If playing through Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time this weekend has taught me anything, it’s that I should really have watched more Samurai Jack.
It’s not that I was against it when it first hit Cartoon Network over here, it just… I don’t know, didn’t grip me for some reason. The biggest thing that put me off was catching intermittent episodes and therefore not knowing the story. It’s the same reason I don’t get into a lot of anime series’ as I can’t be bothered to play catch up (unless it’s Neon Genesis Evangelion, always got time for that).
Yet with the power of hindsight, I wish I had. Partly because it’s actually one of the best written cartoons going, with some of the wittiest dialogue and cracking animation going, but mainly because this game would make a lot more sense. Not that the story’s incoherent or anything, it’s just that I’d probably get a lot more of the self-referential humour and relation to all the characters that pop up. Much like the Afro Samurai game on PS3 some years back, although that made me go and watch it as a result.
So, the ultimate question is whether Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time is an accessible game to newcomers, or those without the extensive knowledge of the show, or if it’s just a game built on and for fan service? Why don’t we find out…
Long Ago, In A Distant TV Series…
The biggest stumbling block I’m going to have is writing this as a review of a standalone game, because whilst it technically is… it also isn’t. It’s not a direct sequel to either the original Cartoon Network series, or the 2017 Adult Swim revival/conclusion. Nor is it a recap of those events either.
It’s a weird one, is what I’m getting at. It starts with a summary of the basic premise: Jack’s about to kill the demon Aku, but before he can deliver the final blow the longtime foe opens a portal and flings the samurai through it into the future. Except this time Aku’s daughter Ashi comes through with Jack… until she gets flung out halfway through.
From here, the story closely follows that of the show: Jack must wander through different pockets of the future in which Aku rules over. Yet Jack interacts with people that he’s met before, as opposed to meeting them for the first time in an all-new adventure. So it’s not a recap, nor is a retcon… it’s almost like a self-referential companion piece.
Thankfully, it’s made entertaining by having the cast of the TV show reprising their roles. Phil LaMarr, John DiMaggio and Greg Baldwin are all instantly recognisable as Jack, The Scotsman and Aku, respectively. Tara Strong returns as love interest Ashi, whilst Tom Kenny chews all the scenery as Scaramouche. The dialogue is as witty and hilarious as it is in the show, so there’s nothing to worry about on that front.
So far, so good. The gang is back together, the script is just as on point. Yet there’s something that just doesn’t feel right…
“It Is My Duty To Oppose The Minions Of Aku”
Jack’s adventures this time, through time, take him to 3D-rendered locales familiar to fans of the show. Aku’s mines are the starting point, whilst by the end you’re in the far future of the prison ship before facing the shape-shifting demon in his own tower.
Gameplay consists of traversing these levels, that sometimes break into 2D linear sections much like Crash Bandicoot or Pandemonium! did back in the day, battling hordes of enemies along way. Not unlike Devil May Cry or Bayonetta, you’ll find yourself in a large room that’ll get the traditional “sealed in here until you kill everything” approach… which gets very old, very quickly.
Why would this be boring over any of the above examples, you may wonder? Well, what makes those two affectionately dubbed “spectacle fighters” is quite literally that: you pull of slick moves and stylish kills. In Jack’s world, you can get away with just mashing the X button (on Xbox) for a serviceable combo with your sword until all the things die.
Alright, it’s not just as simple as that. There is a block and evade button, but blocking is temperamental at best. Perhaps it’s my fault for honing my reflexes on Ghost of Tsushima and Sekiro, but I would expect the block button to override an attack. I’m not asking for highly cerebral levels of combat, but if I can see an enemy about to hit me I should be able to pull out of the attack I’m about to miss to defend myself. Apparently not, it seems, as Jack ends up blasting across the room Team Rocket style at most hits.
The Unbreakable Sword Is Mightier Than Everything Else
There has been some attempt at sprucing up combat, under the guise of various other weapons that can be utilised. Spears, clubs and staffs can be used instead of the unbreakable sword, whilst bows and shurikens, guns and explosives can be used as projectile weapons against the eventually similar enemies along the way.
It’s just that they don’t make for much difference in switching them up. At least in say, Ninja Gaiden, each new weapon had pros and cons, as well as a real sense of utility when certain enemy types were involved. Conversely, whilst clubs hit harder but slower over staffs, they all break over time (except the sword… obviously). You can repair them at shops fronted by Da Samurai along the way, as well as upgrade each weapon class with gold, but there’s no real benefit to doing it when your sword is just as functional as, if not better than, the others.
