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Seven Samurai 20XX (PlayStation 2) artwork

Seven Samurai 20XX (PlayStation 2) review

"I have this tendency to get a little obsessive over theatre; I don’t just watch a movie, I watch a movie. I note the little details, the subtle nuances of each character, try to guess what gets their motor motivated. I picture the setting and imagine what it would be like to live there, factor in things the movie barely even implies. I’ll view a fight scene in slow motion, homing in on every movement, looking for authenticity, marking impacts, counting the blows dealt. I like to look at t..."

I have this tendency to get a little obsessive over theatre; I don’t just watch a movie, I watch a movie. I note the little details, the subtle nuances of each character, try to guess what gets their motor motivated. I picture the setting and imagine what it would be like to live there, factor in things the movie barely even implies. I’ll view a fight scene in slow motion, homing in on every movement, looking for authenticity, marking impacts, counting the blows dealt. I like to look at the show beyond the show, see the trees instead of the whole forest. Call me pointless, call me a geek, call me a purist if you’re cool about it. Just know that I am the way I am because of one flick.

Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 masterpiece, Shichinin no Samurai. Seven Samurai.

Seven warriors, each with motives and pasts and fears and desires, all coming together to save a penniless village from forty-four bandits. A rich setting, imitating 16th century Japan’s turbulent days down to the smallest detail, intricate and refined. A three-hour plot strong enough to stand the time; not a boring moment passed.

I rented it expecting high amounts of hack and slash, both in mindless form. Just wanted to see some samurai kill each other, maybe watch some choice body parts fly. Instead, I was introduced to a work of great drama, a piece of fine culture worth appreciating on multiple levels. There was plenty of action, sure, but it took a back seat; the real focus centered on the characters. Developing them, humanizing them, making me care. That’s how you make some brilliance. After that, a movie wasn’t just a movie anymore, not for me. It was an art form.

So when I heard they were making a videogame version of Seven Samurai, I was rather happy. Until I found out it was set in a post-apocalyptic future instead of feudal Japan, with the main cast replaced by a bunch of no-name, wide-eyed, funky-clothed anime characters, and the band of bandits switched out with a few vamps, some beastmen, and thousands of sword-swinging robots.

I was pissed off. I still am.

Just recently I managed to put away enough of my anger to stand buying the game at bargain-bin prices, figuring I might get a good laugh out of it and have some decent fodder for a bash review. I put Seven Samurai 20XX into my PS2 with every intention of hating it.

But Seven Samurai 20XX isn’t a bad game. It’s not even average. By most standards, it’s…and it really pains me to admit this…good.

I’d guessed that the combat would be repetitive just from looking at the screenshots, a simple case of button mashing. The game sends a couple dozen or so robots my way; I tap on the attack button with one hand and sip Coke with the other, inevitably and eventually slice them to scrap, move on and repeat the process. Boring crap, the same old shtick that the genre’s been force-feeding for years.

And, actually, my first inkling was dead-on; victory does come down to your ability to tap buttons with all the grace of a caffeinated woodpecker. And I loved every minute of it.

Seven Samurai 20XX pits you against an army and every battle reflects that; even the ‘minor’ skirmishes have you slicing your way through hundreds of enemies, endlessly pouring out of the spawn-point, a tide that only ebbs when you kill a certain number. But the game beats out repetition by giving you variety; the farther into the game you go, the more varied the enemies. Each enemy type has to be dealt with in a certain way, needs a special sort of attention for effective demolition. And when you mix huge numbers with huge variety, anything and everything coming at you from every side, you’ve got to take into account each ones strengths and weaknesses for any hope of success. Things get intense. Seven Samurai 20XX doesn’t pull punches.

I’d wanted the controls to suck, too; Seven Samurai 20XX uses a system that seems to bleed bland. You get one button for dodging, one for blocking, one for attacking; as simple a setup as I could imagine. A one-button offense seemed like part of a mysterious plot to break my thumb. And boring.

But damn it, you can do more with that one button than a lot of games do with the whole set. Depending on how hard you tap it or what direction you’re attacking, the attacks come off in different ways; the same move gets spiced. And as asinine as this no doubt sounds, you can really set things on fire by bringing out your second sword for a limited time, switching to dual-bladed badassness. It doesn’t just double the damage, it doubles the variety; fixes it so that even though you’re essentially just doing the same attack in an infinite loop, it never really feels that way.

