Imagine this: you are a young person in feudal Japan, out for a quiet morning stroll. Maybe you’re just walking because video games haven’t been invented yet, so there’s not much else to do. Or perhaps you’re just looking for a quiet place by a stream to beat your laundry on a rock and contemplate the meaning of life. Unfortunately, none of this is to come to pass because a tiny green man gives you a magic cherry blossom sword and tasks you with saving the land’s princess. This may sound like a fever dream, but it is actually the opening sequence to Sakura Samurai: Art of the Sword for the Nintendo 3DS. In this eShop exclusive title, you must learn to use the aforementioned sword to mow down the countless ninjas, brutes and various other bad guys that would stop you from saving the fair princess.
Many games that revolve around swordplay would have you wildly mashing buttons to slice your enemies to bits. There would be a ton of crazy button combinations to remember for special attacks and you would never possibly remember them all, leaving you to rely on blind luck to perform any of that game’s more advanced maneuvers. This is not the case for Sakura Samurai; it is a game that rewards precision and perfect timing above all else. You must wait for the enemy to attack, then dodge and counter with an attack of your own. This means that each fray you enter into will be much more of a strategic event than a frantic mashing of buttons. If you are premature with your attacks, or think you can try to button-mash your way through a fight your attacks will get blocked nearly every time and your sword will dull to the point of only doing half as much damage.
Some stages of Sakura Samurai are incredibly challenging, and even the most skilled players are likely to find themselves falling at the enemy’s hand from time to time. If you fail a stage and revisit it you are given double the coins and double the health-replenishing hearts from felled foes. This is a good way to help players who are having a difficult time without babying them or holding their hand. If you get tired of all the dodging and slashing action, nearby towns can be visited. There players will find townsfolk with some interesting dialogue to share, shops to buy equipment upgrades and other items, as well as a few different mini-games to pass the time.
The strategic sword fighting in Sakura Samurai may be a refreshing change of pace, but it is also a little slow. Waiting for your opponent to make the first move, then dodging and leaping back in to unleash some slice-n-dice action is a sound tactic but it is the only tactic made viable by the game. No matter what the enemy is or what sort of weapon they have chosen to use against you, “dodge slice repeat” will be your mantra through the rather short main quest of the game. There are special attacks you can learn as you progress, but you still must dodge and zoom back in before you can utilize them so they offer little in the way of variation.
Most of the levels in each are of the map look identical to each other, and that look isn’t necessarily one that was worth repeating – in fact they are a little flat and bland looking. The enemy types are varied enough to keep you distracted from this fact for a while, but that effect will only last so long. For a game that is most certainly trying to recapture some of the visual glory of games like Okami, it definitely falls short in that department. The repetitiveness of the level design coupled with the potentially tedious sword fighting mechanics means that the pacing of Sakura Samurai could possibly leave your attention wandering pretty early on in the game.
If I was approached by a green fairy man and offered a sweet katana and I hadn’t been drinking absinthe (for a change), I think I would be delighted. However if this same guy offered me a copy of Sakura Samurai: Art of the Sword I would be leery. Sure, it is quite different from any of the games within the old timey Japanese sword fighting genre, but the pacing leaves something to be desired and the visual presentation is underwhelming. Players interested in a more thoughtful and strategic gaming will probably love every minute of playing this game, but if you’re like me and would be inclined to play something a little more out of the realm of realism and more in the realm of bullet time and dual-wielding magical cherry blossom swords that can shoot death rays then you would be well-advised to tell the little green man to keep on steppin’.
Combat is more simple in terms of controls, but difficult to master
Gameplay is a uniquely strategic when compared to other games in this niche
Combat begins to feel a repetitive early on
Too slow paced