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Way of the Samurai (PlayStation 2) artwork

Way of the Samurai (PlayStation 2) review

"I picked up Way of the Samurai many a year ago in one of those impulses that causes you to browse games at Target while youíre momentarily distracted from buying cheap T-shirts with pictures of Bob Ross on them. These impulses occasionally lead to solid gold, more often lead to disappointment, and can on rare occasion result in eternal damnation, like the time I found one of Satanís toenails at a lazy seaside pawn shop. "

I picked up Way of the Samurai many a year ago in one of those impulses that causes you to browse games at Target while youíre momentarily distracted from buying cheap T-shirts with pictures of Bob Ross on them. These impulses occasionally lead to solid gold, more often lead to disappointment, and can on rare occasion result in eternal damnation, like the time I found one of Satanís toenails at a lazy seaside pawn shop.

In this case, it led to a mediocre video game.

My experience began well enough with character creation which was basically choosing a face, slapping it in a kimono, and naming it. I made a guy with massive sideburns and a pony tail who wore a bright yellow kimono. I called him Menji. I envisioned him as a renegade samurai from a well respected house who had been forced to flee after having a night of sexual freedom with his lordís daughter. Now, tortured by his shame, he wanders the countryside looking for his own death.

The game proper opened with Menji coming into Rokkutsu pass, a free-roam environment made up of a menagerie of Samurai Western staples including a shrine, a dusty little town, a mountain pass, and a railway crossing. The first scene saw Menji at a small bridge where lo! a young woman was being chased by a group of vicious thugs. After a quick look at the womanís face, Menji saw she was uglier than a horseís rear-end and decided to pass across the bridge without helping her. The ruffians knocked her out, their tattooed leader hoisted her over a shoulder, and they prepared to make off.

Things might have ended peacefully there. But then the miscreant had the misfortune of bumping Menjiís arm. And he didnít apologize. Blades were drawn. The ruffian tossed some tough words MenjiĒs way. Menji decided to show this country bumpkin the way of the Samurai. Fifteen seconds later, Menji was dead.

Okay, I thought. So the game has a learning curve. I have to admit, though, I was a little perturbed. I had played through the tutorial, after all. Iíd kicked the ass of the peasant my sensei sent against me. I knew how to guard and parry and use a couple special moves. So what had gone wrong?

I started up the game again. This time I avoided the bridge encounter altogether and instead went into town. Here I was enjoying a quick meal of rice and sake when some thugs came into the shop and starting busting shit up. I wouldnít have particularly minded if they hadnít spilled my sake. As it was, that was an unforgivable slight and blades were once again drawn.

This time I stayed far away from my opponent, studying his moves. I knew my own arsenal of attacks fairly well. I had a thrust, a couple down-swings and side-swings, and a sort've feint that looked more like a dance move than an attack. After watching my opponent shuffle around for a while, I thought I had his pattern down, so I came in from the side with a quick swing, planning to follow it up with a combo that would bring him to his knees.

In response, he blocked, pushed me off balance, slapped me in the face with the butt of his sword, kicked my feet out from under me, and stabbed me in the spine a few times while I lay defenseless on the ground. Now wait a minute, I thought. My most powerful ability is a basic thrust. How the hell do I learn THAT move?

The answer, it turned out, was to claim my opponentís sword (and thus all his moves). This meant I had to actually defeat someone, though. I eagerly rushed out into the countryside and murdered a peasant. All I got for my efforts was a stupid dull sword with crappy moves. It seemed that I was going to be forced to kill one of the real samurai if I ever wanted a better sword.

So began a long process of Menji getting his ass handed to him, no matter who I fought, whether it was a black samurai with an afro and an Italian name, a giant retard who attacked me with what looked like a street-lamp, or a man with tight red pants and spikes on his arms. It seemed that the only people I could kill were the inexperienced and innocent peasantry minding their business in the passí various locales... and then only if they were alone.

