Samurai Jack is the kind of franchise that you would think would be a perfect candidate for a video game adaptation. There are guns, crazy sword fighting action, and an absolutely insane setting. Oddly, other than some middling games from the early 2000s, the franchise has spawned no video game adaptations. Fortunately, that finally changed this past Friday, when Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time was released, giving the franchise a long-awaited second chance at the video game format.
Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time is an odd game, in that it is a completely unnecessary side story set in the middle of the series’ finale that doesn’t really serve to give context to the finale. It is the narrative equivalent of Ganon’s Tower in Wind Waker, asking you to play through a selection of key story moments that have already happened as Jack remains trapped between time, separated from Ashi and unable to find her. Given that time travel is involved, it’s not a completely unprecedented concept, but it is a bit surreal to make it most of the way through the game before hearing Jack say that everything that’s going on around you is just a “shadow” of events that have already passed.
What’s odd is that it’s very clearly set up as if it were a playable Samurai Jack movie. The iconic opening is played when you start the game and the beginning and ending cinematics are in cartoon format. And yet, it’s almost aggressive in its lack of meaningful story elements. Every level plays out the same way. Jack gets dropped into a new place and time after destroying one of Aku’s pendants. He runs into the Scotsman, who has lost his daughters again. He finds the Scotsman’s daughters, who refuse to go back to their father despite the imminent danger. He runs into other familiar faces, who have even less established roles. Then, after all of that has happened, he essentially goes “I’ve already done this. Why is this happening again?” before proceeding to live through it again and then ask, once again, where Ashi is. I’m fairly certain that this particular storyline was chosen because it allows players to play through key moments without literally playing through the events of the TV show, but I was less than enthused by it.
In terms of gameplay, the game plays very similarly to hack-’n-slash games from the PS2 era. You dart around small arenas as you fight groups of enemies that often spawn in waves. You have at your disposal a light attack, a heavy attack, a dodge, a block, and a ranged weapon attack. Air combat is available, as well, and you can, in fact, combo enemies in the air, which was a nice surprise, but I was disappointed to find that, because ranged weapons are available to you, air combat was rarely an effective choice. Additionally, you have a Kiai attack, essentially an ultimate that changes based on the weapon that you’re currently wielding, that you can unleash once you’ve filled the Kiai meter.
Interestingly, combat is augmented by a fairly expansive set of three skill trees and weapon skill upgrades. As you play through the game, you will acquire skill fire, bushido spirit, and gold that can be used to unlock more combos via one skill tree and weapon skill upgrades, in addition to what is offered by the other skill trees, such as health and damage increases, increased drop rates, and additional moves that aren’t combos, such as a double jump. The further you get into the game and the more you spend on upgrades, the more options you will have in combat. At the beginning of the game, you can only block, but you can unlock both a guard dash, which can be used to safely close gaps between you and long-range enemies, and a parry, substantially altering the way you play.
Unfortunately, whereas unlocking new abilities should be fun, there are several design choices that hold progression back significantly. Oddly, weapons are separated into types, which shines an odd light on the relative lack of weapon variety. Similarly to Breath of the Wild, every weapon other than the magic sword can break, albeit they can be repaired if you stop using them before they break. However, your skill with every type of weapon has to be upgraded separately, with skill levels above three costing a prohibitive amount of gold and combos on the skill tree that contains them are obtained one at a time and its branches are not specific to one type of weapon.
Each of the skill trees is kind of a mess in general. Upgrades are thrown onto different branches seemingly haphazardly. The branches increase in size as you make your way across the tree and some particularly powerful abilities, such as a large increase in sword damage, are appropriately placed near the end of the longest branch. However, beyond that, they aren’t laid out in a way that allows you to prioritize any one specific type of upgrade. You’re going to be buying a lot of combos for a weapon type you rarely use to get the combos that you actually want, which is exceptionally frustrating because you’re also going to be investing a lot of gold into weapon skill upgrades to round out your set of combos, or investing in additional Kiai attack charges before you can get the aforementioned sword damage upgrade.
This wouldn’t be quite as frustrating as it is, but the amount of upgrades you can get in a single playthrough is extremely limited. Even more frustrating is the fact that it’s limited by only one resource: bushido spirit. Once you get past the first row of upgrades on each skill tree, you need either bushido spirit or specific items to continue buying upgrades on that tree. However, not a lot of bushido spirit drops. By the end of the game, I found myself with over 50,000 skill fire, tons of items that are needed for later upgrades, and not enough bushido spirit to continue upgrading to the point where I could even use said items. The furthest I had made it in any of the trees was a little over halfway, with a disproportionate amount of spending in the longest branch of the Spiritual Skills skill tree.
