Samurai Shodown (2019) review: I, Samurai

Can SNK successfully bring its storied Samurai Shodown franchise into the modern fighting gaming world? Our review.

4

Once upon a time, prime fighting games extended beyond Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. It was more than Capcom and Akklaim/Midway (now NetherRealm) at the top of the mountain. There was a third publisher pumping out excellent fighters. SNK is primarily known for the King of Fighters franchise, but there's another fighting game series that helped build its reputation and that was Samurai Shodown. While the fighting game scene has seen its numbers expand with numerous new franchises, the Samurai Shodown series largely laid dormant until now.

Samurai Shodown is back for a new generation, with SNK dialing back the clock to give its weapon fighter a fresh start. It certainly feels like a fresh start, with what feels like the bare minimum of game modes. However, the foundation on which this game is built is rock solid, with SNK putting together a fighter that stands out on its own against its much faster contemporaries.

Fighting stance

Samurai Shodown

The modern fighting game often prides itself on speed. It's about quick battles, blinding speed, swift movement, and the like. Samurai Shodown isn't about being fleet of foot like a ninja. It's Samurai Shodown, where the core essence is about methodical one-on-one duels.

This means success is largely about finding openings in the opponent's defense. It's possible for a novice to get far without any real depth of knowledge, given that even the simplest Heavy Slash can dole out well over a quarter of an opponent's health. After all, they're striking with a powerful weapon, so it's expected that it would do a realistic amount of damage. If the opponent doesn't play any defense and refuses to block, it's easy to punish them with a big strike. While the game does have combos and special moves, they aren't the key components to battles.

Samurai Shodown does have a distinct roster, so while the controls are largely the same for everyone, their fighting styles are different enough that players can latch onto certain favorites. Nakoruru can use her wall jump and air throws to keep opponents off-balance. Earthquake can use his girth to his advantage. Galford can utilize special attacks where he sends his wolf at his adversaries. As noted, it's entirely possilbe to go into this game entirely blind and fare pretty well. But the learning curve can also get pretty high and once players start to reach that ceiling, that's where Samurai Shodown truly begins to shine.

Advanced mechanics involve playing around with not just your weapons, but with your opponent's. There's a special satisfaction in catching opponents completely by surprise with a Weapon Flipping move that leaves them disarmed. As easy as Samurai Shodown is to pick up, there are enough techniques to learn that there feels like there's a real tangible difference between beginner and advanced players after enough practice. While a beginner can do hefty damage with a Heavy Slash, an expert can perform a perfect Just Guard and counter with a Lightning Blade that ends the round with a cinematic flourish. The only trouble is in remembering exactly how some of these techniques work, since the button patterns can be fairly complex.

What it all adds up to is a series of one-on-one confrontations, where reflexes and quick reactions ultimately win the day. It's a refreshingly different kind of fighter for those looking for something other than the combo-heavy games of today.

The simplest cut

Samurai Shodown

Those looking for a deeper experience with their Samurai Shodown package might feel a little disappointed with this offering. While other fighting franchises have stepped up their game with full-blown stories and high-production narratives, Samurai Shodown presents the bare minimum of game modes that feels like it would have fit in better during the franchise's 90s heyday.

There's a Story mode, but it feels nonexistent, with only a couple of cutscenes and a few lines of dialogue. It's more reminiscent of the Arcade Modes of the genre's past, with the character stories and outcomes feeling inconsequential. There's no attachment to any of these characters or any greater sense of who they are, outside of their fighting styles.

There are no other game modes that really help Samurai Shodown stand out. There are a few generic game modes that challenge players to run a full gauntlet of the game's roster or survive as many fighters as they can before they fall. There's a Dojo that had a lot of potential, with the idea being that ghost characters would pick up on player tendencies in order to create an AI version of a human player. In practice, it doesn't really work, as the ghost characters still felt overly robotic and dull. Samurai Shodown's joy ultimately comes from the fights themselves, which is why it's a good thing that the online play appears to hold up well.

Taste my blade

Samurai Shodown as a package feels bare bones, with few game modes to keep players engaged outside of local and online versus multiplayer. Fortunately, the remaining fried chicken taste on those bones is still pretty sweet, because the actual one-on-one fights are pretty outstanding. Samurai Shodown is thoroughly welcoming to casual players, while its systems are deep enough to allow players to get better to the point that they can eventually handle newcomers with ease.

What's better is that Samurai Shodown manages to present a superb alternative to quicker, more bombastic fighters. This comes across as more of the thinking man's fighter, testing a player's reaction time and rewarding those who are able to read their opponents over those who try and go for meaningless combos. Samurai Shodown doesn't need to stand atop a crowded fighting game mountain, because it's done a nice job staking a claim over on a nearby hill.


This review is based on a PlayStation 4 code provided by the publisher. Samurai Shodown is available now on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch for $59.99. The game is rated M.

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

Review for
Samurai Shodown
6
Pros
  • Methodical fighting style and unique atmosphere
  • Accessible to newcomers
  • Offers enough incentive for players to learn to get better
  • Diverse roster with distinct styles
  • Lightning Blade finishes look epic
  • Online play is smooth
Cons
  • Few game modes of substance
  • Story feels inconsequential
  • Dojo ghosts don't feel any different than standard AI opponents
  • Dismemberments look lame
  • Nothing for solo players to really do aside from online play
From The Chatty
  • reply
    June 25, 2019 5:00 PM

    Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Samurai Shodown (2019) review: I, Samurai

    • reply
      June 25, 2019 7:03 PM

      I was super impressed by what I saw this past weekend on teamsp00ky. They have both my original Mains (Ukyo and Jubei - though Ukyo no longer has his Firebird (air fireball) and Jubei still hasn't gotten back his early frame invulnerability on his uppercut (the ground portion used to be invulnerable back in the day until nerfed), my 3rd Main, Genjuro (who looks beastly as usual), and even my experimental Tam Tam (who is considerably smaller than he used to be).
      Saw some high level play, with Dandaioh and Aroo facing off in battles of skill and yomi; Aroo getting all 7 sword specials out of Yoshitora several times.
      Golden Henry Cen on Ukyo was fun. Henry didn't want to stop playing!

      • reply
        June 25, 2019 7:18 PM

        Do you think this game is gonna suck ass on the Switch like Bloodstained? Or will they lower the res and smear out all the textures but keep it at 60fps like Netherrealm did MK11?

        • reply
          June 25, 2019 7:18 PM

          (All three games running on UE... MK11 is a heavily modified UE3 iirc)

        • reply
          June 25, 2019 7:40 PM

          I use a PC for all my gaming.

      • reply
        June 25, 2019 8:13 PM

        The visual style and gameplay remind me more of SS2 than any other title -- a GOOD thing.

        Samurai Showdown was all about heavy pokes, spacing, and risk/reward: single mistakes were huge chunks of your life bar. Seems the latest really has kept with that, I'm definitely interested in it.

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