Review by Bloomer
"Throwing sand in a man's eyes is honourable? What a load of Bushido. Forget honour, just STAB 'IM IN THE HEAD!"
Bushido Blade (BB) is Squaresoft's infamous samurai swordfighting game of one-hit kills. There are no health gauges, combo counters or special powers here. BB follows the impulse of realism: One properly executed stab to the head or torso will end life immediately. Blows to limbs maim those limbs, legs can be rendered useless so that your opponent is reduced to crawling or just lying on the ground, and the whole thing is confidently presented in status-free glory. There's no text, no messages, no yelled announcements along the lines of ''Red Shadow Wins!'', and no victory poses, taunts or other forms of silly self-pumping behaviour. It's just a bunch of stoic samurai killing each other. Because when trained killers start fleeing their killing training in the dojo, man, there needs to be some killing!
In discrete doses, BB's unique gaming discipline can feel marvelous. The battles sometimes achieve a measured and articulate quality that is completely at odds with the experience offered by your usual health-bar fighter. Stamina and time aren't major issues anymore, as you float around the battlefield constantly trying to create or looking for an opening into that one moment where you can deal the fatal blow.
Unfortunately, this great game engine is stuck serving a bunch of frustrating venues and game modes which do it no justice at all. The mess of a story mode, which can be completed in about five minutes once you know what you're doing, is outdone for longevity by the game's training mode! The POV (first person) mode is cool but kind of gimmicky, and doesn't really lend itself to the full fighting experience, and the 'slash' mode in which you take on 100 opponents in a row (mostly identical ninjas), suffers from monotony of scenery, pace and foe. In short, there's no good way to sit down and play this game on your own, and be able to fight a decent variety of foes across different locales for a decent length of time. That's not too much to ask for, but it's something every other fighting game on the planet is prepared to give me. The way BB is (and I guess the way it's always going to be - whoa, I am so zen), I actually felt like I'd seen and done everything I cared to see and do with it within a few days of buying it.
Because of the quite foreign style of gameplay, the learning curve in BB is one of the strangest you're likely to experience. You've got six samurai to choose from with different weapon preferences, and then a choice of six weapons ranging from the short and close-up rapier to the battlefield-crossing blade on a heavy pole known as the Naginata. Attack combinations are keyed to weapons rather than characters, and the most important combat element is your stance, which can be raised and lowered through three degrees with the shoulder buttons. Attack combos are also restricted by stance, and the plays of height between your character's stance at any time and your opponent's can make the difference between an attack glancing off the body or going right into a vulnerable throat or stomach.
Starting off in training mode, I was slain quickly and repeatedly. I had no concept of what the stances meant or how I should try to do anything, really. Mash the buttons? Creep around? Try to block? Hide amongst the cherry blossoms like a girl? (I usually am a girl. My character of choice is the tardy, powerful raven-haired Mikado.) Use the running attacks? Whatever I did, I tended to die without having left my opponent with a limp or even a second thought.
After maybe a good thirty matches, a reevaluation of weapon choice and some return trips to the combo list, I suddenly 'got it'. What's strange about BB is that even once you have got it, there's no way to guarantee any kind of minimum safety threshold. Your overall wins percentage will rise dramatically and overtake the CPU's, but there's just no accounting for a world of one-hit kills. In spite of any level of skill, you can die within seconds of a fight starting, and often will. You'll lunge, or your opponent will, you'll flinch, or choose the wrong lunge in return, the weapons will whirl around each other... and suddenly you're kaput with fatal trauma to the head or guts, as if your fate had been resolved by a game of rock-scissors-paper. It's hard to resist trying to pick at what subtlety of the universe resulted in your death, or thinking about chaos theory or other such bizarre stuff in these moments. It's one of those gaming phenomena that crazily makes you think, 'If I could just master this, I could master life in the same way. I would be invincible!'
The problem is that whenever you try to stick this great elusive moment into the context of the wider game, you come out frustrated. In BB, there's something wrong with everything, and it's usually a major thing. Story Mode is supposed to be the main source of your single-player entertainment, but it's way too short, decidedly dumb and undernourished, and actually lacking any interest as a story. First, there is obviously supposed to be some background detail here which would explain the assumed relationships between the characters. I have to admit that in fighting games I generally don't give a damn about this kind of thing anyway, but this was the first time a set of characters' pre and post battle exchanges made absolutely no sense to me. The details are not in the manual and they're certainly not in the game. A dojo, an evil sword, a man with a gun who seems to be in modern times? Why? Blah blah blah... What is it about Squaresoft that they usually expect me to care about some stupid world that they present 'as is'? I demand context, explanation and exposition! Playing my favourite lady Mikado, and listening to another one of her self-imposed soap opera questions in the cut-scene: 'Why would Kannuki want to kill me..?' all I could do was yell at my Playstation, 'I DON'T KNOW, I JUST DON'T KNOW,' before listening to my next opponent make some more cryptic remarks, then rolling my eyes and cutting on him as well.
