For this review I played on PS4. The game size is right at 4GB and the PlayStation version has 41 trophies and multiple playthroughs are required for the platinum. The current MSRP is $39.99.
I remember the dread when the Samurai Jack cartoon ended (the first time that is).
The initial reports on what happened were all confusing and contradictory.
It’s not cancelled it’s just on an extended break.
The team is focusing on the Star Wars: Clone Wars micro series and might return to Samurai Jack.
The story will summarize with a movie that will come out soon.
At one point SONY wanted a fully computer animated film, but SJ creator Genndy Tartakovsky wouldn’t go for it. Eventually Tartakovsky left Cartoon Network for a spell, and many people thought that was the final katana in the coffin. Then there was multiple reports that JJ Abrams was getting involved as a producer, and excitement flashed like sword steel once again. The fact that Tartakovsky returned to Cartoon Network and we eventually DID get a final season of SJ is one of the miracles of modern animation, (another miracle is the way Disney gets away with consistently copying/stealing animation ideas, but I digress).
After that final SJ season, I considered myself content. I didn’t need a movie. I didn’t need another season. I didn’t need to pine for any more SJ content. This video game showed me how wrong I was.
Developed by Soleil and published by Cartoon Interactive Group and Adult Swim, Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time tells a new story that ties into the ending of the Samurai Jack cartoon series. Guys, this one is fun.
Yes, it does help if you understand the overall story before you play the game but I wouldn’t say it’s a required step. One or two episodes of the show should suffice to prepare you for this excellent hack and slash adventure.
There is a lot to unpack with this game but let me say straight away that I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed the new 3D animation style used to develop this game. Samurai Jack (the show) has always been married to its medium. The 2D style is maybe the most important ingredient to the animated show. Deviating from that style is clear risk by the dev team, but it’s a risk I’m glad they took. Getting the original voice talent back for this game was an important move. Different animation and different actors at the same time would probably be a bridge too far for this game to work.
The game is, frankly a lot more than I thought it would be. There’s tons of weapons, a deeply engaging skill tree, heated boss battles, traversal mechanics, and even a weapon repair system. Soleil has wisely developed a game that’s geared toward a fan base that largely isn’t children anymore. That’s not to say the child can’t play this game, just that there’s enough steel on this katana to keep any pro gamer active and engaged for the entire play through.
Speaking of playing through this game; SJ:BTT is not intended for one go through. You can unlock maybe half the skill tree in one play. The idea here is to play the levels again with new difficulties, smarter enemies, and skills you didn’t have before. Then go ham on the demon Aku again and again and again, culminating in a final fight at the highest difficulty that is worthy challenge for any would be samurai.
Soleil has wisely developed a game that’s geared toward a fan base that largely isn’t children anymore.
Spread across all the great settings of the animated series (and some new ones), the levels are extremely diverse and fun. The camera knows exactly when to pivot and give you a side-scrolling section and yet the game never pushes this idea at you too forcefully. Side scrolling is used to season the game and not to exist as its own full flavor. Whenever you’re not side scrolling, be sure to pivot that camera a lot to find all the hidden goodies and extras around the various levels.
Each level ends with a scorecard and in classic gaming fashion “S” is one of the best scores one can achieve. Is it the absolute BEST score? I’ll leave that for you to discover, (insert wink emoji). The score takes into account time, enemies killed, KO’s where you had to revive, and items used. Playing in the normal difficulty I was able to get “S” or “A” on most levels. In later difficulties that didn’t happen. My hands are dumb.
With combat, SJ:BTT has found this happy medium between the intricate timing model of the soulsborne genre and the button mashing fun of arcade games of yore. Yes, there is a parry/counter attack mechanic but for the most part you can button mash your way through a mixture of weak and strong attacks and be just fine. Enemies often come in hoards, and I discovered several excellent combos via a “mashing method” and found it an extremely fun combat experience. The weapons are wildly varied, from the classic Jack magic katana, to a machine gun, to a giant sickle. I mentioned a weapon repair system and I almost universally hate those but you should know this one is not overly annoying. The only weapons that need real repair are the ones made of bamboo or wood.
There are several ways this game pays homage to the original series, but my favorite is the very liberal use of the extreme close up. If I’m reading a SJ script I want to see TIGHT ON JACK’S FACE at least 47 times and I’m glad the video game kept those vibes during cut scenes. Also, Jack’s samurai gi will slowly get tattered and torn as he takes more damage. His hair will begin to become messy and eventually (at near death) his appearance is the classic “beat up Jack” that the cartoon fans will be very familiar with.
If I’m reading a SJ script I want to see TIGHT ON JACK’S FACE at least 47 times and I’m glad the video game kept those vibes.
Much like Ghost of Tsushima, SJ:BTT has decided to do away with the mini-map, opting for players to use the touch pad (PS4) to guide the player toward objectives. What we lose in HUD space we make up for with a more animated experience. You’re supposed to feel like you’re in the cartoon. Once I accepted the fact that there was no map things got much more enjoyable. But this mechanic plays out much differently than Ghost, since SJ is not a fully open world. A simple press on the touch pad will show you (via camera angle) where Jack should go. Also, the touch pad will not guide you to secrets, those must be found on your own. Exploration is essential and many key traversal elements are in the skill tree. You won’t be able to collect everything until you’ve got your double jump and a few other helpful moves. You’ll need all the extra skills you can get by the way.
The difficulty curve is VERY real. Within the first few levels the hoards of smashable bugs are joined by enemies who can dodge, parry, and launch AOE skills that will leave our Samurai reeling. There were times at later difficulties where I was annoyed at how easy it was for enemy groups to juggle Jack to half of his health bar, but it was never anything to rage quit about. I will say things get interesting when you can only afford one upgrade but find yourself needing seven. Without overly spoiling I can say that eventually pure attacking gives way to more strategic combat.
Getting the platinum trophy for this game (or full achievements) does require unlocking and beating the hardest difficulty, and let me just tell you this game is hard. Resources (like throwable weapons) are in short supply and must be used carefully. As I said earlier the idea (from the devs perspective) is to play initially on a lower difficulty and work your way up once you have a hearty skill tree and many upgraded weapons. The game essentially tells you, “great you did it on normal mode but can you do it two more times on harder modes?”
There aren’t a ton of negatives I can say. I could try and complain about the “sameness” of the enemies, but they’re actually pretty varied and require different strategies (especially at the high difficulty). I could try and say that no mini-map made my experience worse, but it really didn’t. I never once felt overly lost or confused. I could try and say it didn’t “feel” like Samurai Jack, but it totally did. I guess I can say I wish this game appeared a few years ago while Jack was talked about much more often. I’m glad he’s getting his place in the video game space because people have looked at this show and said VIDEO GAME PLEASE for years now.
If you’ve been a day one Samurai Jack fan this game is a must play. If you’re unfamiliar with the story I do recommend taking in one or two episodes of the show before you grab your controller. It will help you understand the demon Aku and what he’s doing to Jack as they hurtle through different times and different dimensions.
I’m so glad I got to pick up my katana and dive back into Jack’s world. If you’ve ever considered yourself a Samurai Jack fan, you’ll fall in love with Battle Through Time.
Nathan is the co-creator of the Splash Damage Bros. Podcast. He can be found @thenatejc or inside the Mako Number One Reactor