Friday, October 29, 2010

Review: Sengoku BASARA Samurai Heroes

To the uninitiated, the first introduction to the world of Sengoku BASARA will most likely affirm your initial preconceptions of the game. A thrashing electro pop/rock hybrid of an opening theme blasts out as swords clash and fists fly; cycling through the bizarre assortment of madcap combatants in typical fighting game fashion. If you had any suspicions of the nature of Sengoku BASARA: Samurai Heroes before loading it up, then the minute-long opening video before the main menu should certainly act as confirmation. It is very Japanese, a trait that for many of us less travelled gamers renders the title in question way out of our Westernised comfort zones.

Samurai Heroes is both published and developed by Capcom, meaning we’re not treading completely unfamiliar terrain here, with the man behind Devil May Cry 4 assuming orchestration duties. But, players craving the gothic tonality of Dante’s demon-slaying escapades would be well advised to divert their attentions elsewhere. The general overarching plotline of Samurai Heroes is more or less just a vague narrative device that plays second fiddle to the brawl or nothing gameplay. Set “during a tumultuous period of Japanese history” your chosen character (eight are available initially with additions to the roster to unlock) embarks on a quest of unification or revenge depending on their moral disposition.

It soon becomes apparent that Samurai Heroes is a light hearted affair, and in fact revels in its own sheer ridiculousness. We may connate the Samurai culture with bloodshed, morbidity or sacrifice, yet this tongue in cheek brawler is bright, brash, and in fact a very humorous title. In videogames especially, the conversion from Japanese to English becomes a rather bungled process (“All your base are belong to us” becoming an iconic symbol of such instances). Dodgy text translations and shocking American voice-overs are often staple ingredients of an East to West transition, often resulting in thoroughly unintentional humour. Luckily Samurai Heroes is fully aware of this notion, and what primarily seems like slight inward mockery soon becomes fully blown self deprecating hilarity.

Whether this was the case in the Japanese original remains to be seen, but the dreadful wooden acting and cliché ridden script really have to be seen to be believed. Littered with exaggerated denouncements of honour, nobility and cries of revenge; the cast will literally have you laughing out loud. Outrageously camp adversaries and praise gushing allies are among some of the demented caricatures you’ll encounter, each adding to the comedic feel of the Sengoku BASARA world. Of course those unwilling to embrace the eccentricity will be unlikely to warm to the playing experience, as this sense of outlandishness is a permanent theme throughout the game.

The core gameplay mode here is ‘Heroes Story’; a quest mode of sorts, that strings individual stages together with your chosen fighter’s ‘narrative’ (using the word in the loosest possible sense). These self contained areas play host to the third person ‘crowd combat‘, a la Dynasty Warriors/Fighting Force/Ninety Nine Nights. The basic premise involves fighting through ranks and ranks of enemy soldiers, gaining control of designated encampments and eventually confronting (there are often more than one however) the stage’s inevitably bonkers boss character. No wild originality there, but the breakneck pace of each ‘war’ and the fluidity of the fighting (the vast amount of NPC’s thankfully do not cause frame rate issues) suits the nature of such combat heavy titles; the only break in the action coming in the form of the occasional absurdity-riddled cut scene.

The most accurate way to describe the frenetic action in Samurai Heroes would be ‘combo-centric’. You’ll be actively encouraged to rack up hit chains in excess of 2000 against the hordes of enemy foot soldiers. Moves are referred to as ‘Arts’: Normal and Special Arts (square/triangle) which in turn effectuate juggles and air attacks, ‘Super Arts’ (R2), and a charged up frenzy; the ‘Basara Art’ (circle), which will rack up the KO’s and send the combo counter into overdrive. These are complimented by the ‘Hero Time’ ability, enabling you to slow down time to your advantage after you’ve charged up the relevant metre with enough hits during the course of battle. It’s a simplistic layout, but one that’s geared towards a pick up and play accessibility, a notion that certainly works in Samurai Heroes favour.

Initial button bashing will soon give way to a slightly more tactical, though still undeniably basic approach. Chaining vast combos together (where the bulk of the enjoyment lies) as well as citing the most efficient way to utilize your most powerful Arts will result in a sense of satisfaction, albeit one governed by simplicity. For example, using Ieyasu’s (the clean cut, well-to-do character in search of peace and unification via the means of relentless violence) sun splitter when overwhelmed by foes causes decent amounts of damage and effectively repels the masses; allowing some much needed breathing space to instigate your next barrage. It may well be wise to keep your Hero Time and Basara Art gauges charged for the boss encounters, as here is where the ability to slow time and command a powerful multi-hit frenzy will be most advantageous.

As you progress through the linear battlefields you’ll be accompanied by allied soldiers and a supporting general, the AI of which truly exemplifies incompetence. Opting to stand around passively instead of actively engaging with enemy troops is a fact that you’ll come to terms with early on; realising that assistance wise your cohorts are more or less non-functional. Initially this is not too much of an issue, but as the challenge greatens, a helping hand would be much appreciated. However, a friend can grab a second pad and take control of your otherwise completely static ally (your small collective of soldiers remains uncontrollable however), which hardcore players aside, you’ll need to rely on in order to conquer the hardest difficulty or overcome the more resilient bosses. Co-op is good clean fun and should vanquish the frustrations suffered whilst accompanying your pacifistic single player compardres.

Upon defeating the bosses of certain factions, some will opt to unite with you or alternatively join your nemesis, cue more consciously pretentious drama to prod your character specific plot along. Amidst the preposterousness that envelopes Samurai Heroes lies shallow RPG elements of sorts. Don’t expect anything beyond basic item combination, weapon accessories or obligatory levelling up (no in-depth customisation or daunting sub menus to trouble you), but then again role playing is most definitely not the focal point of the game, and as such it would be an unfair criticism to highlight the non-complexity of this feature.

The trouble with relying so heavily on one mechanic; relentless fighting - though entertaining in short bursts - is that repetition is destined to rear its ugly head. With nine stages (battles last around half an hour barring death) per character and no checkpoint system within each one; only the most patient and dedicated players will fully conclude each and every starting/unlockable warrior’s quest. On the other hand, in that respect it’s fair to say that Samurai Heroes gives punters value for money, at least in terms of possible play time. A quick battle mode lets you replay any one of the 38 stages once they’ve been unlocked in Heroes Story. Unlockable titles, and a gallery mode are available for those who want to relive the melodrama, adding bulk to the game, although supplying very little in the way extra variety. With no online options or leaderboards to broaden the Samurai Heroes experience, lack of variation is a real issue that will effect all but the most devoted of brawler/action fanatics. Still, most gamers who aren’t part of the aforementioned demographic can still attain a simplistic pleasure here, if not find the motivation for extended replayability.

Sengoku BASARA: Samurai Heroes is most definitely an acquired taste. The game’s over the top flamboyance may well be an attraction to some gamers, whereas others will detest it from the outset. Suffice to say that Western audiences do not stereotypically take to such games as their Eastern counterparts do. It’s bizarre, brash and wholeheartedly Japanese, a cultural barrier that many will simply refuse to attempt to bypass.

However, beneath the oddball exterior lies an accessibly gratifying slice of action. It’s fun and addictive in bursts, though repetition detracts from the potential longevity on offer. Fans of third person fighters would be advised to at least give Sengoku BASARA: Samurai Heroes a shot, and at just over £20 new at retail it could well be worth a look for a short term fighting fix. If your sense of humour doesn’t extend to truly shocking voice-overs and scriptwriting however, stay well, well away from this title.