To not fail the story mode, you also have to adhere to the dreaded Code Of Bushido in every battle. That means no backstabbing, no hitting people who aren't ready, or who are climbing on the furniture or who are lying on the ground, presumably after you tossed them down there in anger. It's an elegant idea in theory and one which makes you feel some grace and nobility in your actions for about five seconds at a time, even though Bushido is hardly an honour code whose consistency of ideas will stand up to much questioning.
''What if I chuck sand in your eyes? Is that honourable? What if I hack at your legs to maim you so you have to fight crawling around in pain, because that would certainly make life easier for me. Or what if I deceived you by feinting a blow at your feet, and then pushed my six-foot Naginata through your whole head? Would that still be honourable? Huh? Would it?''
Bushido's implementation turns out to be as slack as its theory. The programming is distinctly imperfect, with too many frustrating accidental blows to people's posteriors and to the 'unready' going down, ending your dreams of honourable greatness in a flash. This is the lesser of two issues and can be mostly suppressed with caution, but its symptom is the second and more serious issue. When you screw up and do something dishonourable, the game does not tell you what you did wrong or identify the moment where it occurred. It simply allows you to play on until you've completed the underground river stage, at which point it ends your game and flashes up the dreaded black screen of Bushido, along with some portentous message you won't really understand:
Seek to save your life and lose it.
Through death one finds
the way of Narukagami.
Survive such affronts to your intuition and you'll find that story mode can ultimately go one of two ways. To get the first ending, you just kill everyone in turn as per the fighting game standard, while remaining Bushido compliant of course. But to get the second nonsensical ending, you must run about twenty miles through empty scenery, jump into a well, and then kill a bunch of people, though without taking a hit. Stupid!
BB also prides itself on its supposedly huge interactive environments. They're huge alright, and empty and mostly pointless and graphically dismal. Start running and the camera zooms out, waaaaaay out, to reveal that your warrior is scrambling across a few quaking polygonal surfaces floating in a sea of pure grey. Distressed textures shiver and turn white as the engine folds under the pressure. The tops of trees vanish completely if they even get near the top of the screen. It is all totally square and cardboardy. It is ugly on a stick.
I know this is early generation Playstation, but the game just can't support a remotely 'nice', realistic world at all, let alone a background. That being the case, I don't think it should even have tried, since these environments are pretty much all at the service of nothing as far as I'm concerned. When a battle begins, you can choose to stay and fight it out in the area you're in, or you can mischievously start sprinting away from your opponent through the massively bland, slow-loading terrain. You can run for screen after boring screen, your foe in weary pursuit all the way, before you finally decide, 'Okay, we'll do it here...' Then you stop running. Then you fight it out where you are now. The main effect of the sprint was that you achieved nothing for two minutes. So now the scenery's changed, but not much, and it's still all ugly. For interactivity purposes, you can be near a wall or a tree which might get in your way, or you can not be near a wall or a tree. This isn't the kind of strategy festival to keep a man awake at night.
There are a bunch of other minor grievances which finally pile on to further assure BB's status as a deeply flawed game. The auto-load from memory card doesn't seem to remember extra fighting arenas you've unlocked. You have to slug through story mode again each time out to get them back. All the loading pauses are heavy, and though they don't wreck the flow of the game, they hurt it, especially the lousy mid-environment loads. Story mode could benefit from some musical accompaniment more than any other mode, but it's the only mode which lacks it, and the sound effects of nature are unimpressive. With that said, the hectic oriental twanginess that makes up the score is good, and the imposing ritualistic stroll of the character select theme is sublime, and possibly my favourite atmospheric element of BB. That piece of music alone has already significantly outlasted the game's initial impact.
-- Unique one-hit kills fighting system with rampant mortality rate
-- Controls, style and feel are decidedly different to any other fighter
-- Attempts at novelty, such as the ability to run all over the place
FATAL HEAD TRAUMA
-- Attempts at novelty in all areas but one-hit kills are largely a waste of time
-- Bushido code is more a nuisance than anything else
-- Hopeless distribution of modes: There's almost no satisfying way to play this solo
-- Story mode is particularly stupid
-- Hideous environmental graphics made worse by heavy loading times
SOUL OF THE SAMURAI
With a sequel already in existence, it would be nice to think that Squaresoft took the highly original concepts they came up with for this game and put them in something of far better overall design, and which wasn't so technically questionable at times. In reading about Bushido Blade 2, my impression is that it's mostly more of the same in both the good and the bad, and after the disappointment of the first blade I am unlikely to go looking for more.
BB has acquired quite a following in gaming for its realistic, hyperfatal style. The surprise is that this style has not gone on to be imitated by other games. Maybe if it had, players would be less forgiving towards the significant messiness which I perceive in the original game.
-- Bushido Blade -- 5/10 --
P.S. For similar (and more successful in my book) gory swordplay on the Playstation, though in an action-adventure setting, try Konami's Soul Of The Samurai AKA Ronin Blade. It even lets you fight more than 100 opponents in a row on the same screen.
Reviewer's Rating: 2.5 - Playable
Originally Posted: 03/08/03, Updated 03/08/03
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