You see, combat has all the makings of a simplistic system. There's two attack buttons and one block button. Attacking while blocking leads to a kick. That's not so bad. But none of this is useful. The enemies have the ability to block, too, and they do it all the time. Now, you're SUPPOSED to be able to throw a blocking enemy off balance, but this only works about half the time. And if you fail to make it work, then YOU'RE the one off balance and vulnerable. To make matters worse, enemies often have attacks which instantly break blocks. This leaves you with two options. You can try to dodge, but this requires psychic powers, as attacks are fast and often change direction before striking, so you never know whether to back up or side step. The other option is to hit the block button at the exact moment the attack connects, which is about a window of .05 seconds. The game calls it an "awase." I call it "a chance in a million."

Fortunately, while I had learned nothing about how to fight well using the unintuitive combat system, I HAD learned the fine art of dropping to all fours like a dog and begging for my life, so although I was defeated many times, I never actually died. I just got spit upon by everyone and slowly lost sight of that originally grand character I had envisioned at the start of the game. This was no longer the adventure of Menji: bad-ass samurai, but of Menji: boot licker and petty thief. Which is ironically a fairly accurate depiction of the real samurai era in Japan. I can only assume it wasnít very much fun living in that period. And it wasnít turning out to be much fun playing Way of the Samurai, either.

The game does deserve a shout out for its excellent free roaming nature. Every one of your decisions has a profound impact on the plot, and the characters all have little secrets that you can strive to uncover. While in one play-through you might be off helping a lord re-establish his domain, in another you'll be tracking his wife to a secret rendezvous with the local law enforcer. Since events are happening at the same time all over the pass, it takes multiple play-throughs not only to get all the endings, but to even see everything there is to see.

So though Menji had utterly failed to change anything with his blade, I became vastly interested in seeing what he could change through his interactions and alliances, and kept playing.

Fate eventually caught up with the disgruntled samurai, however. During one of his usual muggings, he accidentally attacked someone who was no peasant, but a retainer of one of the local samurai houses. The retainer was quickly joined in battle by three other men and none of them seemed to show much interest in Menjiís profound apologies for having tried to take their friendís scalp as a trophy.

Whilst trying to run away and forage for some life recovering radishes, Menji was cut down... in the prime of his career, I might add.

By this point, I had won a few tough combats by luck and random button mashing and had actually gotten hold of some pretty nice blades. Iíd even souped them up via the local blacksmith so that they'd last longer in combat without breaking. So I figured the play-through, while maybe a bit of an ego castration, wasnít all wasted. When I started again, Iíd be more powerful from the outset, actually able to use enough moves that I might stand a chance at playing, if not a super samurai, then at least a competent samurai.

But no. Because when you die in Way of the Samurai you lose everything. All of your weapons. All of your moves. And a good two or three hours of your actual life. You canít save, so it was back to the very beginning with me, with starting inventory and absolutely no future.

I suppose if I had the patience of a Zen master, I could memorize the move sets of all the enemies and learn that split second for each attack when you can dodge it. But thatís not why I had bought Way of the Samurai. I had been attracted by the notion of being Yojimbo or Zatoichi, bringing honor to the countryside with the sharp end of my blade. I assume thatís why most people would be looking to play Way of the Samurai. Be warned, youíll more likely end up playing the eternal Grasshopper... in a world with a lot of lawnmowers.

zippdementia's avatar
Featured community review by zippdementia (January 19, 2009)

Zipp has spent most of his life standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox there. Sometimes he writes reviews and puts them in the mailbox.

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darketernal posted January 21, 2009:

Nice review, though honestly, for a 4/10 game you would have made me want to play it with a description, since it sounds so very different. I actually played it before and enjoyed the game, though yes, it's got a steep learning curve, but once you get the right blades little can stand in your way. All you need to do is survive until then.
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zippdementia posted January 21, 2009:

Actually, what I found was that while I could survive with the right blades for a good while, eventually something would go wrong and I would die and LOSE ALL MY EXCELLENT BLADES AND HAVE TO START FROM ZERO!!!!

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randxian posted July 09, 2009:

This is excellent. Using your personal experiences really helped illustrate all the problems with this game. I now know to stay the hell away from this game.

And I hate those games where it advertises glorious specials moves if you time the block button perfectly. As you said, those are more random luck than anything else. There is no way anyone is that fast.
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zippdementia posted July 10, 2009:

This is a game which tries to let the player create their own story. I've given you the story I created. The freedom of movement and decision was stymied greatly by the lack of freedom in being able to actually defeat anyone. Glad I got that across, thanks for reading and commenting!

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