Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Old Favorites: Way of the Samurai 2

I wrote about Way of the Samurai in my last post, but there are still quite a few things I want to mention about the game and what it tries to achieve, so I decided will write about about its sequel, Way of the Samurai 2.

In many ways, Way of the Samurai 2 plays very differently than its predecessor. Instead of the small, nearly-abandoned train station setting of the last game, this game is set in a thriving, densely populated town. This game spans a longer period of time (more than a week, as opposed to just a few days) which now pass based on actual game time, rather than based on plot events, and the player now needs to rest and maintain a stamina meter. Also, the developers made quite a few changes to the combat system which help speed up combat and make it easier to fight large numbers of opponents (though this introduces an overly simplistic dominant strategy to the game), as well as a few improvements to the sword collection/improvement system.

Despite those other changes, the biggest change comes from the very different way the story is structured in the two games. In the first game, every phase of day has pre-determined plot events open to the player, and all of the important factors that decide what happens in the game come from your choices and actions in these events. However, Way of the Samurai 2 uses a more abstract system of calculating a numerical value for how much each of the different factions likes or hates the hero. With a few exceptions, your actions in story scenes affect that value, rather than affect the story directly. One of the most important ways of affecting that value is to take optional jobs for the different factions and earn their trust through work, completely independent of plot sequences. The final significant change is that none of the plot scenes in Way of the Samurai 2 allow you to control your character normally. Instead, they only present dialog options, so it it is no longer possible to move around freely, ask questions at your own discretion, draw your sword whenever you like, or just walk by a scene and ignore it entirely.

Because of all of the changes, Way of the Samurai 2 does not have its predecessor's perfect fluidity between dialog, free movement, and combat, which was responsible for a lot of the unique charm of the original game. The difference makes the player feel more distant from the character, and less immersed in the game. Also, the importance of faction value, rather than previous decisions, reduces the amount of potential variability of the plot and the potential complexity of the story. In order to get the best or worst endings of the first game, you need to play off of both sides of the central conflict, but doing so is impossible in this game. In fact, some seemingly viable and interesting routes through Way of the Samurai 2, such as helping Sayo and the Magistrates at the same time, are not actually allowed by the game. The game mostly allows you a number of normal endings for each faction path, as well as one or two "bad" endings for each faction path.

A major problem in both games are the "bad" endings for each path. In the first game, after going through a lot of effort in order to unite the different factions to fight against the military, the villain gives you the option to spare his life and join forces with him. Refusing gets you the best ending, and accepting gets you the worst ending. There are no other variables between those two paths. Almost all of the "bad" endings to the sequel are the exact same, including an ending where you take a young girl you have been protecting and teaching for the entire game and hand her over to a the slimiest thug in the city without any qualms. Pretty much all of these endings involve a spectacular reversal of the hero's implied personality and involve complete betrayal of everything he has done up to that point in the game. These kinds of endings feel more like cheap ways to increase the number of endings to the game, rather than proper routes. Important decisions that affect the outcome of a game should not come at the very end, and they should not involve complete departures from the course the hero has taken up to that point.

Anyways, while I am talking about endings, I should say a few good things about Way of the Samurai 2 in which it improves upon the original game. In Way of the Samurai, every story path results in a full-scale battle against the Japanese army, and every final battle is against the general of that army. However, in Way of the Samurai 2, the final sequence can play out very differently depending on which route you take through the game, and there are a few different final opponents (mostly the faction leaders and their lead henchmen). None of the ending sequences are quite as dramatic as the final battles of the original game, but they are more varied and more appropriately reflect the different paths through the game, and the game is more interesting because of the variation,

Before I forget, I should mention that I don't like Way of the Samurai 2's emphasis on earning trust through work, and the large length of time that comprises the game. As a whole, the number of plot events the player will take part in across the length of the game is very similar in both games, but each playthrough of Way of the Samurai 2 is longer, so the gameplay between plot events in the sequel feels more like filler than rewarding gameplay, especially because there are so few jobs available to each faction, and some of them are fairly boring (finding the parcel) or annoying (getting the kid home, pick-pocketing, and extorting money from peddlers). The occasional random attack by a ninja or homicidal maniac helps keep it interesting, but hardly seems to make up for some of the monotony.

Another major complaint I have with the game is the general arbitrariness in the connection between what you say and how it affects events and your standings with certain characters. For example, the very first dialog option you have in the game, after Sayo gives you some food, is a choice between telling her to get lost, and two different ways of thanking her. If you thank her one way, she will wander off and you can go onwards on your own business. If you thank her another way, she will wander off, bump into some thugs, and you will begin a completely different scene. Your choice determines the following scene, but the connection is not logical. As a result, I can never remember which choice does what in that scene, no matter how many time I play through it. Also, your choices in some of these early scenes, seems to affect how Kasumi (another major character with her own faction value) views the hero, even though she is not present to see the scene. This problem gets especially bad in the jobs that involve long conversations (both of which I labeled above as annoying). The consequences of your choices often make almost no sense.

Finally, I will say that I like the system of rewarding the player with a title for completing a playthrough particularly well or under unusual restrictions. In particular, I like ones titles like Pacifist, which requires you to choose an ending carefully in order to earn the title (Pacifist in particular is a good one because it reinforces the central themes of the game. The only way to get through the game without harming any one is to let an innocent child die, meaning that you need to raise your sword and fight in order to protect people.).

Anyways, while I sound harsh in my discussion of the game, I still like it. I never played it to 100% completion of all endings, titles, and swords, but I rarely do that kind of thing in a game, and I still get tempted to pick it back up and try to see some ending or sequence that I haven't seen yet.

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