Platforms: PC (Reviewed), PS4, Xbox One, Switch
Samurai Jack is a weird IP. It’s just bizarre to see a video game adaptation, of a show that saw an original run from 2001-2004 and a final season in 2017. Yes, this adaptation comes nearly 20 years after we were first introduced to Jack, a testament to how lasting his story is. I first watched Samurai Jack as a teenager, and here I am, in my mid-thirties, still excited for a chance to take control of the iconic time-traveling samurai and go up against the dark forces of Aku.
This is a franchise that has always sold itself on nostalgia. Even back in ‘01 when it first released its vision of the future was a mashup of ‘80s cyberpunk and ‘90s future-synth, complete with antiquated attitude from both eras. So Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time is also a game that sells itself on nostalgia, not just the nostalgia for the TV show, but nostalgia for games of a bygone era.
Battle Through Time is unafraid to steal from its show of origin. Its intro video is ripped straight from the early ‘00s series, complete with fuzzy SD resolution and 4:3 aspect ratio. The first cinematics of the game is taken from the 2017 season, once again as a direct copy-paste.
Spoilers for that season to follow.
Jack is in the middle of the climactic battle with Aku along with his companion Ashi. When Ashi realizes she can use Aku’s powers, she opens a portal in time to allow Jack to face Aku in the past. In the show, this just happens. In the game, after Jack and Ashi jump into the portal, Aku sends in a blast of dark magic after them, causing Jack to be stranded between temporal destinations. He ends up in a space between time, where iconic characters and events from the game are scattered about, controlled by evil pendants given to them by Aku. Jack must find these pendants and shatter them in order to make his way back to the past.
While the premise of the game seems pretty neat, it’s actually just an excuse to allow you to re-live iconic moments from the series without any lasting consequences. Why are you fighting the Scotsman again? Space between time. Why are Scaramouche and Demondo still alive? Space between time. Why do we have to face Ashi’s sisters again even though the original battle with them was one of the most emotionally harrowing parts of the series? Wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff. You aren’t really doing anything other than playing through a clip show of Jack’s greatest hits, and honestly, the attempt to fit this into series canon actually detracts from the experience rather than adds to it. You could have just had us replay the series from start to finish and it would have been fine, rather than coming up with this “space between time” jazz.
That being said, it’s one heck of a good looking clip show. The 3D models of characters look fantastic and move so fluidly. They almost look like the original show could have been animated this way, if it were made later in Cartoon Network’s lifetime. The environmental models are similarly brilliant. You get to go everywhere from Aku’s mines to the snowy shrine where Jack is pushed to his breaking point, and each looks like a moving three-dimensional cartoon. It really does feel like you are moving through the show.
On with the show
Gameplay-wise, Battle Through Time feels like an action game from two or three generations ago. Think Devil May Cry. There isn’t one cohesive world to travel through, one map to explore. Rather, you are placed in a series of instanced levels, tasked with moving through them, fighting some enemies to open a door, lather, rinse, repeat, until you defeat a boss and get a grade based on how well you slaughtered your foes.
And much like Dante from Devil May Cry, Jack is a master of many weapons. Aside from his bare fists and magic sword, Jack can master several different swords, clubs, staffs, spears, warhammers, scythes, and more. Also like Dante, Jack has a number of range weapons from shuriken to throwing knives, guns, and bows with interchangeable ammo, explosive traps and sickles, and so on. You can switch weapons on the fly in combat and getting through encounters involves using the right weapon at the right time, along with stringing together stylish combos, air combos, and special moves.
Jack can expand his arsenal in several ways. He has three tech trees, each with multiple branches that grant him increases his base stats, new combos and moves, and even interesting special properties like grapples or an increased chance for item drops. These tech trees require multiple different resources to go through, with early abilities requiring common resources and later abilities requiring resources that can’t be gained from combat but have to be found by searching your environment. There are also shops that allow you to buy new weapons, restorative items, and increase your training in different weapon styles which makes them do more damage and grants you new abilities.
In general, combat feels great. You are encouraged to weapon switch often because breaking a weapon (yes weapons have durability) releases resources that you can then use to level up. It actually makes weapon durability a lot more tolerable because you always get a reward any time one breaks.
Sometimes you will have to cut down millions of weak enemies, slicing them in half with barely a thought. Other times you will have to take on smarter enemies which block, dodge, and coordinate with each other. There’s just one problem, you can’t tell which is which. The same enemy models are used for both types of enemies. So you’ll be slaughtering your way through a wave of enemies only to find one enemy that looks exactly the same, which blocks all your attacks and does a ton of damage. It’s just frustrating because there’s no way of knowing what enemy to prioritize until you’ve already hit them once and likely overextended yourself.
The other major flaw with the combat is that there aren’t a whole lot of enemy types to fight. You’ll be fighting the same beetle and crab mechs, robotic Australian hunters, and shadow samurai from the beginning of the game to the end. Fighting major antagonists like the Imakandi or Josephine and Ezekiel Clench is an exception, and each brings an interesting fight pattern and strategy to master. However, the majority of the game is just fighting the same things, over and over again.
Not so tough Samurai
One last thing, the difficulty is kind of all over the place. Even on high difficulties, saving up energy for your “kiai” super attacks makes many encounters trivial. I sometimes took out bosses before they even got a single attack off, simply by using my kiai, and once you get extra kiai stocks and heavy weapons with large AOE kiai abilities, boss encounters become trivial.
Still, I enjoyed the gameplay and the references enough to play straight through the end, non-stop. However, that’s probably Samurai Jack’s biggest flaw: its length. It was over in 3-4 hours. Yes, that’s it. When you beat the game you unlock missions, new difficulties, and of course you can wander through levels to find every collectible but I didn’t feel the need to do any of it. You don’t see anything new and you are facing the same repeated enemies, so missions and new difficulties didn’t really do much to spice it up.
Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time is $40 and that’s just a little bit too much. There are definite flaws with the game, which isn’t to say it’s bad. I actually had a rather good time playing it from start to finish. The smooth core combat really does make you feel like a badass cartoon samurai, despite its low points. But 3-4 hours at a $40 price tag is 10 bucks per hour, which isn’t a great value as far as video games go. Unfortunately, without rethinking its basic encounters, I don’t think Battle Through Time can support a couple more hours of gameplay.
Don’t get me wrong, I do want you to play this game. I just want you to wait for a sale. You’ll enjoy what it has to offer, but it just doesn’t offer $40 of entertainment.