Samurai Shodown Sen Review

By Michael Thomsen - Posted Apr 16, 2010

Samurai Shodown Sen is another attempt to drag the venerable series into three dimensions. While it's got some new and interesting ideas for the fighting genre, the balance and execution make for a plodding mess.

The Pros
  • Strong core concept
  • Bloody finishers
  • Sense of weight and momentum
The Cons
  • Imbalanced combo system
  • Sidestep move is useless
  • Only a few modes

Samurai Shodown Sen is the latest in a string of attempts to bring SNK’s fabled 2D fighter into 3D. The latest outing has some great tactical concepts that help Sen stand apart from other fighters in a way series fans will appreciate. Unfortunately, all of the unique ideas are lost in a jumble of poor balance, obscuring animations, and some regrettable control choices.

Samurai Shodown Sen

Walk Slowly and Carry a Big Sword

Sen’s combat system immediately stands out from other fighters because of its style. Its narrow focus and constrained movement are distinctive. You attack either horizontally or vertically, with regular and heavy intensities for each attack. Blocking protects you from most vertical strikes, but horizontal strikes will require a sidestep. You can also kick or grab your enemy, and each character has a unique special attack that can break through any guard, but takes a long time to pull off.

On paper it’s a neat new approach to a fighting game, built around angle and intensity of attack rather than a catalog of bizarre and cartoonish moves. Character movement feels heavy and weighted and jumps are short-lived. Every step counts in Sen, and you’ll have to pay close attention to your distance from enemies to time attacks. You won’t be able to fly across the screen in a single move here, so knowing your character’s exact attack range and attack animation timing is especially important. Contrary to fighters like Street Fighter IV and Blazblue: Calamity Trigger, attack animations in Sen are slow moving and uninterruptible, which adds to the feeling of constraint.

It also provides incentive to play defensively, since even a few kicks or vertical swipes can leave you vulnerable to counter attacks with no way canceling that move into a block. There are also a few devastating heavy attacks, and a special Fatal Flash move you can use once per round when you’re near death. You can take anywhere from a third to half of your opponent’s energy bar down with a single special attack. This puts heavy incentive on just blocking and sidestepping until you’ve caught your opponent in a long animation allowing you time to launch a heavy counteroffensive. When you end a match with one of these heavy moves, you’ll be rewarded with a severed arm, head, or torso flying across the arena while your victim collapses in a gush of blood.

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These Aren’t the Samurais You’re Looking For

Sen has a lot of interesting ideas working in its favor, but they fall flat in execution and balance. The most vexing issue with the combat is that in the heat of battle, it’s extraordinarily hard to differentiate all the various attack chains and shifts between horizontal and vertical planes. One of the benefits of the exaggerated attacks of games like Street Fighter IV is that you always have concrete visual identification of what is coming at you. Sen is animated with a realistic sense of weight and balance that makes it exasperatingly obscure. When you have to react with split-second timing to attacks that look largely similar, it’s a real exercise in frustration.

It only compounds the frustration that one of the most essential defensive commands -- the sidestep -- is totally unreliable. You’re supposed to press up or down on the left analog stick and then let it return to a neutral position to pull off a dodge. It sounds simple, but it almost never works because pressing up is also how you jump, while pressing down is how you crouch. Even if you properly read an incoming attack, the odds are high that you’ll crouch when you wanted to dodge. Another frustration is that, after heavy attacks, the next most effective offensive strategy is built around three and four-move combo strings. This is a fine idea and introduces some tactical complexity that’s usually reserved for high-level play in other fighters.

Samurai Shodown Sen

Unfortunately, the game’s just not balanced well enough for long combos, and experimenting with them comes at a high price. It can take several seconds for a three move combo animation to play out, during which you’re stuck in uninterruptible attack animations that leave you vulnerable to a potentially devastating counter-attack. The difficulty of executing a few basic attacks in a chain, the damage from which will be insubstantial, is prohibitive. Simply blocking and waiting to drop a heavy attack is the de facto strategy of choice, and you can win rounds in a few seconds when you get the timing right. The ideas aren’t bad, but there’s no reward for playing within the rules of the system. Victories are a one-note experience.

Sen offers a few different modes to extend its versatility, including a barebones story mode that forces you to fight 6 random characters and then the same final two bosses. You can also play a survival mode to see how many characters you can hack through with a single life bar. The online mode is really basic but stable. You can play in ranked and unranked matches or form your own parties to cross swords with a group of friends.

Samurai Shodown Sen

A Band Apart, and a Step Behind

Samurai Shodown has always stood in contrast to other fighting games and Sen continues that tradition. It’s a game that wants to form its own unique identity, which is great in theory. Unfortunately a strong sense of identity is the only thing Sen does well. There’s a nice sense of human weight and momentum to the animations, but many of the attacks appear frustratingly similar, which muddles the intricacies of combat. Basic attacks come with a high penalty for failure that encourages defensive play. Lots of slow, uninterruptible attacks, haphazard balance, and an ineffective sidestep make for a fighting experience that never really works, despite some of its nice ideas.  There’s no particularly good reason to invest time in this game when there are so many better fighters on the market.