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Samurai Jack: Battle through Time

Samurai Jack: Battle through Time

Written by Sean Colleli on 10/8/2020 for SWI  
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Samurai Jack is a curiously neglected intellectual property. The Emmy-winning animated series ran for four seasons from 2001 to 2004, was abruptly cancelled in spite of critical acclaim for its visual storytelling and striking art direction, and was finally revived for a concluding fifth season in 2017. In that vast span of nearly two decades, Genndy Tartakovsky’s magnum opus has only received three dedicated video game adaptations. This always puzzled me, because even as a starry eyed teenager watching the show for the first time in 2001, I understood that Samurai Jack would make a killer video game.

During its original run, the series saw two games: a Metroidvania for Game Boy Advance titled Samurai Jack: The Amulet of Time, and a GameCube/PlayStation 2 level-based action adventure game called Samurai Jack: Shadow of Aku. Both games punched above their weight in terms of artistry and technical ambition, but were also both clearly low-budget projects. Neither gave their source material the stylistic, high-class treatment it deserved.

And now in 2020, the series is getting a new video game adaptation in Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time. Released across all major platforms, this game covers the entire five-season run of the show, reunites much of the surviving voice cast, and implements elements and ideas from the series that we haven’t seen in a game before. After spending a lot of time with this latest interactive entry, it’s uncanny how reminiscent it is of 2004’s Shadow of Aku; Battle Through Time is ambitious, stylized, and clearly held back by its constrained time and financial budgets.

Battle Through Time was developed by Soleil Ltd., a subsidiary of Japanese developer Valhalla Game Studio. Soleil hasn't done a lot of work; mostly the Splatoon imitator Ninjala and a Naruto licensed game. But I don’t mean that as a slight against them; I feel that given more time and money, they could have pulled off a lot more with Samurai Jack. As it stands, however, Battle Through Time is frustratingly promising game that never manages to break the chains of convention.

The game begins toward the end of season five, but changes the story so that when Jack and his ally/lover Ashi attempt to return to the past, they are separated in the time stream. Jack is dropped into a twisted imitation of his past, where the villainous Aku directs moments from Jack’s life to torment him, pitting him against old friends and making him relive traumatic events. Jack must survive and escape this dark funhouse retelling of his life if he ever hopes to reunite with Ashi, return to the true past, and destroy Aku once and for all.

To be frank, this narrative approach annoyed me. Samurai Jack had a bittersweet, if rushed, conclusion that left me mostly satisfied. Fiddling around with it to awkwardly slip a game's worth of events into the story just felt needlessly cumbersome, especially considering the game itself just rehashes most of the high points from the series into a sequence of twisted memories that Jack must fight his way through. I would have preferred that Battle Through Time act as a retelling of the entire series, with an elderly Jack, finally permitted to age naturally, recounting his adventures to a new generation of Samurai. Instead the game’s story feels like an awkward clip show that saps some of the melancholy and finality from the show’s poignant conclusion.

Story quibbles aside, it’s the gameplay that really matters here. And it’s with the gameplay that I was most reminded of Shadow of Aku. Battle Through Time is once again a linear, level-based action adventure, characterized mainly by light exploration regularly broken up by combat. The combat is the one element that has seen the most expansion from Shadow of Aku, but it feels disjointed to a degree. It has lot of potential depth, including the addition of numerous melee and ranged weapons; this game takes Jack’s fifth season reliance on improvised or stolen weapons, including out-and-out fully automatic firearms, and puts that idea to full use as a gameplay mechanic. There are lots of gameplay tools to experiment with here, which I’m grateful for, but in general the combat lacks balance and feels heavy and cumbersome. There are some fantastic combos you can unlock and pull off, and even a grab counter that lets you disarm weakened enemies and finish them off with their own weapons. That said, the lock-on camera is clunky and, even after a few hours of play, the controls just feel slightly off and unorthodox.

It’s hard to put my finger on, but Jack never feels quite cut out for the fights that the game throws at him, which is odd because the game isn’t overly frenetic to the degree of something like Shadow of Mordor or, heaven forbid, DOOM Eternal. Instead, Jack himself feels just a touch too slow and stolid, like he can’t keep up with the handfuls of enemies that ambush him. Blocking and dodging aren’t fully fleshed out until you spend experience points on upgrades that honestly should be implemented from the start. And maybe it’s just me, but I never developed the muscle memory to make combat feel fast, fluid, and graceful the way it’s portrayed in the show. There is an unlockable parry move that seems like it should add a new angle to combat, but the fights are so messy and hindered by the inconsistent lock-on camera, that in practice parrying is more of a chore than a useful tool. It’s more efficient to land heavy attacks and combos and then just dodge any incoming retaliatory strikes.

