Saturday, 1 May 2010

Review: Samurai Shodown Sen (360)

This isn’t the first time that SNK have gone down the 2D into 3D fighting game route. They have done the very same thing numerous times before, once in the mid nineties with the launch of their Hyper Neo Geo 64 arcade board, and a second time a few years back with King Of Fighters Maximum Impact for the PS2 and later on for the 360. Samurai Shodown and Fatal Fury both made an appearance on the Hyper Neo Geo 64 in Japanese arcades, and whilst maintaining the very familiar gameplay of the 2D instalments, neither series in 3D reached anywhere near the quality or popularity of the original Neo Geo games.

Samurai Shodown Sen (or just Sen) is the latest folly in the new SNK’s revitalised plans for their hit franchises, a spin off which not only adds another dimension to the proceedings, but also a different style of gameplay as well. It’s hard not to cast down an early judgement against Sen for doing such a thing, considering the less than stellar quality of SNK’s other 3D versions of popular titles. But sadly, my initial gut feeling was utterly correct. Samurai Shodown Sen isn’t a particularly good game at all. In fact it is decided average in most respects, and poor in others, being playable, just about, but at the same time completely forgettable in every way.

First impressions are rather poor. Graphically the game looks very much like a last-gen title briefly polished over in order to justify a 360 release. The conversion is perfect from the game’s original Taito Type X2 arcade release, though that isn’t exactly saying much, considering Sen is awash with low resolution textures, basic lighting, smooth but almost blocky looking characters, and an absolute minimum of visual effects required to be considered a next-gen (or should that be current gen?) title.

Animations are stiff, and various body parts are rather disproportionate, even for a series on which things were always a little far-out in terms of reality. A good example would be the comparison between the reasonable, and quite nice artwork, and the actual in-game models themselves. They just don’t match up at all, which is jarring to say the least.

SNK Playmore however, have seen fit to include a few 3D renditions old classic backgrounds from the original 2D games released on the Neo Geo platform; including the flagship ‘beach stage’ from the first two games, which features some wooden temple beams scaling off into the sea, whilst the waves gently stray upon the rocks; along with the ‘fields of long grass’ from Samurai Shodown II. It’s a pretty cool touch, especially for long-time fans such as myself, although their implementation is technically basic at best. Visually they look blocky like the characters, and come across as rather empty and stale, instead of lively and vibrant like in the original games.

The presentation fares a little better, and does retain some of the ‘that’ Samurai Shodown feel through authentic looking artwork, and cool old-style on-screen counters and life bars. It’s not perfect, and sometimes a little rushed, but feels at the same time, a whole lot more polished than the game’s meagre graphics offering. To be honest, this part of the game shines the brightest, feeling like a true Samurai Shodown title, music included.

In terms of characters, Sen features a total of 24, 13 of which are taken from previous games, and 11 of which are brand new creations for this latest instalment. Each one of the game’s characters fall under a Power, Skill, Speed or Tricky style of play - with Power being given to characters who favour slow, hard-hitting individual attacks; Skill for ones which favour the tactical approach to combat; Speed for quick nimble types, and Tricky for those that don’t come under any of the other play-styles on offer.

It’s nice to see so many old favourites on show, including cover star Haohmaru, the evil looking Genjuro, and French swordswoman Charlotte, all of which look a little too bulky, move rather stiffly and lack most of their trademark special moves from past games. They are still, along with the rest of the original crew, the best of the bunch, as the 11 new characters are as generic as they are bland, not holding a candle stylistically to the traditional roster.

There are four buttons to use in Sen, a horizontal slash, vertical slash, kick and one button reserved for special attacks. Pressing two of these buttons together unleashes a strong attack, much like in the first two games on the Neo Geo, whilst pressing three performs an unblockable move, which although slow to come out, is deadly if it connects. Sadly I found it to be of not much use, relying on specials, combos and Super moves in order to battle my way through the game.

