Release Date: June 27, 2019Platform: PS4 (reviewed), XBODeveloper: SNK CorporationPublisher: Athlon GamesGenre: Fighting
In the ’90s heyday of fighting games, it seemed like SNK released a new game every week, churning out series after series. SNK fell to the wayside after the turn of the century, but it’s been trying to make a comeback of late. Three years ago, SNK 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 SNK’s next attempt at relevance would be a revival of the Samurai Shodown series, which hasn’t had an update in about a decade and a half. Samurai Shodown was SNK’s second big gun after King of Fighters. It was the Darkstalkers to its Street Fighter. The Injustice to its Mortal Kombat. And it’s time to bring it back.
Unsurprisingly, SNK jumped straight to improving the series’ 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 Japan in the late 1700s. 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’s some trouble looming 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 to her.
The overall package heavily resembles 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 16 playable characters and one unplayable boss. 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-ass axe with a jagged saw edge to it. Darli is easily the highlight of the new crew.
That’s a very small fraction of what King of Fighters had to offer, but it’s somewhat forgivable since the combat itself is so different. King of Fighters is about endurance while Samurai Shodown is all about blunt impact. Sure, there are combos in Samurai Shodown, but the list isn’t extensive. It’s more about choosing your moment and punishing the mistakes of your opponent; out-think and out-maneuver.
The characters’ toolsets are fairly limited but hit that nice balance between simple enough to pick up and just complex enough to be interesting. For the most part, this revival 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 combat, actually. The biggest addition is the ability to pull off one of those clichéd cinematic samurai dash kills. You know, the sequence 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. 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 anatomy 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.
As mentioned earlier, the game has pretty much the same modes and features as King of Fighters XIV, which is pretty much the most minimal amount of content 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 to fighting Shizuka and hope to earn your character’s ending. By the way, half of the boss battle involves cutting up a defenseless, naked woman and, yikes…
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 be a stand out feature. There’s also a gallery, 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 terms of its core gameplay and looks swell enough (though the backgrounds are just kind of bland), but with a lack of memorable things to do. You better hope that you and your human opponents really take to it because otherwise you just have 16 trips through story mode and some fluff to keep you interested. Well, 20 trips once the DLC kicks in. I really want SNK to get the support, but Samurai Shodown isn’t quite worth the price of admission.