Samurai Champloo, the animated television series, does have a plot, much as the show tries to hide it. Lost in a sea of non sequiturs, hip-hop asides, random encounters with colorful characters, samurai sword fighting, and lots of catty bitchfests amongst the main characters, there is an ultimate goal behind the individual episodes: as repayment for saving their lives, male principals Mugen and Jin are honorably obligated to female principal Fuu. The favor that Fuu asks in return is assistance in finding the "samurai who smells of sunflowers." Ever so reluctantly, the men oblige, thus forming the background for a series that feels totally random just as often as it feels like it's leading toward... well, something.
It's this very attitude and willingness to deviate from the plan that has endeared Samurai Champloo (and its predecessor, Cowboy Bebop) to its fans. It would follow, then, that the video game would take a similar tack in its own production. And Samurai Champloo: Sidetracked does, often to the point of hilarity -- the main characters make snide remarks at the narrator, there are plenty of visual sight gags, and there are lots of hilarious, deadpan snippets of dialog, often at an even quicker pace than in the TV series. Combine that with Samurai Champloo's undying devotion to hip-hop and its stylized anime art design, and you've got a game with straight-up style.
Unfortunately, so much time was spent perfecting the style that gameplay got the shaft.
That's not to say that the developers didn't try -- true to the randomness of the series, there are a number of different play modes, and many different ways to tweak your own experience. For one, there's a record store in town, and the combos you can pull off while sword fighting actually depend on which records you buy and equip. There are play modes that involve button mashing, silhouetted madness à la Kill Bill, counterattack moves that involve pushing whatever button shows up on the screen, and so on, all of it designed to make gameplay feel less monotonous. At the outset, it works, as the sheer number of styles comes at you so rapidly, it's almost overwhelming -- every single different mode is available right from the beginning, and every single play mode will be used over and over again based on whatever situation you find yourself in. There's even an homage to turn-based, NES-style RPG battles. None of this is even to mention that you can play as either Mugen or Jin (with a third character available after you beat the game), each of whom has their own (mostly) unique adventure and plotline.
So the question remains, how is it possible that the game as a whole, so fresh at first, ultimately turns into a rote, boring hack 'n' slash?
Well, in the most common swordplay segments, there are two buttons for attacking: a quick, less powerful attack and a slow, more powerful attack. One of the most disappointing aspects of the game is just how much of it can be completed by simply running up to enemies and mashing that quick attack as fast as you can, regardless of the record you're playing, regardless of whether you are following the combos that that record calls for. One of the combo sequences on every record is simply "quick attack" four or five times, allowing the player to look pretty fancy, when really, I'm relatively sure my four-year-old daughter could have beaten most of it. Sure, sometimes you'll stumble into a new play mode for a short time, but once that diversion is over, it's back to slashing your way through hordes of enemies. As if to overcompensate for this nonexistent difficulty level, some of the boss fights, which generally aren't that spectacular in the first place, are inordinately difficult -- like throw-your-TV-out-the-window difficult -- resulting in a difficulty curve that's not a curve so much as it's a straight line with a couple of madly out-of-whack peaks. It doesn't help that there are maybe five or six types of non-boss enemies in the entire game, making the enemies repetitive enough that it doesn't matter that one variety sounds like Li'l Jon and another variety happens to be simian, because they all get on your nerves eventually.
There are other fairly major problems as well, such as the constant presence of loading screens, none of which take a particularly long time, but which in some stretches occur once a minute or more, which gets to the point of utterly distracting. For a game and series that relies on a unique flow and attitude, these constant load screens detract from both. Also, there's no exploration whatsoever -- perhaps a sandbox landscape would be a bit much to ask, but the presence of only a single town (which you can't fully explore without one of the aforementioned breaks for loading) and utterly linear progression out of town is fairly frustrating in a gaming scene that is increasingly accustomed to freedom in all aspects.
Contrary to popular belief, games can get by on style alone -- remember Dragon's Lair? As a matter of fact, Samurai Champloo: Sidetracked works best when viewed as a new episode of the series that just happens to be playable -- take out the repetition, and the experience is rather wonderful, with a solid job of translating the 2D original to a 3D gamespace, solid voice acting, and a typically confounding and hilarious plot that all stems from the desire of our three heroes to find a bite to eat. A perfect unlockable bonus would have been the ability to watch the entire "episode" with a couple of well-placed action sequences replacing the fighting. Alas, it is not to be, and there's no getting around the ultimately mind-numbing gameplay. Playing a game should never be a chore, and despite a great start and a perfect visual translation from the world of animation to the world of action gaming, Samurai Champloo: Sidetracked comes just a little bit too close.
6 June 2006