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Soul of the Samurai (PlayStation) artwork

Soul of the Samurai (PlayStation) review

"The road travelled by the samurai is serpentine. Starting in Japan, moving through America and finally spreading to Europe and the PAL territories of the world, Konami's Soul of the Samurai spent a bizarre one and a half years in pilgrimage before it reached my shores (Australia), and apparently experienced such enlightenment en route that it adopted the sharper new name of Ronin Blade. I'm not sure of the reasons for either the uncharacteristically long delay or the name change, b..."

The road travelled by the samurai is serpentine. Starting in Japan, moving through America and finally spreading to Europe and the PAL territories of the world, Konami's Soul of the Samurai spent a bizarre one and a half years in pilgrimage before it reached my shores (Australia), and apparently experienced such enlightenment en route that it adopted the sharper new name of Ronin Blade. I'm not sure of the reasons for either the uncharacteristically long delay or the name change, but in the way of the samurai, I made the decision in the space of three breaths to simply accept the facts of Ronin Blade's prolonged origins and be done with them. For me, if a game is worth playing, it's worth waiting for.

This particular blade is an extremely enjoyable slash-em-up adventure of balletic swordplay set in feudal Japan. The simple yet intriguing plot is initiated by the disappearance of the Bakufu clan's shipful of gold ingots in the Matsuna province. Three spies are dispatched to investigate the incident and three spies disappear. Two very different individuals, one of whom you will choose to play, are then thrust into the mystery:

Hiba Kotaro is the male lead, a broad-chested wandering ronin and the Good Will Hunting of the samurai set: Effortlessly brilliant at what he does, but quite flip as far as feudal Japan is concerned. He fights exclusively with huge samurai swords.

Lin of Sekieri is the sister of one of the missing spies, and a tiny precocious ninja in her own right. At eighteen years of age, she possesses both the naivete and cocky bluster of youth needed to chase her brother's trail and get the job done. This wouldn't be the first Konami game in which the female lead is faster than the male, has twice as many special moves up her sleeve and is more fun to play all around. Lin bristles with lightning-fast shortsword attacks (her basic combo strings together five moves to Kotaro's three), shurikens, smoke bombs, and even a self-immolatory desperation move called 'Cherry Blossoms' for when she's knocking loudly at death's door.

The core of Ronin Blade is screen after screen of swift and bloody fighting set-pieces. The momentary foreplay of ninjas and ronin stalking about each other in village streets, dojos and forest glens is followed by a dizzying flash of steel, a lot of screaming, and then fountains of blood as torn corpses slump into the dirt. It is an often thrilling (and funny) game whose ongoing combat sequences create the supernatural experience that you are a one-person agent of death in a dangerous world, wordlessly dispatching foe after foe in the style of the Sword of Vengeance films. The artfulness is driven home by the exaggerated bloodiness of the whole package. There's a great calligraphic splash of blood across the CD cover, and spattery trails of it throughout the manual, almost as if it's a language. Indeed, saved games in Ronin Blade are recorded as haiku (seventeen-syllable Japanese poems) which reflect in abstract terms your place in the story!

The presentation is via survival horror's pre-rendered static backdrops, with a musical soundtrack of twangy oriental grooves which proved to be something of an acquired taste for me. The characters run and move gracefully when fighting, looking a bit less polished in the quieter cut-scenes. Many of the environments are quite moody and beautiful, especially those which include animated flourishes such as leaves tumbling through a forest canopy. But most of the indoors and village scenes have a weird sparseness about them. The adventure game elements in the village are also a bit cute, with a collection of peasants wandering aimlessly in the empty spaces to give a not-so-great impression of life going on. If you break out your samurai moves and hack apart the peasantry (I haven't laughed this hard since I kept whipping out my sword to frighten the innocents in Usagi Yojimbo back on the Commodore 64) those folks necessary to the plot will magically come back to life. The game's puzzles turn out to be simple gestures designed to keep you moving from location to battle to location (get to the dojo, kill twenty bad guys on the way, find the key, come back) rather than anything to test your brain.

Such simplicity is made up for by the star attraction of hectic and nicely detailed swordplay. It's not as deep as in a one-on-one fighter, but it's deep enough, and few free-roaming adventures offer you such a hefty inventory of attack moves which can be used at any time. Frontal slashing combos require steady timing between button-presses which varies depending on the heaviness of the weapon you're using. You can also make artful scythes laterally, a 180 degree reverse attack, slice as you come out of a run, jump attack (rarely useful) and - my favourite - go for a big, dumb, slow, overhand stab, as if you were wielding a knife, except that you're shoving your whole sword through someone.

