Sakura Samurai: Art of the Sword (a.k.a. Hana Samurai: Art of the Sword)
3DS Download | Nintendo | 1 Player | Out Now | $6.99 / £6.29
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9th April 2012; By KnucklesSonic8
Sakura Samurai: Art of the Sword stars a would-be hero who doesn't know a whole lot about what he's getting into when he visits a shrine one morning. A prophecy before his time foretold the princess of the world would be saved by a certain fellow, and little does this young'un realize that he is the one that's destined for greatness. The in-game world is presented in the format of a map with lines leading to hotspots which are then segmented into three different areas. Instead of an open world with an environment-focused design structure, players will visit these different settings to enter villages and raid castles. In normal scenes that don't fit either of these descriptions, your goal is simply to clear the closed-off area of looming enemies. Everything is presented with an attractive, slightly bold art style that grabs your interest though it doesn't prove to be truly exemplary in any sense of the word. Still, tailored visuals and a pretty strong story introduction help set the stage for the adventure that follows.
Sakura Samurai's main method of progression takes shape as something that's mildly interesting from the very start. Enemies you'll come face-to-face with in standard situations and levels include armored warriors, spear bearers, archers, and ninjas. To swing your sword, you simply have to press the A Button. If you try to attack an enemy but do so with incorrect timing, both weapons will collide -- a sure-fire way to dull your sword and reduce the amount of damage you can inflict. Through the use of Whetstones, however, you can return your sword back to its original condition. When you first enter these standard areas, you'll move at a modest pace using the Circle Pad, but once the enemies make their approach and come into full view, movement will slow down as you waddle in different directions to prepare for an incoming attack. You can break free from this locked-in mode of play by holding the X Button, presumably with a strategy in mind since you'll have an angry mob chasing after you. It's at this point that you can make best use of your special attack -- the Sakura Wind -- activated by pressing the Y Button once you have enough energy in the gauge at the top of the screen.
The HUD on the upper screen is functional, using hearts to represent life points and a sword on the right representing how much energy you've built up by defeating enemies. Interestingly, each life point actually consists of two blossoms merged together, and as you complete each level, you'll earn a single blossom that will either be the start or end of a new life container. As a result, health points gradually increase as you go along, giving you more leniency as you face more threatening enemies. The lower screen is used primarily to display your inventory, with each individual item being mapped to a different button on the +Control Pad. Really, the entire layout works nicely and feels neither dull nor sloppy.
Appropriately, Sakura Samurai praises timing-based movements using a Precision Point system. Players can build up a storehouse of Precision Points and later cash them in at the shop for Gold. You can earn these by moving out of the way just as an enemy is about to land an attack on you, which is achieved by pressing the B Button as you hold the Circle Pad in the direction you'd like to move. There's some risk/reward at play in that once an enemy lands an attack on you, the tally you've gradually added to will reset back to zero. The same goes for when you swing your sword before the enemy prepares to attack. It's something to keep in mind as it prevents you from attacking haphazardly or even mindlessly.
In line with this system, players are always given additional clues as to an enemy's upcoming attack pattern so they can dodge at just the right time. For example, a red highlight of the sword just before the sweeping motion will indicate that the enemy will attack once, while the direction of the attack will be indicated by the particular stance the enemy takes. If you swap the red for yellow, you'll know that the enemy will attack twice in quick succession, which means that you'll need to give yourself enough room to get out of the area and then launch forward in time for a counter. This feature is a nice touch that can later give players an extremely brief rush of adrenalin as attacks become fiercer (especially in the case of boss battles). I wouldn't say it makes the game really fun to play, though.
One important thing to note has to do with the manner in which some enemies try and catch you off guard. Not all of the sword-wielding enemies stand in a stationary position. Some will try and attack by running towards you from a distance. This mixes things up a tad, but oftentimes what will happen is there will be an intentional delay where the enemy will freeze in place for about a second and then proceed to deliver the attack. It's not like this is a one-time thing, either. The regularity with which this occurs quickly turns it into a source of irritation, and I, as a result, have some trouble understanding why they used this ineffective strategy to try and add some challenge.
In terms of pacing, the game does feel a tad slow at the start, which is understandable since you'll be at the beginner stage at this point. Once you get rolling, however, you start to feel like the game is hampering you to a slower pace unnecessarily. It's only after you defeat the first boss that the game kicks it up a notch, as if on cue so you do not get bored from weaker enemies because of the skill you would no doubt have by this point. In line with this, you'll notice enemies will react faster and, again, start to pull off two attacks instead of one. Additionally, some areas will also have you dealing with surprise enemy attacks after defeating the initial clump of warriors.
Even with these improvements, the game still feels very much like an exercise in patience as the adventure's duration stretches out. As was mentioned, there are periodic instances where the pace increases and reflexes are required for back-to-back attack phases, but the combat system doesn't serve as a solid grip to hold on to as you make personal advancement. Part of that may be because there isn't a combo system put in place for stringing multiple attacks skillfully (no, Precision Points do not count). Players do have the opportunity to land two hits on the same enemy if they can successfully evade the attack, but this only works on certain enemies, not all. Although the game's title suggests a deeper methodology of progression in the way players would learn techniques that only an experienced swordsman could develop, there's nothing masterful to be developed or contended with. There isn't even an "artistic" component reflected in the level of skill that can be manifested in the delivery of your basic executions or the single special attack you have to work with. And to be perfectly honest, the action doesn't feel as inventive as the control systems make them out to be.
