Most 2-D fighters don't make the transition to 3-D very well. More often than not, things like speed get sacrificed for fluidity. Some of the more spectacular moves get toned down or removed altogether in the name of realism. The look also changes to the point where some fighters and backgrounds that looked great in 2-D suddenly lose their luster with the change in dimension and perspective. Some of the big name fighting games like, Street Fighter and The King of Fighters, have had several iterations to perfect their respective 3-D entries, but in the end, they stuck to the perspectives they do best.
Samurai Shodown is no stranger to the 3-D transition, with three games in the series having already taken the leap. However, unlike other fighting games, those entries were immediately dubbed as being vastly inferior fighting games and were certainly low points for the series, according to most fans. Despite those mishaps, SNK still believes that it can make a good 3-D fighting game out of its weapon-based brawler. Its latest attempt, Samurai Shodown Sen, has made the transition from arcades to Xbox 360, and while it is the best 3-D version of the game series so far, it still doesn't reach the level of polish that the 2-D versions did so many years ago.
The game sports four different game modes that are pretty standard for any fighting game nowadays. Story mode is your basic single-player mode that has you selecting any one of the 24 available characters (two more get unlocked later, bumping the roster to 26) to fight five other random fighters before taking on two henchmen and the final boss, who is hell bent on world domination through the destruction of every European country but his own. Like most titles, each character fights for his own cause, whether it is regaining the ability to hear spiritual voices, finding a doctor to cure a child's ailments, or just being the best swordsman in the world.
There are a few things about the Story mode that will immediately stand out when you start playing. Unlike most fighting games, normal difficulty in Samurai Shodown Sen feels like hard difficulty in other games. Whereas most games tend to let you win your first and second bouts before becoming formidable in the third match, this title will beat you down badly in the first match and never lets up. The tradition of overly difficult SNK bosses is also here, though it applies more to the second henchman than the boss itself, thanks to his unblockable shotgun attacks. Fighting game experts can certainly beat this, but casual fans will be turned off by the fact that it is difficult to even win one match. When combined with the excruciatingly long load times and no option to immediately retry a match to escape loading screens, the experience becomes painful.
The second item players will note is the game's treatment of the story. Fighting games usually don't pay much attention to the actual plot for each individual fighter, but you are often rewarded with still pictures or a movie depicting what happens to your winner after the fighting has concluded. You get individual stories for your players, but they are all presented as blocks of text that somehow can't keep up with the narrator's voice. The only cut scenes are in the middle of the game, which is the same no matter who you choose, and the last two scenes are actually character-specific. For fans of the series, it is disappointing to see that your hard work simply results in text that features no voice accompaniment and the same movie background for everyone. The older games always rewarded you with scenes that didn't always make sense but at least used the in-game graphics to convey the story rather well. It is shameful to rob them of that joy and replace it with something rather lifeless.
The third thing, and most important for fans, is the fighting system. The change to 3-D isn't just a perspective change but a change to the game as a whole. The Samurai Shodown you may have known for years is no longer here, replaced instead by something that can aptly be described as a Soul Blade clone that moves at a slower pace. There's only one kind of kick instead of three. Slashing is differentiated by horizontal and vertical motions instead of by varying strengths. Grabbing has a dedicated button instead of being done when in proximity to your opponent. Jumping isn't very high and — with the exception of Draco, who has a rifle as his weapon of choice and Galford's husky charge attack — no one has any of his or her traditional projectile moves. The older characters still have their slashing special moves and combos, but moves like Haohmaru's projectile slash are completely absent. It is a more realistic fighting game in that sense, but each character has at least three different slashes that are too powerful for their own good.
This wouldn't be so bad if they were tied to a special meter that had to be built up, but these moves can be initiated at any time without a penalty unless you were blocked. Even then, three or four successful hits with those moves will kill enemies and usually result in fatalities ranging from fatal stabs to cut torsos to severed limbs. The moves are powerful enough that the repertoire of other moves at your disposal, while many, are usually ignored in bouts, and these super moves are heavily favored instead. Those moves alone can turn this into a more Bushido Blade-like experience with focus on quick kills and short matches instead of a Samurai Shodown game. For fans of the series, this title simply becomes a different fighting game altogether, though with a good portion of recognizable characters thrown in for good measure.
As expected, Versus mode is included with access to all available characters and venues for both 1P vs. CPU play and 1P vs. 2P play. You also have a Training mode that lets you change all parameters concerning matches and opponent behavior as well as have a list of all the available moves for your character. One thing the training mode doesn't have, though, is the ability to see stats for each move and whether they are considered high-, mid-, or low-range attacks. Controller input indicators are also missing, so while you may be able to pull off a cool move, you won't know exactly how you pulled it off. Those omissions make the mode feel like nothing more than an infinite versus mode instead of something that can be useful for an in-depth fighting system.