The disparity is made ever more obvious by the game’s “challenges.” Challenges offer various tasks that can be completed as you play through the game, such as talk to the Scotsman everywhere that he shows up or defeat x amount of a specific type of enemy. The former type of challenge has only one tier, while the latter has three. The problem is that every challenge has only a single type of reward: skill fire. Not a single one offers bushido spirit, which leaves you with a ton of skill fire that you simply cannot use.
The feeling that you’re not quite getting as much as you need extends into every facet of gameplay. There are two healing items: hot water and haggis. Towards the beginning of the game, almost every time you run into either the Scotsman or his daughters, they give you one haggis. However, the further you get into the game, the more this is largely replaced by resources you need to upgrade, along with a few weapons. There is a shop, run by Da Samurai, that is found in various spots throughout the game, but it has a limited stock of healing items, sometimes only offering two haggises. Similarly to Souls-likes, each checkpoint often comes with a full heal in the form of a group of sparkles that you can walk through to heal, but, if you need to heal in combat, you have to use either hot water or haggis and you often simply don’t have access to enough to make it through some of the game’s brutal challenges.
This might not be a problem, except for the fact that encounters largely feel designed to overwhelm over challenge technical skills. This is perhaps most perfectly exemplified by the entirety of Master Samurai difficulty. I had initially, as I always do, started the game on the second hardest difficulty, Master Samurai. To my surprise, after a mere two encounters, I was faced with an encounter that overwhelmed me with a large group of melee units, ranged ground units, and ranged flying units, many of which took more than a few hits to defeat. Normally, you might be able to deal with this by taking out the ranged units with some sort of ranged weapon, but, when you start the game, you don’t have access to ranged weapons. Thus, you’re stuck in a never-ending deluge of projectiles interspersed with melee attacks. Unsurprisingly, I subsequently dropped the difficulty to Samurai, where I was met with a small group of melee units that died in one hit.
Quite a few encounters are designed in a similar manner. One set of encounters later in the game stuck out to me as particularly offensive because they put you in a small space with a large enemy that splits into multiple smaller enemies if you don’t defeat it fast enough and fast enemies that can teleport and dash attack you. If you focus on the faster enemies, you’re overrun by the enemies that split off of the larger enemy. If you focus on the larger enemy, you are potentially staggered to all hell by the faster enemies. I ultimately was able to get past it by pulling out a hammer and swinging wildly at the larger enemy, almost certainly staggering the faster enemies in the process completely out of sheer luck.
What makes this design philosophy even more obvious is the fact that the game lacks enemy variety. By the end of the game, you will have encountered no more than 15 distinct enemy types, with many enemies simply being recolored versions of other enemies that are different sizes and/or have different stats, and many only appear in very specific parts of the game. That’s not a lot of variety. It would be easy to memorize how to dispatch each one most effectively. Thus, difficulty is simply a matter of numbers.
The way that progression works, combined with the fact that encounters are made to overwhelm, makes me almost certain that you’re not supposed to play the game on higher difficulties the first time around. It’s likely that you’re intended to play the game on lower difficulties, upgrade Jack’s abilities, and then play through the higher difficulties in sequential order. This is further evidenced by the fact that completing the game unlocks “Missions” that offer wave-based or boss rush challenges in exchange for rewards that can be used to upgrade Jack. That is not how I’d like to play the game. I would like to play at higher difficulties on my first—and perhaps only—playthrough and be offered a challenge relative to that. Having to switch the difficulty down because I wasn’t given the tools to get through the very first level is not a fun experience. It’s an incredibly dated way to design a game, likely done in the hopes of enticing players to play through the game multiple times.
Somehow, that isn’t even the worst of the game’s issues. There are a number of issues that I encountered related to combat. While a number of enemy attacks stagger you, a shocking number launch you backwards. When this happens, there is no method of quick recovery, meaning you’re stuck in the animation until it’s over. While a number of other input-disabling status effects, such as getting shocked, offer you invulnerability, getting launched does not. As a result, you can be comboed by multiple enemies and there’s nothing that you can do to stop it.
Furthermore, while you can parry smaller enemies’ attacks in a way that makes sense, parrying a larger enemy’s attack does nothing. It slows time down, but it’s essentially a trap, as it doesn’t actually stop their attack. Instead, if you break your guard to attack them during the slowdown, they will almost definitely subsequently hit you with a follow-up strike.
Perhaps the game’s worst issue, however, is that difficulty is all over the place. Perhaps the most egregious example is the final level, where you are faced with a horde of enemies that die in one hit, followed by a boss fight in which earlier bosses are summoned as adds. This particular fight was actually so frustrating that I dropped the difficulty to Jack for the game’s final moments.