There are three degrees of blocking and parrying available, with a big emphasis on the zen-like hitting of the shoulder button at the exact moment of sword impact. The stolid controls do a good job of making you feel the stretch of pulling off your rarer moves, and the overall difficulty can prove elusive. It's hard to analyse just how Ronin Blade can turn on you with such viciousness in the space of moments, but it can. Kill ten thugs in a row with nary a scratch for your troubles, then suddenly you'll be ambushed in a forest clearing. A shuriken in the back, a sword to the abdomen, the same of each again, and before you know it the screen has drizzled into crimson and you're a corpse. The bosses vary dramatically in challenge as well, with the lightning-tossing sorcerer proving to be the most traumatic encounter I've thrown myself at dozens of times... for a long time.

For all the violence, there's a surprising amount of humour on hand. I didn't like the game's anachronistic dialogue at first (in the same way that I didn't like the modern-leaning soundtrack), but eventually I grew to see the funny side of it. Ronin Blade delivers the swordfighting and plot twists with reverence, but in all other areas it turns out to be a much more light-hearted affair than I'd expected, and it took me awhile to pick up on this tone.

Kotaro has the dumb swagger of a male teen on the pull, trying to butter up Lin - 'Hey honey!' - or patronising her when that doesn't work. Lin is equally cute as she tries to avoid going on a hazardous mission by muttering, 'Uh, I'm just a kid.' One of the most inspired touches is the way in which the training sections are presented as flashbacks to the characters' childhoods. Here you can respectively beat to a pulp with a bamboo training sword either Kotaro's playmate or Lin's big brother, with the full inventory of 'adult' combos at your disposal! It's pretty funny to make a pint-sized girl mash her brother-teacher into the floor with a wincing five-hit salvo, then watch him rise groggily and offer: 'That's it Lin! Don't hold back now!'

For sword fetishists, most scenarios and features you might be likely to swoon over are covered by Ronin Blade. There are plenty of weapons to collect, each one with its own name, background story and fighting characteristics. You'll get to fight with two swords at once, and with a sword so fast and deadly it must be re-sheathed between every single blow, and usually before the victim has even realised that they've been ripped asunder. You'll get to fight in temples, on a beach and across the sunset-bathed rooftops of a castle. You can also draw a good variety of showy special moves from your awkwardly titled 'Mental Strength' meter. A manoeuvre such as the 'Hawk Dance' might sound poetic, but it actually results in a sound like screaming cicadas, onscreen dismemberment of the bad guys and the requisite fountains of blood. Though I have found to my annoyance that I trigger off the 'button mash' specials more frequently by accident than I do by choice.

There is good scope for experimentation and challenge on your own terms here once you've completed the game a couple of times, on top of the unlockable costumes and bonus weapons. My favourite way to play is to force myself to use one particular sword for the whole game, or to always switch to the sword which least suits any particular situation. As Lin, you could potentially force yourself to use shurikens and projectile weapons whenever possible, because she's drowning in them, but her five-hit combo is way too cool for anyone to really be able to resist using it. You can also try to clear chapters without using a single healing item, which is extremely hard.

Ronin Blade is quite a short game (under two hours for each character), but this rides well with its arcade battle affinities. Also, the experience of each of the two main characters is enjoyably different, and they play concurrently and fit together (in a Resident Evil 2 kind of scheme) to form a complete picture which is truly satisfying - out of all proportion to the outward simplicity of the plot! The game really emphasises the fun that you might be able to have in any particular scene over 'big picture' issues, and offers you the drive and purpose that the stories of adventuresome games can, without weighing you down with puzzles.

As a combat game, it's all about issues of scale. There's a good variety of creeps out to get you, from ninjas to raven cultists to stoney-faced pork-bun hairdo ronin, but you won't just fight one of each type here. You'll probably fight between twenty and thirty. Because when it comes to this style of hyperbolic combat, Ronin Blade knows that nothing excels like excess. The contrast between a peaceful moment in a dojo, and the sudden mania of violence when ninjas burst from the shadows, and you all start hacking each other to pieces, is not just exciting. It's extremely funny.

I do like Ronin Blade very much. Often it's too simple for its own good in areas other than the combat. It could be technically sharper or more complex, impressions which unfortunately strike hardest when you're just starting to play. But the game's succinct nature turns out to be a great part of its charm, and lends to the very strong compulsion I have to replay it frequently. What Ronin Blade does best, I don't see any other Playstation game doing; vigorous swordfighting and painterly violence for scene after scene. Whenever you feel the need to run through a Japanese village cutting down one crazy ninja after another, Ronin Blade is there for you. And flourishes such as the haiku, game-saving flowers making a cameo from Konami's Gungage, or the awesome three minute sequence in which you'll fight the largest number of enemies ever herded into one scene in any Playstation game, capped off by a howler of a punchline in the dialogue, all help to etch Ronin Blade into the memory. From there, it is always recalled with a smile.

-- Ronin Blade -- 8/10 --

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Community review by bloomer (March 08, 2004)

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