The final game mode, Network, contains no real surprises. Like versus mode, this is simple one-on-one fighting with customizable rounds and timers. Ranked and Player matches are here, along with a leaderboard to record wins and losses. What is surprising is the title's lack of lag. Gamers who have tried playing The King of Fighters XII on either the Xbox 360 or Sony PlayStation 3 will remember the horrendous amount of lag and how it took months before a patch made that online mode playable. Players won't have to worry about that with Samurai Shodown Sen. The few matches encountered during the test session had no lag whatsoever. Even when the connection wasn't as high as expected, the game still ran as smoothly as an offline game. While kudos should be given for this feat, it should be noted that the online community for the title is fairly small. You'll be able to find a match, but it will take a bit longer in comparison to some other fighting games.
As far as controls are concerned, they work out quite well, though they reinforce the ideal that this is more Soul Blade than Samurai Shodown. As mentioned earlier, there are two different slashes in the game, horizontal and vertical. You have a kick button and a grab button while all movement, from jumping to running to sidestepping, is handled by either the left stick or d-pad. Again, there's nothing wrong with the controls, though the game's slower pace can make them feel sluggish for gamers who are accustomed to Namco's faster-paced game. Series fans, however, will lament the missing strength variations of both kicks and slashes.
Graphically, the game fluctuates between presenting next- and current-generation traits, creating a fairly middle-of-the-road presentation in the process. The character models are pretty good, with the older characters looking close to their 2-D counterparts and the new characters matching up rather well against them. One thing that is sorely missed is the animal companions. Both Galford's husky and Nakoruru's hawk never appear throughout their fights and only show up when the special moves call for them. The same can be said for the referee, who is no longer present to show who got in a justified hit.
While the models look good, the textures tend to vary wildly. The clothes, for example, show off some amazing detail, but the hair and skin textures for some of the fighters are pretty drab by comparison. The same can be said for the environments. The buildings and foliage look great, but the sky and ground textures are blurry messes. Although there are leaves on the ground and fences for barriers, getting knocked into them or stepping on an item does nothing. Except for the grass swaying in the wind and fire in the torches, the arenas feel a bit lifeless.
Lighting is another issue plaguing the title. In general, the shadowing in most of the arenas is fine, but there are some nighttime environments that start you off in an extremely dark area, hiding away character detail and, in the case of darkly clothed fighters, giving them too much of an advantage during bouts. Fighter animation is quick, but the moves look like they don't link together properly. Mouth movement is another issue, as some characters look amazing when they talk while others look like they are barely speaking at all. As for particle effects, this is one area where the game stays consistent. Sparks, flashes, and other effects from sword clashes look brilliant, and while the blood splotches may not stick around forever, you do get a copious amount (especially during limb cuts), making this the bloodiest entry in the series to date.
The sound is very good, continuing the series' tradition of great audio. The effects are good, with metal clangs coming in clearly and sharply. With the exception of the fight announcer proclaiming winners, losers, and round markers, all of the other voices are in Japanese and sound fine. It sounds a bit strange to have some of the new, non-Japanese characters speaking Japanese, but it is something the series has always done, so it's not much of a deal-breaker to leave English out of this. The series has always relied on traditional Japanese instruments to generate the music for each level, and this entry is no exception to that rule. All of the levels features in Japan carry beats from taiko drums and the like to give the game a truly Japanese feel. Once the action broadens to non-Japanese levels, the music changes and, like the gameplay, carries a Soul Blade feel with full orchestrated music filling the speakers. It matches well with the game, though the Wild West daytime level music feels too joyous to match well with a sword fight. The only other complaint is with the volume. The game is much louder than most games on the system, so if you plan on playing this one, turn down the speakers just a bit before you get assaulted with audio at a much higher volume than expected.
Truth to tell, Samurai Shodown Sen isn't exactly a bad game. It has great sound and awesome network performance, though the graphics could be better and load times could be much, much shorter. The fighting system is flawed but still quite fun. It would normally be easy to say that fans should pick up this title, but that isn't the case here. The title is beguiling, as some of the things that Samurai Shodown fans expect just aren't present, and overall, the game feels too different to justify it being given the name of the old franchise. Fighting game fans should try renting this one. It may not necessarily be something you'd want to own, but it provides some good gaming time for a short while. However, series fans should stay away unless you are sincerely curious about the game. The expectations from the name and failure to deliver some of those aspects may be too overwhelming, making you overlook some of the aspects that this game gets right.
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