And unlike other games in the genre where pure offense is all you need to make your enemies past tense, Seven Samurai 20XX forces you to put those other buttons to use; the farther you go, the more you’ll need them. You can’t afford to stand still here; there’s always an enemy attacking you from some angle. Maybe where you can see him, maybe where you can’t. And when things get hot and you’re surrounded and there’s damage coming your way from a full range, you either have to pull out with a quick tap of the dodge button or parry them all with a well-timed press of the block. It’s not crucial around the start, but by the third chapter you won’t be able to survive without mixing it up, balancing a crushing offense with an impenetrable defense, fighting to keep the tide of battle flowing in your favor.

Not only that, but the more you tear things up, the more the sparks fly; the game rewards long combos with bright lightshows. Each slash adds a little more to the glow, growing sparks as metal pierces metal, burning brighter and brighter still until the entire screen is filled up like a localized Fourth of July. And even though it might get so brilliant that you can’t see yourself through it all, you can still tell from the body parts flying around that, somewhere in that electric haze, you’re in control. It should get old, but it doesn’t.

Now, the slowdown…I counted on that. So many enemies, so many attacks, so much light; there was no way it couldn’t lag a bit. The slack had to be cut somewhere. And I was right about that much: it does have slowdown. I was just wrong about it being an annoyance. When you’ve got thirty enemies onscreen and each one’s raising their sword for the killing blow, believe me, you want the game to slow down. It helps. Maybe that’s just the way the game was designed, maybe that slowdown isn’t slowdown at all. But still, it helps.

So…good gameplay, fun; enough so to warrant a run-through, maybe even two. But gameplay was never my major grudge against the game; a big part of it, yeah, but not the biggest. Seven Samurai is a heavy name to hold up, and I just could not imagine this game taking the weight. I expected it to bastardize Akira Kurosawa’s vision, to tear apart the name it held with a slew of cliché needle-noggins, anime stereotypes. I wanted it to be not worthy.

Once again, it disappoints me by not disappointing me. Seven Samurai 20XX turns water to wine and actually pulls a competent story, cliches be damned.

Take the hero, Natoe. I took one look at him and wrote him off to just be another candidate for Spike-Haired Swordslinger of the Month, your typical one-note one-man army. But even though Natoe’s far from being the most original character I’ve come across, he’s got a certain quality to him, a subtle charm. He takes things as they come, moves in that devil-may-care sort of way. He doesn’t hide emotions, he embraces them; lets his instincts govern his every move and thought. He’s got problems, he’s got concerns, he’s got fears. And there’s something about a guy who has no problem saying ‘Bite me’ to a dominatrix/bird-chick/witch hybrid who wants to enslave him…I like him. Damn it all, I like the guy.

And he’s not the only one; Seven Samurai 20XX is filled with quirky characters; each one unique, each one with a history to build on, lives to live. You get the sense that the game’s not so much one big story as it is seven stories converging, ongoing tales flowing together. Relationships play off relationships, pasts are explored, motivations are challenged, secrets are hidden and secrets are revealed. In the end, as the end credits rolled, I sympathized with every sacrifice made and looked back at key moments with a slight smile. I cared. Not as much as I cared about the original Seven Samurai, but I cared.

Seven Samurai 20XX is far from flawless; don’t think otherwise. Playing as Natoe’s fun, but he’s just one samurai; you never get any playtime with the other six. As a matter of fact, beyond a few minor scuffles in the cutscenes, you don’t even get to see them fight, a true disappointment since what little we do see shows some mad moves at work. And while the characters are an interesting bunch, the story they fight in is anything but; an inferior plot with loose ends and contrived twists, your average tale of a superior race trying to wipe out the unworthy humans. It’s a short deal, too; ten chapters make for a three-hour rumble, and once you get through with that, there’s no real reason to go for a second try. The survival mode stretches things out for an hour or so, but not much longer and not nearly enough to lift Seven Samurai 20XX out of rent-worthy status.

But it’s minor stuff, not worth complaining about when you look at the whole product. It’s a fast thrill, a one-night stand, and it doesn’t pretend otherwise.

I still hate Seven Samurai 20XX, but more for its stubborn refusal to suck than anything. Yeah, that’s dumb. No one ever accused me of being all that smart. I don’t want to tell you that I had fun playing it, but I did. I don’t want to say you’ll like it if you take it for what it is, but you probably will. It won’t do for videogames what Seven Samurai did for movies, but it will give you some good times, if just for a short while. And maybe that’s enough. Maybe.

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Featured community review by lasthero (September 12, 2005)

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