Samurai Shodown review: fun swordplay, not much to do

Our US chums review Samurai Showdown, the latest game from SNK, on PS4...

In the 90s heyday of fighting games, SNK looked like they were releasing a new game every week. Like clockwork, they would churn out a new fighter, amassing an impressive collection of series. SNK fell to the wayside after the turn of the century, but they’ve been trying to leave their mark in the modern day best they can. Three years ago, they gave us King Of Fighters XIV, which was a completely solid release that many stepped around due to its dated graphics.

It makes sense that their next attempt at relevance would be to tackle the Samurai Shodown series, which hasn’t had an update in about a decade and a half. Samurai Shodown was SNK’s secondary big gun compared to King Of Fighters. It was the Darkstalkers to their Street Fighter. The SoulCalibur to their Tekken. The Injustice to their Mortal Kombat. It’s their B-franchise and now’s the time to bring it back.

This time SNK jumped on improving the graphics to the point that the cast of swordsmen and women look akin to Street Fighter V’s roster of action figures covered in crosshatch. Eh, a step up is a step up.

Samurai Shodown takes place in the late 1700s in Japan, naturally enough. Despite having some fantastic character designs, the series has always been bottom of the barrel when it comes to its overarching storyline. The 2019 revival is no different. Basically, there are some bad vibes in the horizon and a woman named Shizuka is either overtaken by those negative energies or she’s simply the source. Regardless, various warriors from all over are drawn towards her.

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A lot of the overall packaging carries over from King Of Fighters XIV, but you can’t help but notice the big roster difference. The 3-on-3 King Of Fighters had 50 characters to its name pre-DLC while Samurai Shodown has sixteen playable characters and one unplayable boss. That’s a fraction of the variety, but it’s somewhat forgivable for being very apples and oranges to King Of Fighters’ engine. King Of Fighters is about endurance while Samurai Shodown is all about blunt impact.

Sure, there are combos in here, but they don’t stretch out into the double digits and break the game. It’s more about choosing your moment and punishing the mistakes of your opponent. Out-think and out-manoeuvre. The toolset for the characters is fairly limited, but it hits that nice balance of being simple enough to pick up and deep enough to dive into. For the most part, it feels like the classic games, including the super meter that climbs based on damage you take, the ability to dodge, the button setup (three blade attack buttons of increasing strength and a kick button), the hazard of being able to get your blades knocked out of your hands, etc.

There isn’t much new to the engine, all things considered. The biggest addition is the ability to pull off one of those cliché, cinematic samurai dash kills. You know, the thing where a swordsman runs forward while swinging down, stays still, then suddenly the victim feels the effects of being mortally wounded after a long delay. It’s very much like the Instant Kills from Guilty Gear. Using your meter, you activate a window of time where your character is glowing. During that time, if you can hit the dash kill, you take off well over half of the opponent’s health bar. In return, your super meter is straight-up gone for the rest of the match. Using it to win your first round means that you’re losing important offensive assets for the rest of the set.

Speaking of cutting people open, the game has an optional level of bloodshed in it. It’s not the buckets of red goo from Mortal Kombat 11 where every kill is a detailed biology lesson, but more like a red spray from a B-movie. As the matches progress, so do the bloodstains on the fighters. If you end the match with the right kind of slice, you straight-up cut your enemy in half in a way that’s comparatively clean and cartoony.

Thirteen classic characters return this time around, including main hero Haohmaru, nature protector Nakoruru, mountain-sized Texas ninja Earthquake, grizzled dual wielder Jubei, and so on. Of the new cast, we have Wu-Ruixiang, who is like a Chinese Velma from Scooby Doo. Yashamura Kurama is kind of a samurai/ninja hybrid. Then there’s tough-as-nails Darli Dagger, a pirate woman carrying a big axe with a jagged edge to it. Darli is easily the highlight of the new crew.

As mentioned earlier, the game has roughly the same package as King Of Fighters XIV, which is pretty much the most minimal amount of stuff your fighting game should have to get a pass (Street Fighter V, I’m looking at you). There’s an arcade mode (labeled “story mode,” which might confuse people expecting a lengthy, cinematic one-player campaign), where you work your way into fighting Shizuka and hope to earn your character’s ending.

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Then you have versus, time trial, survival, and so on. There’s a new form of versus where you can face a CPU opponent programmed to behave like an actual player – taking a page from Killer Instinct’s book – but it doesn’t really stand out or work well enough to remember. There’s a gallery tossed in there, but it’s a sad state of affairs compared to what King Of Fighters XIV’s series-spanning retrospective of artwork.

What we get in the end is a fighting game that’s incredibly solid in its core gameplay and looks swell enough (though the backgrounds are just kind of there), but it sadly feels like it’s lacking because there’s little else to do. You better hope that you and your human opponents really take to it because otherwise you just have sixteen trips through story mode and some fluff to keep you interested. Well, twenty trips once the DLC kicks in. As it stands, it’s hard to support the idea that this is a game worthy of paying full price for.


Samurai Shodown is out now for PS4 and Xbox One.