Squaresoft might be full of geniuses, but the guys there aren’t half a stubborn bunch. Even after sizeable e-mail protests from a boiling mad internet population, they refused to release their most technically gob smacking title, Tobal 2, outside of Japan after being hurt by Tobal No.1’s low sales in the Europe and America.
Then it was discovered that there would be a legal problem using the word ‘Bushido’ for the British release of Bushido Blade (although this later turned out to be only a problem in European territories). But now it’s all systems go for a new release date of late February. Bushido Blade isn’t your average fighting game. It covers a lot of new ground where previous beat- ’em-ups feared to tread, and you’ll find that innovation is evident all the way through the game, from major gameplay elements, to the tiniest loving details.
Beginning with the actual attack moves, there is a set of standard hits that any character can perform, based around high (triangle), mid (square) and low (X) strikes. Nothing strange there. But to get into the deeper side of Bushido Blade’s particular brand of sword slashing combat, you have to forget all that you have learned before and master an entirely different method of control.
Each time you begin a new game, whether in the single player Story Mode or going up against a friend in Versus Mode, you pick one of the six characters and then a weapon for them to use. It is these eight weapons (six swords, a giant hammer and a long, pointy staff thing) that have their own moves assigned to them, not the characters.
Most weapons are capable of around 25 normal moves – various artfully performed slashing, stabbing and chopping actions – as well as anywhere from two to 15 combo strings that link some of those nasty flesh-slicing moves together plus a couple of dramatic special moves. The picture starts to get more complex however when you discover that each fighter is capable of three or four additional strikes or combos when united with weapons they are suited to. Kannuki, for example, has two moves for the hammer, neither of which anyone else can do with the same weapon. The best combinations of combatants and weapons are not immediately obvious, so finding them can be the first challenge.
Another quirk of what has to be the most skilful control system yet is the ability to alter your balance by switching between three fighting stances as you clash swords. All of the weapon and character moves mentioned are spread across the three stances, so roughly a third of your available attacks can be used when you’re in any particular pose.
It may seem bizarre next to the kind of thing you’re used to, but in practice it works very well to split up the many moves into three sets that can be better learned individually. Besides, it looks smart when you click a button to lean back and hold a samurai sword horizontally above your head.
Beat-’em-up veterans will probably be surprised by the lack of the traditional health bars that normally grace the top of the screen because in Bushido Blade you never know the exact energy level of you or the opponent. In fact, the only on screen display is the small two-digit number indicating the amount of rounds you’ve won so far. The clear screen lets you see the beauty of the crisp graphics in unobscured glory. The characters are not the most vibrantly coloured mob (although all six have much brighter alternative training clothes) but they are finely detailed and could teach Soul Blade a thing or two about realistic motion.
While the brilliant Versus game is without doubt the best possible way to play Bushido Blade, the Story Mode is thoroughly involving too. The story goes that deep in the Chugoku mountainside is an ancient dojo, where the practitioners teach their subjects the spiritual lessons known as the ‘teachings of the Echoing Mirror.’ In the back of this peaceful place though, is a secret collection of people with a much darker purpose – the Kage. These are a group of well trained assassins made up from a select few of the dojo’s teachers.
As the other practitioners in this peaceful place must not be made aware of their colleagues’ extracurricular activity, the fear of exposure builds until one preacher and Kage member decides to break free and escape from this pressurised way of life. You play the escapee, pursued every step of the way by your former close companions who have now been despatched to kill you for your dishonourable actions. Fighting each Kage member only once (because each is a fight to the death), the battles are extremely intense.
As with the Versus mode, you are given an impressive 3-D arena to battle it out in, and using the ‘Run’ button you can wander off in any direction to explore the grounds of the castle where the story mode is set. You can also pull yourself up onto ledges for a very effective height advantage, and the chance to dive bomb the other player with your sword pointing down at them!
If you are off guard and your opponent makes a good hit with his sword, you can die from a single fatal wound in Bushido Blade. You learn to be very cautious and to deflect the slicing blades with lightening quick reactions. One common mistake is to lunge out and lean forward with the sword in an outstretched hand; leaving you totally open and close enough for the other samurai to make a simple swipe to the back of your neck, killing you instantly.
If you last a bit longer than that single blow, Bushido’s unequalled sophistication can be seen again in the way the characters take damage. Not only do you get bloody bandages added to your limbs and head each time you continue a one player game, but each limb can be affected independently during a fight. Stab someone in their right arm, for example, and it will most likely fall limp by their side; leaving them only a single arm to control their weapon and defend themselves. If you take too much damage to the legs then eventually you won’t even be able to stand, instead left to crawl around on your knees with a severely limited range of moves until the end of the round.
Being based around the code of the ancient Japanese honour system named Bushido, this is the first game ever where you have to fight honourably. That’s why when you are on your knees, you can opt to drop your sword and ask the other player to finish you off! Also, you won’t see the proper FMV endings when you complete the Story Mode unless you have fought honourably throughout – see the boxout for a description of honourable fighting Bushido Blade-style. All this talk of honour doesn’t mean you have to play fair all the time, however. Most characters have a sneaky concealed weapon which they can whip from their baggy samurai clothes at any point during the action, like a fan or small throwing knife. If that dirty trick doesn’t work, you can humiliate an opponent by chucking snow, water, or dirt in their eyes, and then running them through while they’re off guard!
This is definitely the way to go if you are serious about your beat-’em-ups. Bushido Blade has no weird monsters, half humans, or anime special effects. It really is a serious game, better described as a samurai simulator than a beat-’emup. For experienced players it provides the finest gameplay money can buy! However, newcomers will easily be confused by the odd controls and occasional one-hit deaths.
You genuinely have to be skilful to compete, unlike many other fighting games, and the freedom of movement element can make the two player bouts entertaining enough to keep you playing for hours on end. Absolutely recommended.