My favorite genre in gaming has always been fighting. Playing hours of different fighting games with family has become some of my most cherished memories growing up. Over the years we’ve seen tons of different types of fighting games and it seems every year there is a new entry with its own unique features. Some games, like Mortal Kombat 11 and Street Fighter V, are more focused experiences that rely on combo mastery. Some games are more casual with simplified mechanics, like SNK Heroines: Tag Team Frenzy. Then you have games that are just chaos and made to be played haphazardly with friends, like Super Smash Bros Ultimate. Samurai Shodown looks to separate itself from other entries by crafting a slower paced fighting game, one with no combos, and that plays much like a chess match.
As mentioned, this isn’t a combo heavy or focused game. This is a game where every strike counts and can change the tide of a fight in an instant. The pace is deliberately slowed down because of this, causing you to strategize your attack and think of the different defensive decisions you may have to make if countered. You have a light attack, a medium attack, a heavy attack, a block, dodge, and parry at your disposal. With that, you’ll have to figure out the best way to take out the opponent, though it might not be easy. Heavy attacks are the easiest to punish, so you need to be cautious and execute them with precision. On the other side, you have to be careful when you block too because that could cost you half your health if you do it prematurely or mistime it. I found this to be a good thing because a lot of times, in other fighting games, you’ll have players turtle up and just block until they have an opening. In this game, that’s essentially null and void. The best way to block is to use your mobility, which causes players to always be in motion. Jumping out of the way, doing a quick light attack to stop from being grabbed, these will give you more success at blocking.
Then there is the parry, which is quite possibly the game’s strongest and most deadly mechanic. If you successfully parry an attack, you’ll knock the opponent’s weapon from their hand and place them in a devastating disadvantage. They’ll lose access to a lot of their attacks and will now have to worry about getting that weapon back while fighting you off, though they can still block. This makes it extremely important to read your opponent and plan your course of actions cautiously. Whether you’re blocking or attacking, you have a meter at the bottom of the screen that’ll fill. The Rage Meter, once full, will enhance your attacks, help you do more damage, and knock the weapon out of your opponent’s hand. Correctly disarming the opposing player, via the Weapon Flipping technique, is an advantage that you still need to be cautious with, because a single blow can turn the tide of battle. Especially if they have a Rage Meter that can be consumed and grant them a Rage Explosion.
Rage Explosion adds another boost in your attacks and opens the possibility for you to use your Lightning Blade Technique. This attack changes the game’s visuals, adding a cinematic flair to it, and can only be used once per match. Once you’ve used it, your Rage Meter is gone for the rest of the fight. Another ability at your disposal is the Super Special Attack. This attack is the typical finisher found in other fighting games once you’ve filled your meter up. The main difference being that it does 70% of damage and can only be used once per match, regardless if it lands or not. All of this adds another layer of strategy to an already unpredictable and dynamic chess match. All of these tools make it easy to drain your opponent's life bar, placing a bigger emphasis on it. Having more deliberate striking, as opposed to flurries of attacks, makes this fighting game more unique than others in many ways. This is even more so when you realize that the tide can turn instantly due to all attacks dealing a hefty amount of damage.
When it comes to performing all of this, you have a roster of 16 balanced and unique fighters to do so with. Fighters are unique and really feel different from others on screen. No two characters play the same, which is a crutch that plagues a lot of fighting games, and each will require time to master them. You’ll discover which character works best against which other one and there is a play style for pretty much every kind of gamer. The developers have really gone out of their way to add deep levels of detail to each character, making them expressive and showing off their personalities. They all have their own unique animations that add another layer to them and each character is voiced. The voice acting is all in Japanese, and is well done and full of emotion. No character sounds off and each one fits their respective personalities how you would expect.