No, it works out easy enough just to immediately funnel your gold into leveling up your sword for the rest of the game. The only positive I found in using other weapons, or even your fists, is in the Kiai attacks. These special moves vary for each weapon, so whilst the sword’s is a mostly-single enemy channeled attack, the fist and club do massive area of effect moves instead. Thankfully, you can equip up to four wheels in a quick loadout wheel, so swapping the sword out for an area attack move before switching back is easy enough.
Ranged weapons are just… there, really. Not so much a necessity in gameplay as they are to take out the annoying flying enemies that sometimes get just out of reach of your airborne melee attacks. Throwing stars and knives are fine and all, but handguns and assault rifles that have their own ammo pool and break over time is just doubly insulting. Ergo, I didn’t bother with them.
There’s a skill system that you can spend your hard earned Skill Fire on (think of it as balls of experience or Red Orbs from DMC), which open up more combos for each weapon type, a Dark Souls-style parry and even a throw. It’s all very functional, but serves little purpose when all you really to do is keep mashing X to whittle down a cyber bug or Imakandi’s life bar.
“How Incredibly Observant You Are…”
The “thing” that doesn’t feel right, that I mentioned earlier, is the overall look of the game, which I have two grumbles about.
Firstly, the weirdly rounded 3D look of all the characters. Genndy Tartakovksy’s style is distinctive for its sharpness and usage of bold outlines. If you ever seen this, Dexter’s Laboratory, Powerpuff Girls or anything with his name on, you’ll know what I mean. There’s even an episode where they go against this type and have Jack fight a ninja in a purely black/white contrast of a warehouse (which you should check out if you want to see some cracking animation).
So seeing these familiar characters in a rounded and padded out 3D manner is… just not right. There’s no element of even attempting the bright colour palette of the episodes, either. If The Gamebakers can do it with Furi by incorporating a sort of faux-cel shading, why couldn’t Soleil? Heck, Adult Swim published this and they’re famed for their animation efforts. You’d think they would have pushed for something a bit more authentic.
The other grumble is the overall graphic presentation of the game itself. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it… but there’s nothing amazing about it either. It is, and it pains me to say it, a “serviceable game”. Worse, it’s a serviceable looking PS3 game that somehow skipped a generation and ending up on the back end of a current one. A seven year cycle that, may I remind, has given us Red Dead Redemption 2, The Last of Us Part 2 and the Resident Evil 2 Remake in terms of graphical excellence.
This game could have easily come out on the PS3 or Xbox 360, and would have been more fitting with the timing of the first discontinuation of the series. It’s not that it’s a terrible looking game in any sense, I haven’t any horrendously glaring issues or anything. It just looks bland, is all.
“Oh, That’s Some Tough Talk From Someone Who Wears A Basket On His Head”
Ultimately, then, who is this game for? The die-hard fans are going to enjoy getting another medium for one of Cartoon Network’s most revered programmes, so that’s a given. But to the casual gamer who’s looking for his next Vanquish fix is going to be disappointed with the simplicity of this game.
You could argue that it’s a game aimed at the younger audience, because they may not know the source material. For someone older like me, who hasn’t watched the show religiously, this weird recap/not-quite-in-medias-res starting story is just going to throw off what little knowledge I already have on what’s transpired in the show. The Afro Samurai game (the good 2009 one, I mean) was more of an abridged story, which then made me want to watch the series. Whereas this, I still don’t really know where it lies.
As I say, the writing and humour are great. Aku’s sarcasm is spot on, DiMaggio’s Scotsman is always hilarious and Tom Kenny as a flamboyant, jazz-scatting robot is brilliant. Even some of the visual jokes, like wanted posters for Jack listing him as “the most dangerous man on the planet. Sometimes wears a hat” are chuckle-inducing.
But longevity wise, it only took me the weekend to cruise through the game’s nine levels… and I was out of town most of the Saturday. You can whack up the difficulty, if you like, as well as replay levels to grind out the combat challenges and hunt collectibles. But they all seem so arbitrary, there’s no reason for them other than the sake of a relevant trophy/achievement.
So who would I recommend this to? The fans are already going to be on it and scrutinising or praising it in equal measure, but to a newcomer it will seem daunting when it’s already telling an established story. Perhaps when it’s a reasonable (read: cheap) price I would say it’s worth it, but unless you’re chasing achievements or a committed Samurai Jack fan, there’s other avenues to get your spectacle action adventure on.
A perfectly serviceable game that would be more fitting on last generation’s consoles, the only real investment in this will only come from being a fan of the source material.
Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time is available now on Xbox One (review format), PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch and PC
Publisher: Adult Swim
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review we were provided with a review copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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