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Gotta get back
Back to the past
Samurai Jack
(Wa-wachack!)

This song dominated my early mornings in childhood when Samurai Jack was still being aired on Cartoon Network. You ask what sets it apart from other shows for kids? I would point at the minimalist, hand-drawn art style by Genndy Tartakovsky, the creative liberty to show anything they want (since Jack is trapped in the future), and the recently explored mature themes in Season 5. So when I came across Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time, I was a bit skeptical. At first, I thought it was just another sacrilegious adaptation to cash-in on a successful show. Then I wondered how a videogame would be able to captivate me in the same way the show did. It could be that I was past the appropriate age and the formula that made the show special wouldn’t necessarily work here.

Man, I was so wrong! I will explain exactly why, in this Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time review.

Gotta get back!

Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time opens just like the TV show. In fact, it utilizes the same clips from the show. Jack and Ashi (his love interest) are fighting the shapeshifting demon Aku and then try to escape to the past, but Aku interferes- separating them and trapping Jack in a world “between times”. Jack’s only goal now is to escape the world and get back to Ashi in order to defeat Aku. That’s it. That’s the basic narrative thread of Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time, and this made me quite divisive. On one hand, there’s the fact that the game is more focused on gameplay as there’s no point in retelling the same narrative that everybody knows. On the second hand, the devs missed a golden opportunity of creating or reimagining a new adventure as some adaptations do. Characters we had known and loved (The Scotsman, Sir Rothchild, etc) make their return but there’s no emotional impact to their presence as the interactions with them are often superficial and possibly missable. That said, let’s move on to one of the strongest aspects of Battle Through Time.

Slice ’em, Dice ’em

Gameplay, even though the mechanics are a bit basic by today’s standards, is still quite visceral. Our boy Jack dashes, kicks, and slices through anything blocking his path, parrying, lifting enemies up to dice them midair, and slamming them down. He’s got both light and heavy attacks that can be weaved into powerful combos. He’s got a vast array of ranged weapons like shurikens, knives, scythes, arrows, and even pistol and machine guns. Parrying at the right moment can be followed up by a damaging counter-attack, in the same way the dash can be followed up by a powerful kick. He’s also got a dodge/evade mechanic that can be upgraded into a roll and a double jump mechanic that can further be upgraded to an even longer jump. All in all, in terms of combat, Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time feels like a lite take on Ninja Gaiden.

But don’t underestimate the game as the enemies can give you a decent challenge even on medium difficulty. At higher ones, the game throws at you a barrage of new enemies that were otherwise not present in the area at lower difficulties. It goes without saying that you’ll die a lot on higher difficulties. Sadly the challenge of lower difficulties comes much later into the game- initially, it will feel like a cake-walk, thus ruining all the fun. Since Jack can carry four weapons at once (plus one ranged weapon), you’ll feel like an all-slaying, overpowered samurai, breezing through the first two or three levels.

Defeating enemies (ranging from robotic insects, two-legged crocodiles, undead, and a lot more from the TV show) will grant you Skillfire and Bushido, both of which are required for upgrading your skills. Skills are divided into three sections – Physical, Spiritual, and Combat – all of which you’ll be requiring in tandem. However, the downside is the requirement itself; Bushido is hard to come by compared to Skillfire, so you’ll eventually end up with a lot of skills locked even when you’re nearing the end of the game. As I said, Battle Through Time gave me a decent challenge after I crossed the first three levels. This was because I had a lot of skills locked out and so had to manage with what I had.

Da Samurai appears at many locations and offers items to buy, sell and repair, and training in weapons as well. Coins obtained from fallen enemies or barrels (there are hundreds of them to destroy) or by opening treasure boxes can be spent here. Better stock up on those Haggis or Hot Water because the path ahead is punishing. A multitude of enemies appear within a single area and boss fights become tougher and more fun as you jump from enemy to enemy to attack like Batman in the Arkham games. All this while collecting Skillfire, coins, and Kiai fire in order to build up the Kiai fire counter. Once done, Jack unleashes a short-lived but devastating flurry depending on the weapon you are wielding. I personally didn’t require any training from Da Samurai (because they were all very costly) to slice my way through everything, often switching to different weapons mid-combat.

Childhood reminiscence 

Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time will take you through some of the iconic locations from your childhood. From Aku’s Mines to Aku’s City, all gleefully crafted to deliver the right dose of nostalgia without overdoing it. Even though all the levels are majorly linear, there do exist some secret areas within each one. Access them and you’ll be treated to a short fight that rewards you with treasure chests. Some offer coins, some Skillfire and Bushido and others, new weapons. And this is much required as all other weapons besides your magical sword will break after prolonged use. But other than that, there is not much incentive to go explore these offshoot areas. What the devs could’ve done is added a few lore items – texts, images, clips, etc that might make scouring for them a bit more interesting.

Much of the nostalgic factor owes its thanks to the minimalist style of Tartakovsky, now completely in 3D. In fact, the low polygons and crisp geometries aptly reflect the kinetic animation with an added dimension. Objects still look graphic and prismatic, the allies still retaining their cartoony warmth, while the enemies hold on to the ominous coldness that made them so primal in the TV show. Not only that, but Jack’s appearance itself is also very dynamic as the more hits he takes, the more his Gi tears up until it’s just a jagged piece of cloth barely clinging to his pelvis. In just mere seconds, Jack goes from Season 1 to Season 5. It’s a subtle and neat design touch rarely found in other games.

As for the OSTs – even though they are only serviceable, they’re unique to each location – sometimes its calming, sometimes it just exists as a soft tune in the background. However, despite all this, Battle Through Time offers very little voice acting. All those NPCs we meet in our journey only talk through voiceless, skippable, and mundane texts. Even though the original actors reprise their roles, the only voice acting exists in the cutscenes. Maybe it’s the dev’s choice to not let the NPC interactions hamper the fast and fluid gameplay, but it really makes them feel like cardboard cutouts rather than allies.

Verdict

Even though it’s a faithful adaptation of the Samurai Jack series and provides a solid combat experience, Battle Through Time offers very little replayability. The areas seem largely empty, similar enemies block your progress, and collectibles are all of the same kind so that there’s not much incentive to collect them in the first place. However, the game manages to provide entertainment in short bursts, the keyword here being ‘short’. You might want to wait for a sale on this one. Because once the price goes down a bit, then Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time is a must-play for fans of the cartoon.

 

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