This is further shown through the game’s beautiful watercolor inspired graphics. The entire thing looks to be painted, but with 3D models and elements, with an inspiration from Japanese scrolls. Dark inky blacks, bright colors, and a variety of stages from everything from ice-capped mountains behind a blue ocean to a fall inspired forest with large autumn trees of various colors. Visually, this may be the best looking SNK fighting game to date and they should be commended for it. Great sound design follows beautiful particle effects and the game runs everything with ease. No stuttering, no frame rate issues, and I haven’t encountered any bugs or glitches on my end. Attacks in this game will cause characters to become crimson with blood but there is a setting in the options menu to disable it. You can also mess with the button configuration on your controller in the options too.
With Samurai Shodown, there are different modes to test your skills or to develop them. The Practice section will allow you to jump into training and learn some attacks against the CPU, or you could enter the tutorial section and learn everything from basic actions, such as crouching and moving, to more advanced techniques, like advancing attacks and breaking guards. This is the best place to try out something you’ve seen someone do, to put theories to the test, and to take your skills to another level. In the Dojo section, you fight against your or another player’s ghost. Ghosts are the CPU mimicking your play style, or someone else’s, and is supposed to be used as a tool to help you find your weaknesses and become a better player. You can do this one on one or enter the game’s Ironman Challenge and fight a gauntlet of them at up to 100 concurrent battles. It’s all great in theory but I don’t think the ghosts accurately mimic anyone’s play style. There are definitely certain actions you do that you’ll be able to pick up on as being replicated but not enough to sell the description. They are also incredibly easy to defeat. Other side modes are Gauntlet, which is you fighting against the entire cast, Survival which is where you see how long you can last against as many CPU characters as your life bar allows, and seeing how many CPU fighters you can defeat within the time limit in Time Trials. I also found the opponents much easier than I would have liked.
Samurai Shodown does have a Story Mode, but it’s more of a glorified Arcade Mode. That’s disappointing when companies like NetherRealm Studios is pushing the narrative envelope in their fighting games and Capcom, for better or worse, is taking risks in theirs. SNK has chosen to take the easiest route possible, one without much risk and similar to how fighting games used to do it back in the day. That isn’t a bad thing necessarily, just a missed opportunity. Especially when the plot, or lack thereof, does very little in connecting the player to these characters. You’ll learn more about them based on their quirks and animations, their play style and their dialogue, than you will within the Story Mode. The art used at the start of a run is beautiful, like a manga come to life, and the game keeps track of how long it takes to complete for the leaderboards. You’ll complete each playthrough in half an hour but the unfair and overpowered final boss might extend that time. If you want to play with friends at home, there is a versus mode.
Online fares better with Ranked and Casual matches, granting you global competition. Ranked will match you with players of similar skill, and the only way to become number one is to win. Causal works different in this game than other fighting games. Instead of matching you up with a random player, you either create a room to your specifications or join one. Specifications include limiting joining players based off of region and/or connection speed. The game will show you your last 10 outcomes from previous online encounters and a win/loss ratio after every fight. Leaderboards ranking every player globally is available. Online has been a positive experience for me with little to no lag. Matches that show a good connection are usually accurate and it’s the same with those that aren’t as good. Matches are usually quick and you're in and out of a fight pretty quickly.
You have unlockables in the form of artwork, cutscenes, voice, and music tracks. There is a database that’ll show you your stats and a Live from PlayStation section that’ll take you to live Samurai Shodown games being played, regardless of streaming platform. Overall, Samurai Shodown is a good return for the series. Strong gameplay and mechanics, diverse and unique roster, and wonderful graphics make this game stand out from others. Most importantly, the game is a lot of fun. It’s a blast discovering all of the different characters and learning how they work. The game also suffers from long loading times, much longer than should be needed.
There are some questionable aspects to morality in this game. You’ll find some sexualized characters with revealing clothing and one character who acts sensual as she attacks. Due to the nature of fighting games, there are elements of strong violence. Blood will spatter and coat fighters as matches progress. You can tone this down in the options menu but there is a reason why this game is rated M. It's a mature game that should only be played by those who are 18 or older.