance, spearheaded not by technical showcases looking to dazzle with the promise of 3D, but 2D masterpieces – Street Fighter IV, BlazBlue – of rare depth and class. Sen fails to satisfy either of these camps. It’s artistically weak, lacking in substance, and as a result is somewhat cut adrift from the rest of the battling pack.

Originally published over at D+PAD Magazine here.

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