It is a baffling progression and it happens all the time. I’m convinced that the hordes are attempts to get you to waste Kiai attacks before boss fights, which you absolutely should not do, as they often come just before a boss fight, but they’re not the only cases of an insane disparity in difficulty. There’s one level that’s fairly easy throughout, other than one moment that inundates you with several enemies in addition to an earlier boss that returns as a mini-boss. Then, out of nowhere, you’re attacked by Imakandi. The first time you’re attacked by an Imakandi is on a narrow balcony. They have an attack where they pounce on you, grab you, and attempt to tie you up. While they are tying you up, you take damage over time. You have to manually break free from them by shaking the left joystick back and forth. This sounds simple enough, but the damage dealt is so insane that, even during my quickest escape, I lost over half of my health from that one attack.
The Beetle Drone boss fight is similarly frustrating. There are several issues with this fight. First, it takes place at the end of an early level, which is extremely easy throughout. Second, there are two of them. Third, most of their attacks can’t be blocked; even those that can be blocked will break your block after only two hits. Fourth, they’re massive, so their attack range is similarly massive. All of these factors come together into a fight that is infuriating. Even once you down one, the other one simply gets angry and attacks faster and harder. There is a small trick that I picked up after multiple attempts, which is that, when you kill one of them, they drop a Beetle Drone Kama, which is a hammer. Hammers are much more effective against bosses than the magic sword, especially early on. However, even this doesn’t do much to make the fight less stressful, as, once you do finally kill both of them, battered and out of resources, you are faced with an all new Beetle Drone made out of parts of the last one.
This fight really exemplifies one of the key problems with the game: a lot of it seems to have been designed to be cool to existing fans of the show, rather than to be fun. This extends into the level design, as well. There are several instances where you have to jump through obstacles that are themed after the current level. The most significant example is a pit with layers of rotating spikes. If you jump down into the pit, you take fall damage and lose most of your health before having to then fight enemies. If you don’t, you have to painfully slowly jump down one spike at a time, each spike falling after you jump off of it for some reason. It wasn’t even a rewarding descent. There was a bit of gold on each level of spikes, but not so much that it made it feel worth not being able to simply jump down.
However, there are also a lot of gameplay elements that seem to be there simply for the sake of being there. Certain areas turn the game into a side-scroller. Normally, this would be fine, but the game doesn’t adjust to it well. Gameplay is practically the same, except that it’s side-scrolling and you can’t aim your bow. As a result, it feels more limiting than anything.
Wall climbing was also a subject of quite a bit of my ire. Whereas ladders and vertical walls could be largely skipped by jumping up them—albeit jumping down them would often lead to severe injury—you cannot skip sections of wall that you have to climb sideways, forcing you to endure an excruciatingly slow climb. Frustratingly, the only place that this was an issue was the final level, begging the question of why it exists in the first place.
I also absolutely cannot stand the dated design behind the game’s puzzles. Early in the game, you’re required to open doors with Aku’s face on them by finding an Aku statue and destroying it. Simple enough, right? Later doors up the ante by requiring you to destroy upwards of four statues that aren’t Aku, each with a colored gem that corresponds to a gem on the door that it’s connected to. It is a case of complexity for complexity’s sake. It adds nothing, simply serving to make the process of opening doors more of a chore.
Most importantly, however, large swathes of the game simply aren’t interesting. On Samurai difficulty, it takes a long time before the game starts mixing multiple types of enemies in the same fight that aren’t simply a melee and ranged version of the same enemy. This means that you spend a lot of the game fighting uninteresting fights in small, uninteresting arenas that you’re artificially locked into. There are a number of side areas to explore, but they largely don’t reward you. Every now and then, you’ll find a new weapon, but the main reasons why you would want to explore the side areas are the larger amounts of gold that the chests there contain and that allies are often hiding there, so you need to find them to complete the game’s challenges.
Even combat, exempting its more glaring problems, isn’t engaging. It’s serviceable, but it lacks the impact of more modern combat systems. It has all of the pieces of a winning combat system, but it lacks the feel. The core of the problem is that it’s much less reactive than the combat systems of more modern games. At times, it very much feels less like trading blows and more like getting hits in before the enemy’s attack connects with you. I have the block. I have the parry. I want to be able to utilize them in a more natural way.
Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time ironically feels like a game stuck in a time long past. It feels almost exactly like the kind of game that would have come out during Samurai Jack’s original run on TV, with a few minor modernizations that don’t really alter the overall feel. Unfortunately, that means that a lot of the flaws of such a game are also present here. Levels are uninteresting. Enemies variety is lacking. Difficulty is all over the place. However, the most significant issue is that the game simply doesn’t aspire to add anything new to the franchise. It instead opts to retread old ground while constantly reminding you that it is doing so. It might be fun for existing fans of the franchise to take a trip down memory lane, but it’s simply too dated of a game to recommend in its own right.