Feudal Japan as depicted in Samurai II: Vengeance may not be the most relaxing island getaway, but there's no denying the entertainment to be found in hacking apart demons and their human minions.
Sharp katanas clashing atop awe-inspiring stupas, crimson blood splattered across arched wooden bridges, heads freshly chopped rolling on a dank forest floor - it's the farthest thing from tranquillity, and that tense action is precisely what makes this game great.
The graphics are fierce and the gameplay is fun, making this island getaway well worth enduring the combat pressure for.
Drawing from popular mythology, Samurai II puts you on an errand to defeat the demon Orochi who has been terrorising the people of Japan from his floating fortress. Getting to Orochi means terrorising his minions with the sharp edge of your katana.
Seven stages make up the game's main story, which is joined by a survivalist Dojo mode that hurls endless waves of enemies at you.
In a radical departure from the first game, Samurai II ditches gesture-based combat mechanics for a straightforward virtual control scheme. Buttons and an analogue stick replace flicks of a fingers - it's a wonderful thing. Gone are vague, unresponsive combination attacks: in are precise, fluid attacks. The difference is astounding.
Combos are easily executed by varying presses of the two 'attack' buttons - one for light attacks, the other for heavy ones. As you acquire points from fallen foes and breakable barrels, you can unlock new combos and even expand your current set from an upgrades menu.
While these combos become quite involved, you're eased into learning them since you gradually unlock each part of the attack.
Placing an 'evade' button on the screen is perhaps the single greatest decision by developer Madfinger Games. This addresses a glaring deficiency in the original, not only making it easier to avoid the frequently devastating attacks of enemies, but also to quickly cover ground so as to keep your combos going.
The lack of a 'block' button remains a problem, although less so than in the first game because it's much easier to evade attacks.Way of the samurai
The difficulty is nicely pitched, recognising that the first couple of stages are purposefully tough. Samurai II has a learning curve that initially seems steep, yet by exerting a high level of challenge early in the game, it better equips for tougher scenarios later down the line.
It isn't until you go back to the first two levels do you realise just how much your skills have evolved over the course of the adventure.
Variety is an issue, though not enough to be considered a problem. Levels are too linear for my liking. Most stages consist of long bridges and straight corridors that stretch several screens.
There are regularly switches that must be flipped to open doors or bypass other obstructions and levitating platforms, but these actually do more to highlight the plain level design rather than embellish it.
Hiding collectibles, secret stages, incorporating different weapons, or introducing customisable equipment could bring depth to gameplay and more substance to the levels.
On the flip side, there's absolutely no issue with visual variety. Samurai II is among the best-looking games of the year and puts other action games to shame, including the original. The audio is equally good, nicely contributing to the game's sharp sense of style.
Integration with Game Center for achievements and leaderboards (based on points earned per level) does encourage replay and the combo system certainly pushes you to experiment, though more can be done to instill depth and variety.
Nevertheless, the responsive controls, fluid action, and slick visuals make it one of the most enjoyable action games of 2010.