Just like hip hop group Wu-Tang Clan, Samurai Shodown had its first release all the way back in 1993, introducing us to SNK's brand of sword fighting for the first time on the Neo Geo. Since then it's had a fair few sequels, but we actually saw the last one a whole 11 years ago when Samurai Shodown: Sen hit the Xbox 360 in 2008. A decade on and we're preparing to finally head back into the action this year, and with the title confirmed for Evo already - the biggest fighting game event on the planet - our anticipations were high heading into the preview event in London earlier this month.
Before we get stuck in, SNK Game Designer Josh Weatherford gave us an opening pitch about how this is a reboot of sorts for the series. It's set just before the events of the very first game, and Weatherford explains that this was best so that they didn't have to worry too much about who was and wasn't alive in terms of the timeline. After 11 years this is really a reset of sorts, meaning that the likes of Haohmaru and Nakoruru are still at the forefront of the story as the series icons.
"We definitely think it's an iconic series in the SNK library, and it's been over 10 years since a new game's been released, so we wanted to bring something back and make sure it was easy for newcomers and old fans alike to jump in too," he explained in our interview.
If you've played the series before, you'll know it differs from other fighting games because of the fact that single attacks have the potential to take a lot of health, meaning it's less about stringing together fancy combos than making sure your attacks land, while also making sure you don't get hit. When playing on PS4, kicks were assigned to X, light sword attacks to Square, medium to Triangle, and heavy to Circle, and that formed the core pillars of combat.
When we say each hit has the chance of wiping an opponent's health out, we aren't kidding either. For example, pressing L2 activates a rage explosion that pushes your opponent back, and you then get one chance to press L2 again for a special attack that wipes out over half of your opponent's health bar in a stylised and bloody cinematic if it lands. These are often easily telegraphed and can be dodged, but it's worth a try if you know how.
Even more effective than this is the Super Special Moves, which are a little harder to execute since they require you to press forward and then do a downwards semi-circle on the left stick from backwards to forwards before pressing R2. Again, this isn't easy to do in the heat of battle, but if it lands this takes off around 70% to 80% of your opponent's health in one hit. This is also where the character of the game shines through, as each fighter has their own special, like the larger-than-life Earthquake who launches into the air and transforms himself into a ball of fire to blast you with. You only get one chance to try and pull this off in a match though, so missing one of these could be just as much of a blow as getting hit by one.
Speaking of characters, we got to grips with several in this demo, including the aforementioned Haohmaru, Nakoruru, and Earthquake, as well as Jubei Yagyu, Genjuro Kibagami, Charlotte, and Galford. You might remember some of them and to give an example of the fan service, Galford still has his beloved dog that can help in the fight, and Earthquake still has his chained weapon that gives you some range when attacking.
Visually speaking these have all been updated to look modern and stylish, as have the colourful environments like the dojo and forest (the latter of which saw animals gather round to watch us fight, which was a nice touch). The extra splashes of flavour that come in via a cinematic attack or turning the screen crimson with a rage attack as mentioned also help give those moments some intensity, as does the UI that takes the form of traditional Japanese tapestry and illustration. This extends to the battles themselves, as everything has a painterly feel to it.
In terms of how we felt when playing the game, it certainly still felt very recognisable in the way it played, as you reeled from each hit you took and got satisfaction from each strike landed. It's very simple in terms of its initial controls, but one glimpse into the command list showed what experienced fighters can do and the depth that lies within, and with the risk/reward elements of these rage attacks and Super Special Moves it always felt like a nice balance between attack and defence.
"A lot of the mechanics are taken from the best parts of the series I would say," Weatherford explained. "We've streamlined a lot of things, so there's a very simple dodge move that's just like R1, one button on the pad allows you to dodge attacks and stuff, and then yeah, like you said there's the Super Special Moves that are probably the more cinematic moves in the game, very hard to land, you only get one chance, but yeah, they're very cool-looking and they do a lot of damage."
The modes we tried included offline battles against computer-controlled characters, but also a Story Mode. This consisted of two battles per hero, so we didn't get a great sense of what was going on, but a well-illustrated tapestry unfurled before us to introduce us to the political climate, before narrowing the focus on your own character's adventure, like the bandit Earthquake heading across the land in search of plunder.
Lastly, one mode we didn't get to see but got a glimpse of was Dojo Mode, which is a personal project of Weatherford's. This basically records your fighting data and saves it as a ghost, much like we've seen in other games before. You can then download other people's ghosts and upload your own, which should provide some unique interactions and challenges for the community as they hone their skills, especially those wanting to compete at Evo this year, where Samurai Shodown will make an appearance.
Overall we didn't get a really deep look at the game given the limited roster and brevity of the Story Mode, but what we did see convinced us that SNK isn't taking the responsibility of updating the series lightly. The core pillars are still the same in terms of the combat and how it plays, but there's an extra lick of paint and some more bells and whistles to set it apart from competitors like Soul Calibur, which is what Samurai Shodown needs to do to survive in the fighting game space in 2019.
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