If I told you a year ago that Nintendo’s eShop would become a premier source for high-quality, downloadable titles under $10, you’d think I was crazy, and you would have stopped reading this article by now. Really, who saw this coming? After a streak of high-quality exclusives including Pushmo, Mighty Switch Force, and Mutant Mudds, Sakura Samurai: Art of the Sword delivers a sense of style and classic gameplay that’s increasingly uncommon in most modern games.
What You Need to Know
Sakura Samurai: Art of the Sword is an original, 3D, action-adventure game that tells a story about Princess Cherry Blossom, who was captured out of her home by an evil being. In her absence, the land quickly turns to chaos, and now you, as the Sakura Samurai, hear the call of duty to rescue her.
You’re introduced to the game’s world by a mysterious frog-like creature called a kappa. After a brief tutorial of the basics, the kappa thrusts you into the game to begin your adventure. I appreciate how quickly the game starts because I think a portable can benefit from being succinct and easy to pick up in short spurts. In just a few minutes, I was diving into the actual game.
This Isn’t Your Average Hack and Slash
The gameplay in Sakura Samurai is very similar to Punch-Out!! Instead of combo-focused button mashing, the game rewards precision and timing. During combat, the game focuses you on only one enemy at a time, but you’ll enter open battle areas where you’ll face a wide variety of opponents that provide audible and visual cues about their oncoming attacks. You’ll learn to quickly dash left, right, and back to avoid being attacked, and when you counter-attack with perfect timing you’ll earn Precision Points that can later be used to purchase new items and upgrades. However, you must be careful because one misstep will cost you all of your accrued Precision Points. Special items that can be earned or purchased are mapped to the 3DS D-Pad to allow for quick execution. You can toss frogs to distract enemies, throw daggers for ranged attacks, use stone to sharpen your sword, and eat rice cakes for regain health.
You’ll progress through the game by using an overworld map with 30 different combat stages, and three castle stages that end with a boss battle. Considering this is a portable game, this overworld works very well to divide the game up into smaller parts that you could play for five or ten minutes at a time. Combat is broken up by three villages that feature reflex-based mini-games, blacksmiths to upgrade your sword, shops to purchase items and power ups, and villagers that can give you helpful information for your journey. These villages are a very welcome change of pace, and I really enjoyed exploring everything they had to offer.
When I get frustrated with a video game, it’s usually because the game is working against me, like a Party Ball dropping Bob-ombs on my head in Super Smash Bros. Brawl or the infamous Blue Shell in Mario Kart, but Sakura Samurai offers a different kind of challenge. When you die in Sakura Samurai, it’s your fault because you didn’t read the opponent’s moves correctly or counter their attacks quickly. It’s this kind of rewarding difficulty that keeps me coming back to improve my skills. After beating the game, you’ll unlock an Expert Mode and 30, 50, and 100 Thug Challenge matches. There’s also a Rock Garden mode that allows you to use real-world steps measured by the 3DS pedometer to grow your own sakura trees.
One of my favorite things about Sakura Samurai is the character design. Considering the current horsepower of today’s gaming platforms, it’s understandable that developers want to take advantage of the hardware as much as possible. However, as technology becomes more and more capable, the art style and graphics in games can become so photo-realistic that you can sometimes lose the escapism many of us seek in video games. I think this is where Sakura Samurai, and many other titles on Nintendo platforms, earn big points in my book. The characters in the game, ranging from enemies to villagers, are all very unique with their own distinct shape, size, outfit, and facial expressions.
The stylish Japanese art and music are both very fitting, and some of the musical themes, such as the main title and town theme, I found to be very memorable. I didn’t find myself playing with the 3D enabled very much, but during the story scenes and boss battles, the effect certainly added to the experience.
Sakura Samurai is a beautiful game of patterns and patience that doesn’t overstay its welcome. Personally, I appreciate everything this game stands for. It’s proof that the eShop and downloadable games can deliver engaging and memorable experiences that don’t have to be a $60 epic blockbuster to prove their worth. The rewarding combat and charming story and characters make Sakura Samurai what I’d consider a must-own for any 3DS owner.
Review copy of the game purchased from the Nintendo eShop for $6.99
Total Play Time: 6 hours. Finished game on normal difficulty.