Moreover, the manner in which they've apportioned enemy encounters into these little self-contained hubs is a tad bothersome. It proves to be the missing piece of the puzzle that doesn't do as good of a job at connecting all the other pieces into something cohesive and bunched together, if you will. Worse still is the fact that the locations are a continuous rehashing of the same settings, and it's only at the preliminary testing grounds leading up to the boss encounters where you start to see more interesting scenery. These short, brief engagements is a big reason why the game doesn't have a solid footing as it tries to keep it together, particularly when it comes to morphing the concept into a world that players can fully immerse themselves into.
The entire game adheres to a system that's bent on instilling satisfaction within patient players. However, this doesn't always bode well for the player who at times may feel like there's a slight disconnect between the tensity of the action that takes place in the moment versus the pace at which the battles (and the game at large) actually move. Further, there are aspects to the game's combat that don't mesh perfectly despite the stable foundation, as has already been commented. All of this leaves Sakura Samurai feeling like a concept that wasn't taken to its fullest potential, even if the delivery as it's presented reflects more than mere adequacy.
When entering the different villages on your journey, there are four different points of interest to seek out. The first is the Frogs Plus shop where you can replenish your item supply and add other one-time-use goodies to your inventory, such as the Kappa Amulet which will automatically revive you when you lose all your health. The second is the Blossom Inn where you can rest up and return to a clean bill of health for 5G, or simply make a record of your progress to your save file. At Lookout Bellows, you'll meet a swordsmith who can forge and sharpen your blade to make your attacks more effective. Finally, by speaking to some of the local folk, you can participate in Street Challenges where you gamble your Gold with the prospect of doubling your winnings in return.
Aside from the fact that the camera wasn't too great in these areas, I did have a bit of an issue with the purpose these villages would serve. Visiting these small environments acts like a bit of reprieve from the normal action, yes, but I found that instead of having incentive to stick around and mingle with the locals (who, by the way, don't really engage you in conversation), you just end up treating it like a gas station; a quick pit stop before you're on your way again. And in the interest of creating that immersive fantasy world I mentioned earlier, their approach in this area doesn't take things to the next level.
More on the boss fights alluded to earlier, I consider this to be one of the better aspects of the entire game. They were difficult, but not to the point of frustrating. In fact, aside from the fact that losing would force you to go through all of the formalities leading up to this point, I found it was very satisfying to vanquish these giant menaces. There's actually a subtle touch at the end of the first and second boss battles that touch on the classic Mario titles, which is kind of interesting. Actually, Nintendo has seems to have drawn upon inspirations from both Zelda and Mario in other inconspicuous ways, but thankfully these don't crowd out the IP's ability to stand on its own.
When discussing the game's music, it's easy for me to say that the game sports a nice eastern feel that properly coincides with the dominant themes explored. However, nothing is ever pushed aside from the epic mood of the battle theme in the final level. While I wouldn't go so far as to say the production values here are generic, they certainly don't sound unique either. For the theme that it's working with, the soundtrack performs nicely, but not admirably enough to get you to return to the game just on the merit of the musical efforts.
Nintendo has made wonderful use of 3D in this game, first witnessed long before you even get into a battle. The title screen itself uses moving, multi-layered imagery to help set the stage, with blossoms flying out at you on occasion. As you get into it, the story cutscenes seen at the beginning of the adventure continue this positive use of 3D as you make your way to your first battle. 3D usage becomes a tad more meaningful as characters get up close during these encounters, but it's the boss battles where this feature really shines by the way it actually succeeds in pulling you in and making you sense the surrounding atmosphere as though you were partly there yourself. It definitely adds depth to the atmosphere when it's used in this manner, while in other cases it still serves as a valid, albeit less sweet-looking, inclusion. In either case, seeing 3D explored in multiple capacities in a downloadable title does help push the system's strengths.
Upon completion of the final level and seeing the credits, you'll unlock Expert Mode and now be limited to only three lives with no blossom fragments to retrieve as you fight off against even more powerful enemies. This definitely gives you something to work towards. As well, as you go about completing the game under normal circumstances, you'll notice that by completing Street Challenges you can earn small Stamps as a reward. However, these really prove inconsequential for the most part and I wasn't enticed even in the slightest to collect them all.
From the Main Menu, there are also three other options that become available before you even beat the game the first time around. The Rock Garden, for one, allows you to redeem daily steps tracked on your system to liven up a small Zen-like location. Thug Challenges prove to be more substantial add-ons in the way you're able to test your chops in a different fashion, although it would've been nice if you could compare your best scores with chums on your 3DS Friends List. Overall, the replay value is moderate, and your decision to come back will largely depend on whether or not you like a good challenge.
Hopefully this won't be the last time we see the Sakura Samurai as there's definitely room to grow in a future sequel. As is, although it can leave you with a sense of satisfaction at times, Art of the Sword is a game that requires patience to enjoy fully. The timing-based system doesn't leave you with the rewarding feeling that it ought to, and the overall delivery impedes the game's goals of shaping a world players can feel attached to. Had there been greater inner workings to the battle system and a taming of the flaws seen therein, this would've turned out to be a much stronger adventure title. Still, there are some positive aspects that make Sakura Samurai: Art of the Sword worth checking out.
22/30 - Good
Gameplay 7/10 - Broken up into small levels, combat system has a few flaws, Precision Points system, not as deep as you might think, satisfying bosses
Presentation 8/10 - Exemplary use of 3D especially in the boss battles, same settings, memorable art style, fitting music but not very unique
Enjoyment 3/5 - Fairly enjoyable, can get really good with time, becomes even more challenging later on, immersion isn't all there, an exercise in patience
Extra Content 4/5 - Will last you a couple hours, Expert Mode adds challenge, Street Challenges, use steps to improve the Rock Garden, Thug Challenges
Equivalent to a score of 73% (percentage score is approximate and based solely on the previously stated rating) - Our Rating System