So far it doesn’t sound too dissimilar from the likes of Soul Calibur or Toshinden, and the similarities don’t end there. This latest Samurai Shodown game, doesn’t actually play anything like the 2D fighters of old. In fact it plays very much like a cross between Toshinden and Dynasty Warriors on Psone, mainly being based around short three to four hit combo-strings, and a few one off powerful special attacks. Most of your time is spend juggling together a combination of vertical and horizontal attacks ending in a special for added damage.

These special attacks for the most part, also look and feel completely different to the Street Fighter style gameplay which featured in the old games. Some characters do have some of their old moves, which react very similarly to how you’d expect them to, but also have a command-list of completely new Soul Calibur-esque dial a combo style sequences. Overall, the game is much more about stringing together different normal and ‘special’ moves (if you can call them that) in the same way as you do in pretty much all modern 3D fighting games, than being a modern reference in the way of a 3D visuals, 2D fighting game.

Unfortunately it really isn’t very good in that respect, with combat being rather stiff and pretty basic at all times. Certainly, this isn’t anywhere near the polished level of Soul Calbur, in which its likely to be judged. And furthermore feels largely rushed and slightly unfinished as a result.

However, Sen isn’t a total loss. There is almost some fun to be gained from the game’s somewhat stale combat system, mostly from discovering the combinations or moves which work in delivering the greatest amount of damage, or in which can counter certain moves in certain situations. Despite this, though, the game feels old and clunky, a far removed experienced from the vastly polished fighting games of the last ten years or so. You could say that Sen would be an alright PSone launch title, but for the 360, and up against Street Fighter IV, Soul Calibur and Tekken, it just doesn’t cut it.

Fans may be pleased to see the return of the ‘POW gauge, which when filled right up allows you to power up your chosen character by pressing all four buttons, saturating them in a red glow and allowing you to pull off a character specific Super move. These like in most games of this type are a series of flashy moves stringed together into an extended combination attack, although here they are pretty uninspired, and wholly devoid of any uniqueness the series is known for.

It’s also possible to pull off a series trademark ‘finishing move’ which depending on what weapon-based move you use for a well-timed heavy blow, can result in either chopping off any one of the opponent’s limbs, decapitation, or even slicing them in half. Having these included in the game helps it feel at least like it’s trying to be a Samurai Shodown title, and does add something extra to the otherwise bland experience on offer.

More importantly SNKP have added a range of modes to keep you busy, including Story, Versus, Practice, Survival, and lastly, Online. However it is only the Story and Survival modes which are likely to hold your attention (for a short while), as there is hardly anyone playing this game online. When actually getting a match, the connection is solid enough with minimal lag (on my 1meg connection, something of a running joke here at IQGamer), to have an enjoyably serious standoff, or just a few casual matches. Finding a match however, is a problem, as there is few people online playing this game.

There’s not much to recommend about Samurai Shodown Sen. It’s not the fact that they’ve changed the way the game plays to match modern fighters like Soul Calibur or Tekken, but rather, how they’ve managed to balls it all up with a lazy, under-developed rush job of a game. I imagine that SNK was simply keen to have another famous franchise out there that wasn’t King Of Fighters or Metal Slug – both of which have been overused these past few years – and thought that a wholly different, quick release version of a fan favourite was the way to go. Sadly that isn’t the case at all, and I would rather have them spend a few extra months creating a proper 2D sequel to the franchise, or perhaps look at revisiting The Last Blade instead.

Samurai Shodown Sen isn’t a completely terrible game overall, but a decided average one instead, with poor gameplay being the main spoiling factor. It’s also the most important one too. In every regard SNKP’s latest fails to excel in one area over another, being the perfect example of a playable (barely) piece of mediocrity. The basic combo system and move set, stiff animations, and blocky graphics make Sen utterly forgettable, and a resounding disappointment to all concerned. Long time fans won’t be pleased with what they find, and everyone else is far better off with the usual alternatives.

With Super Street Fighter IV finally available, it’s pretty obvious which one you’re gonna choose. Capcom have shown just how to revitalise a dead 2D franchise, using up to date 3D visuals and a refined faithful return of 2D hit-box based gameplay. All in all, making Samurai Shodown Sen completely redundant and a laughing stock of a game.


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