You would think that by the fourth game, said Samurai would have found his way but no, following on from the 2008 release we find ourselves back in Japan defending honour whilst slicing enemies a new one.
Set in the fictional town of Amihama during the Edo era, you play as a masterless Samurai, a Ronin appearing at the docks at a significant turning point for this town with the arrival of foreigners and their black ships looking to open trade routes for the production of silk. Though the English come in peace there is plenty of distrust in the local populace with a movement called the Disciples of Prajna opposing the trade offers and trying to disrupt the proceedings between the English and Japanese whilst caught in the middle we have the local magistrates, the Shogunate, policing the streets of Amihama and working to the letter of the law.
As a wandering samurai you start with no allegiances but very quickly, through direct action or talking with the many inhabitants you start to form bonds with the characters, ultimately influencing the final ending of the game. Though the idea behind the game is grand, execution is a little off, with the campaign taking as little as 4 hours to play through if you skip the side missions, that said, replaying the game is actually a must as with each play through more changes occur to the world depending on how you act with different actions leading to one of ten potential endings. Depending on who you side with you will very quickly unlock the main story missions which pretty much all end in battles but again have many choices to make, like during an opium deal bust, a dignitary claims diplomatic immunity with the local Shogunate having to obey the law, but do you draw your sword or respect the law, even though it has clearly been flaunted.
As you make your way through the day and night cycles you can also take on more obscure side missions with even these being able to directly affect your standing in town with missions including tasks such as trying to impress a master thief, who has you stealing specific items. Here you have a choice of either stalking and stealing items or just outright paying for them. The same can be said for the many shops located around Amihama with the option to pay or do a runner. Though seemingly no initial influence, the following playthrough takes these choices and alters the very town of Amihama, for example when you first visit, all of the English travellers are unable to communicate, leaving just question marks in their speech bubbles; however convincing a teacher to open a language school in town will then unlock automatic translations on later games.
Of course being a Samurai you live by the sword and there are plenty of opportunities to unsheathe your blade and fight, be it for honour or criminal benefit. The fighting system certainly takes getting used to, with a basic combo system using light and heavy attacks. The rest of the controls can initially be confusing with combinations of trigger buttons and face buttons blocking, picking up items, dodging and using the Spring Harvest special move. One of the more important buildings you come across is the dojo, which you quickly become the owner of, allowing you to challenge thieves and passers-by to a duel and eventually enrolling them as students; with the more students you gather, an old man residing at the dojo will teach you even more moves that you can use depending on your current skill level.
Though the katana is the classic weapon of choice our Samurai can also use a multitude of other swords and even staffs, guns and unarmed combat, each sporting an assortment of different styles to master. Most of these are collected as spoils of war however you can also create and modify weapons via the smithy located in town, with many forging options like refining or extracting ore to create other weapons from basic materials. Weapons can also be upgraded with the addition of Charms. Placing these on weapons boost your abilities - the Darksword is more powerful at night, Midas makes more money drop and then there's Life and Death, a Charm that slowly restores vitality whilst standing still.
Supposedly there is also an online element integrated into the open world of Way of the Samurai 4 but I had no success in getting it to work. This reportedly allows for duels against other players. Via the options you are able to visit or be visited by rival samurai, duelling it out before one of you falls with the winner being able to claim one of the more rare weapons.
Though I enjoyed playing Way of the Samurai 4, it has a lot going against it. Graphically the game fails on so many levels, mainly with it looking like a PlayStation 2 game; the town in which you travel around is quite bland and whilst indicative of the era it's easy to get lost, even with a map on screen. There are plenty of computer controlled characters inhabiting the world but the collision detection is all off, with a simple slow nudge sending both parties flailing and plenty of instances of characters getting stuck in the environments or even hovering a few feet in the air, we have truly been spoilt with games like Assassin's Creed.
There is also an attempt at humour, most of which misses the mark, such as the awful attempts at chatting up Geishas to the odd English Navy Captain called Melinda Megamelons. All of this is overshadowed by the eerie sexual content which at times is very puerile and immature, taking on a darker tone with a couple of instances that maybe some eastern cultural practices get lost in translation, e.g. breaking into a girl's house for a night of passion.
Awkward romance and bland graphics aside, those wishing for the life of a samurai will enjoy this game and its many replay and customisation options that comes later in the game.
Words by Ash Buchanan.