Title: Samurai Maiden
Release Date: December 8, 2022
Reviewed On: PS5
Publisher: D3 Publisher
Ever since the Senran Kagura titles began to wane in release frequency, my yearning for a loosely similar style of anime beat-’em-up has gradually grown. Cut to the announcement of Samurai Maiden, and my wishes were seemingly answered, though I was sure not to let my prior assumptions cloud how I would perceive this title’s general identity. However, after playing it, I became surprisingly exasperated for reasons primarily stemming from the gameplay design.
Samurai Maiden focuses on the protagonist, Tsumugi, as she finds herself transported to the Sengoku period and meets the legendary Nobunaga. In this time, she’s known as the Priestess of Harmony, a figure supposedly integral to preventing the Demon Lord from taking control of the land. In order to achieve this feat, she teams up with four skilled ninjas, Iyo, Hagane, and Komimi, who all also form powerful bonds.
Samurai Maiden is an action title, but for all intents and purposes, it’s roughly half visual novel-like for those solely looking to experience the main story. The narrative is quite dialogue-heavy, and there are various supplemental scenes comprising party member interactions. The latter events are unlocked via affinity increases, which heighten the more one fights alongside a specific character and uses their skills in combat.
Further, these bonding scenes grant pretty vital gameplay techniques, establishing a mutually beneficial character-centric relationship involving both gameplay and story. Affinity scenes provide combat abilities, and utilizing those combat abilities in tandem with summoned characters gradually provides new affinity scenes.
The cast is charming to witness converse, with trope-filled yet endearing dynamics that truly make up this game’s heart. Tsumugi is the typical fish out of water, not understanding her sudden circumstances, and is usually presented as not particularly bright. Still, her ineptitude isn’t overbearing or insulting, instead being used as necessary for plot advancement or occasional humor.
Iyo develops an obvious crush on Tsumugi, Hagane is the classic big-sister type, and Komimi has those classic tsundere tendencies. Admittedly, while enjoyable to see run amok, these tropes can sometimes define the other girls, and they’re emphasized a bit too much. The later writing at least aids in establishing semblances of depth. Sadly, the relatively frequent story grows dull with uninteresting and forgettable developments. If anything, you’ll stay for the cast, making the affinity scenes essential to view.
As for the actual gameplay, Samurai Maiden falls short in fundamental ways despite its seemingly promising roots. Players progress through a series of linear stages consisting of platforming and enemy encounters. The former is not too present, save for brief special areas called Bubble Pockets, unlocked via affinity scenes. Platforming’s never challenging, yet the movement is undeniably stiff, and there’s a lack of mobility in the air that makes each jump troublesome. Although, it’s far more pronounced when attacking mid-air, where that rock-like stillness is quite evident.
Even when considering that players who stick out the experience will eventually get used to this rigidity, performing these platforming feats and fighting in the air rarely felt rewarding because of it. Thankfully, as stated earlier, the platforming is never demanding or difficult, but that doesn’t absolve it of its faults.
Still, a few elementary puzzles are also littered about, helping diversify the stage design. When exploring off-the-beaten paths, there are gallery items to be found as well, gifting players intriguing concept art. They’re not exactly well hidden, yet finding them is somewhat fulfilling.
Combat itself is highly reliant on learning new skills via affinity events since Tsumugi’s default moveset is almost humorously lacking. This is perhaps meant to reference how despite her having practiced swordplay in her daily life, she never took it all that seriously. Anyway, the combos she eventually learns are all quite basic, serving expected contextual benefits.
Plus, one of the three girls will be out in the midst of combat alongside her, with players able to conveniently and actively swap between them whenever they desire to. Further, the ninjas have special skills that can be triggered whenever the gauges are appropriately filled, increasing combative options.
Unfortunately, none of these pathways in the action department hit the mark because of how enemy encounters are designed. Most battles comprise at least one boss-like foe and numerous mobs in the vicinity. Eliminating the boss(es) is required to move forward, and while that sounds simple enough, it can be genuinely awful to do. The primary issue is enemy frequency. In several encounters, especially later on in the game, you’ll be thrown into fights where the only sense of difficulty arises from having to avoid waves of poorly-implemented mobs incessantly striking you.
Finding times to attack foes, let alone bosses in the middle of stages, is arduous considering the previously discussed stiff movement. Enemy telegraphs are present, but their viewability and reactionary windows are hampered by the number of foes on-screen, ruining prospective wins that would arise from scrutinizing movesets.
I’m fairly experienced in demanding action titles, so when I was confronted with these issues, I naturally thought I was misunderstanding or overlooking mechanics. However, it appears I was not. To give a sense of perspective, the feel of the combat here felt worse than my time with the Kingdom Hearts III data battles and Yozora on the Nintendo Switch Cloud on Critical Mode.
Locking on can also be cumbersome, with the distance needed to activate it being a tad too close, and locking on to the desired enemy takes considerably long if there are many on-screen. This can create rippling issues when numerous mobs are present.
To the game’s credit, it does grant you finite ninja tools that can help alleviate the tides, such as a decoy to lure weaker foes to a specified spot or a bomb to perform area-wide damage. However, those are merely band-aid solutions and, alongside the ninja skills plus a key maneuver Tsumugi learns later in the game, only lightly mitigate the issue of high enemy numbers. The combos Tsumugi learns do little to fend off these waves effectively, too, and the multiple weapons she can equip only differ in stats and traits. Oftentimes, after beginning a battle, I would either die within seconds due to receiving highly aggressive spamming, or the enemies would simply not attack for unknown reasons.
The instances where the combat thrives are in the stages solely consisting of a boss fight with no mobs in sight. Like most enemies, the bosses in these areas have fair, distinct telegraphs that are consistently satisfying to learn and react to. It’s just that here, there aren’t needless mobs causing artificial difficulty. As a result, these singular boss fights are the only occasions where I felt as if my victories were achieved through practiced skill and not some measure of questionable luck. Though regrettably, the bosses lack move variety, so the fights can grow monotonous.
Another problem worth bringing attention to is the performance. Samurai Maiden’s character models are great, and the environments look passable, but the framerate is highly inconsistent, at least on PlayStation 5. Intense frame drops occur intermittently, to extents that the game can become entirely unplayable for several seconds at a time. These occurrences weren’t terribly common, but when they did happen, they completely ruined the pacing and caused me to suffer pointless damage. Hopefully, the other platforms are optimized better, and this is either a conflict unique to the PS5 or me somehow, but I couldn’t hand simply hand-wave it away.
Samurai Maiden is an action title boasting conceptually sound ideas that grievously fall flat due to poor optimization, rigid movement, unnecessarily high enemy numbers, and artificial difficulty by extension. The replayability offered by greater difficulty modes is rendered moot. Granted, exploring the stages for collectibles and platforming can be enjoyable. The cast is pleasing to see converse and bond, too.
Still, the lacking narrative and gameplay-related drawbacks significantly hamper the experience. At one point in development, there was a promising time to be had here, but it’s been mired by severe faults.
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