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August 2021

Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Action/Adventure
Publisher: Adult Swim Games
Developer: Soleil Games
Release Date: Aug. 21, 2020


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PS4 Review - 'Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Sept. 2, 2020 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Set immediately before Samurai Jack's ultimate confrontation with his arch-nemesis Aku, Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time is the great stoic hero’s untold final adventure.

Buy Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time

An immensely stylish action series by Genndy Tartakovsky, "Samurai Jack" followed the adventures of a samurai who's sent to a future that is ruled by an evil demon, Aku. Jack must find a way to the past to undo the years of evil that Aku has perpetuated. Best known for its creative animation, surprising amounts of violence for a kids' show, and the fact that it returned for a final season 13 years after the previous one ended, "Samurai Jack" was one of the best shows ever on the Cartoon Network. Unfortunately, it hasn't had good luck with video game adaptations. That's why I had some hopes for Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time. A game that's released three years after the series ended must have something going for it, but alas, the truth isn't quite so bright.

Battle Through Time is set during the very last episode of "Samurai Jack," during the exact moment when Jack and Aku's formerly evil daughter Ashi travel back to the past. Unlike in the show, Jack is thrown off course by Aku's final attack and sent to a limbo world that's comprised of his past adventures. Jack is forced to battle through a who's who of his greatest challenges to confront Aku and break free of the tunnel so he can return to the past and put an end to Aku. (Yes, time travel is confusing.)

The story takes place between two of the most dramatic moments of the show and amounts to little more than giving Jack excuses to relive some of the most popular episodes of the show, while he's occasionally joined by some of the most popular characters. Every episode plays out exactly and painfully like the show, so there's little creativity on display. There is some interesting stuff about Jack's guilt over killing Ashi's siblings, but it basically goes unaddressed. Considering how the series ends, it's difficult to care too deeply about Ashi, so it's not a particularly enthralling thread to pull.

The combat in Battle Through Time is textbook brawler combat. You have a fast attack and a strong attack, they combo together, and you can dodge (later upgraded to a dodge roll) and block (lets you parry.) You also have a special Kiai Meter, which lets you temporarily become invincible and perform powerful attacks. If you've played any brawler game in the last decade, you have a pretty good idea of what to expect from Battle Through Time because it stays safely within the mold.

While Jack always has access to his unbreakable magic sword and his fists, he can also collect other weapons from chests and characters or by taking them from defeated foes. The weapons offer different combo styles, and they're each technically an "element"; some enemies are weak to hammers but not swords, or they are weak to spears but not fists, so having the proper weapon lets you do damage. However, each weapon is breakable, which isn't as much of a negative as it sounds. Once a weapon breaks, it drops bushido spirit, which is necessary to attain higher levels skills. Breaking your weapons as quickly as you can is the best way to handle things because otherwise, you'll be terribly dry on the spirits that you need to level up.

The same applies to Jack's ranged weapons. He doesn't have "infinite" ranged weapons, but he can equip anything from shurikens to machine guns. Like the other weapons, all of these can be taken from enemies, and all of them break after enough usage. It is occasionally wise to save ranged weapons, since some enemies have no idea how to handle them, making them ideal for blasting some of the more annoying foes.

Oddly, Battle Through Time can be a punishing game. Enemies hit extremely hard, and it's possible to get stunlocked or caught by grab attacks that take off half or more of your health in a single attack. It takes a while to learn how you need to approach combat — not because it's difficult but because it doesn't feel natural. You're not going to chain together combos seamlessly, but you'll need to plink away relatively slowly. Even then, you might die from cheap attacks. The developers were clearly aware of this, since Jack has a mechanic to instantly revive after death the first time he goes down in an encounter, and it also seems to recharge if you go long enough without dying.

On the other hand, it's a very feast-or-famine situation, so if you're not dying, then you're effortlessly tearing an enemy to pieces. This means that you've found the weapon they are weak against or you've found the best way to cheese them. Kiai attacks are a big example here; if you save up two or three, you can usually destroy most of a boss' life bar by spamming them. There are a few fights that feel genuinely good, but for the most part, it's either cheese or be cheesed.

The biggest problem with Battle Through Time is that the combat is stiff. It's clearly aping titles like Devil May Cry, but rather than the combat flowing smoothly, it feels rigid and canned. You eventually learn the ability to instantly guard out of an attack, but that comes so absurdly late in the game that you're unlikely to use it unless you're replaying the title on a harder difficulty level or working through the post-game challenges. Neither is particularly fun, since the core combat system doesn't have enough depth or style to justify them.

It sometimes feels like a lost PS2-era title, and at other times, it feels like the developer genuinely wanted to make an action/brawler with style and flow and perhaps didn't have the time or budget to make it work. The result is a game that clothes itself in all the trappings of a Devil May Cry-style offering without having the core gameplay to back it up, and the result is nothing special. There's clearly a desire to make a proper Samurai Jack-feeling game, but this one doesn't succeed.

Battle Through Time spends most of its time aping far better games, and when it doesn't, it feels like an HD remaster of a game from 2006. Everything, from the interface to the animation, feels like a game from the time when "Samurai Jack" was on the air and not a game that was released three years after its long-delayed final season. It's been a long time since I played an average licensed tie-in game, but like Jack, this game feels like it was sent from the past to a future where it doesn't belong.

As I mentioned, the graphics are plain and unimpressive in a way that I associate with much older game design. They aren't bad, but they are basic and uncreative, and they feel like they're missing things. Everything from attack animations to backgrounds look dull, aside from a few genuinely impressive moments that capture the style that made "Samurai Jack" stand out. The voice acting is OK, but there's precious little of it, and most dialogue between characters plays out as static text boxes. The game is bookended by animated scenes, but they are ripped directly from the last season of the show and do little to provide a satisfying explanation or a ending to the tale.

If Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time had been released when the show was still popular or even alongside the 2017 release of the last season, perhaps it would be more understandable. Instead, it feels like a game without a purpose. It's stunningly average and plays exactly like the long-forgotten cheap tie-in titles that once dominated the market. It gives the simplest fan service and the least challenging take on the character, but it occasionally shows signs of greater ambition. If you're a fan looking for a chance to play a Samurai Jack game, this is probably your best choice, but for most people, it would make more sense to watch the final season of the show without adding in a playable clip show between the series' two most dramatic moments.

Score: 6.5/10

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