Sakura Samurai: Art of the Sword is an action game for the Nintendo 3DS via the eShop. Grounding Inc. developed the game, while Nintendo published it. Grounding Inc. was co-founded by Yukio Futatsugi who directed the first three Panzer Dragoon games. The company has a background developing mobile and downloadable titles for iOS , Wii, DSi and Nintendo 3DS. They are developing both the mobile version and console version of Crimson Dragon. Crimson Dragon: Side Story will be a Windows Phone game while Crimson Dragon is an Xbox One launch title. Sakura Samurai first released in Japan about two years ago and made its way over to North America and Europe last year.
The story is one as old as time, the beautiful daughter of a god is kidnapped and everyone makes a big deal about it for a while. Then everyone forgets except for one wise old child sized turtle man (kappa), who waits for the one destined to save this Cherry Blossom Princess from her prison. As luck would have it, a nameless wandering samurai happens to stumble upon the kappa. Knowing he is the chosen one, the kappa imbues his sword with the power of the cherry blossoms and tasks the young hero to rescue the princess from an evil castle lord. Now, the hero travels the Land of the Rising Sun toppling castle lords as he tries to find the one who has the Cherry Blossom Princess. Along the way, he is going to fight a lot of samurai, archers, goons and ninjas…a lot of them.
As far as stories go, it is nothing new, especially and specifically on a Nintendo console. There are plenty of fake outs and bosses that tell the hero that the princess is in another castle. What is interesting is how it feels like a Japanese folktale, this is aided by the game’s style. However, much like most games that are built around more gameplay oriented elements, the story seems more like a frame to give players some thrust to continue fighting enemies through the game’s various areas. Because the game features a silent protagonist, there never seems to be any real reason he is trying to save the princess, outside of the fact that he was asked/told to do so. Giving the character some motivation outside of a basic moral imperative of it being a good deed would have gone a long way.
The mechanics in Sakura Samurai are not especially difficult to comprehend. Players will go through various areas in the game’s overworld, inside each area they will fight a number of enemies until they clear the area. Clearing an area opens up a path and nets the player a half of heart (two halves make up an extra heart for the hero). When in combat, players have a few options, they can attack, dodge and block. Blindly attack enemies is not a good idea since most enemies will block attacks causing the player’s sword to damage. What becomes absolutely necessary in the game is knowing when to dodge or block attacks. Blocking attacks will keep the player from taking damage, but does not give the player an opening to attack. Dodging will give the player the opportunity to attack an enemy. When dodging, players can continually dodge to get a position to attack, but the better option is to time dodges against attacks to earn precision points. Precision points are for successfully dodging an enemies attacks. Earning these points will net the player more special gauge, which when full allows the player to unleash a powerful special attack. Additionally, precision points can be sold at shops for gold.
Combat is relatively simple to understand, but there is a depth to reading enemy movements and unleashing attacks. The key to Sakura Samurai’s combat is timing attacks well. During combat players can also use various items using the D-Pad to either heal, sharpen their sword (the sword degrades for bad attacks, blocks and over use), distract an enemy or throw a kunai. There are several little mini-games to earn gold in the various towns that test player’s precision and timing and a thug challenge for defeating Castle Lords that add something for the players to do outside main story. The main issue with combat is that while it is great to see a game encourage such precision and timing for success, if the player does not find that particular idea compelling then the game becomes pretty boring after the first castle. Fighting the same enemies with slight variations becomes a bit dull. If the game followed a Shadow of the Colossus route with just boss fights then the game would be way more interesting because the boss fights are the most exciting part of the game.
Sakura Samurai looks solid for a 3DS title. It gets by heavily on its style and charm, but there is plenty to like there. While the graphics in the actual game are fine, it would have been nice if the main title art style carried over into actual gameplay. The art direction in the game is either going to win you over completely or slightly annoy you. There is something troubling about the design of the main character, but the design for the three Castle Lords is great. The soundtrack is alright, nothing particular memorable about it, but it will not get on anyone’s nerves for the several hours they play Sakura Samurai.
Sakura Samurai is decent little eShop title. There is plenty to like for gamers looking for a game that rewards well timed attacks and precise dodging. The gameplay has a depth that becomes apparent rather quickly and will dictate whether players will enjoy the game for its duration. For those that find the mechanics compelling, the game adds plenty extra challenges to test those skills past the main game. There is quite a bit of charm to the game that likely will win over most players. While not the most exciting eShop game, Sakura Samurai: Art of the Sword is a solid game.