The game will occasionally throw bigger crowds of enemies at you, and this is where it really begins to resemble the epic clashes in the show, but at the expense of depth. Big groups of enemies consist of dumber, nerfed bad guys that can be cut down in a single strike, whereas smaller groups of enemies are paradoxically made up of tougher, smarter units that have more health and more actively block and parry your attacks. This makes the bigger battles less satisfying when you realize you can button mash your way through them, but at the same time the battles with smaller groups are clunkier, slower and more workmanlike. It’s difficult to describe, but there’s just something about the combat in this game that doesn’t quite gel; there are seeds of an eminently satisfying Samurai Jack experience here, but it needs balancing and polish.

The rest of the game functions as a fairly linear adventure-platformer, a condensed roller coaster of the most memorable moments from across the series. There are a number of secrets where you can grab XP boosts for the game’s three-tiered upgrade tree, stock up on cash for improving your sword and weapons training, and even a hidden collectable in every level that grants a new, happier ending to the show…if you manage to track down and destroy them all. It’s all pretty standard stuff but it works well enough here, despite the somewhat needlessly complicated names for what amounts to three colors of XP and special move powerups. What’s disappointing is how constrained the level design is. While offering some opportunities to explore off the beaten path for powerups and other goodies, every level is painfully linear and riddled with irritating invisible walls. There are occasional 2.5D sequences, and while they look cool their placement seems a bit random and doesn’t ever challenge you with particularly engaging platforming. This world is so painterly and beautiful, all I’ve wanted to do is run wild and explore its every corner since I was a kid sitting in front of Cartoon Network on a Friday night in 2001. It’s a shame that Battle Through Time still doesn’t let me do that.

The production values are a mixed bag. For a game that covers a series 16 years in the making, it ironically feels a bit rushed and low budget, eerily similar to Shadow of Aku from 16 years ago. In game, characters are not voiced but speak through text windows, and the character visuals and animation are of sporadic quality. Cutscenes are thankfully fully voiced and animated and, at their best, they do make you feel like you’re watching an episode of the show. Phil Lamarr, Tara Strong, John DiMaggio, Tom Kenny, and Greg Baldwin (filling in as Aku for the late, great Mako Iwamatsu) all reprise their roles and put on a terrific last hurrah for the franchise.

The art style, which valiantly attempts to reproduce the striking style of the show, is an acquired taste. Some of it is cel shaded and, in particular, Jack’s expressions and facial animations are spot-on. The game also imitates the multi-panel Kurosawa style cuts and transitions that happen during dramatic moments. However the game generally has that distinctive flat, claymation, canned shader appearance of mid-2000’s games, again very reminiscent of Shadow of Aku. Art style choice is a highly subjective decision, but I was disappointed the game did not go for a completely cel-shaded, ultra-saturated appearance to match the show’s clean, high-contrast look. Battle through Time still looks like it’s striving to achieve the art style of Samurai Jack without really meeting it, which is disappointing considering today’s graphical state of the art makes that much easier to pull off. Once again it makes Battle through Time feel low budget, just like Shadow of Aku, although in all fairness Battle Through Time looks a fair sight better than its now ancient predecessor.

Considering how drab and uncomplicated the visuals can look at times, it’s frustrating that the game was not better optimized to run smoothly on Switch. The game targets 30 fps but routinely and quite noticeably chugs during medium-to-heavy action sequences. I’m hoping this gets patched up in the coming months because when the combat really gets going this game is at its best.

What’s most frustrating about Battle Through Time is that despite its shortcomings, this is not a lazy, slapdash project. You can tell that the people at Soleil love, love, absolutely love Samurai Jack, and it’s clear that they were just thrilled to get this assignment. Within the limited time and budget they were allotted they did their best to make an authentic experience, from the way Aku’s fiery eyebrows curl and flicker, to the way robotic enemies explode after being cleaved in half, down to the little crinkles that form in Jack’s brow when he’s really exerting himself. One of the ability upgrades you can unlock is called “Jump Good,” a reference to a season two episode that I had to pause the game in order to explain to my wife. The developers at Soleil are fans, people who legitimately understand and care for the property they’ve been given stewardship of. Other IPs like latter day Star Trek should be so lucky.

This is what kills me about Battle Through Time. It’s not a bad game—not by a long stretch. It’s perfectly competent for what it is, a linear action adventure with light RPG and exploration elements, with complex if somewhat cumbersome combat. It’s perfectly reasonable given its discount price of $40 brand new. But if Soleil had been given more time and a bigger budget, this game could have been so much more. It could have been a true triple A experience, an open-world, time-spanning RPG that recounted the entire series in all its glory. I’d still love to get an experience like that, but I doubt it will ever happen. Samurai Jack has been over since May 2017, and it ended pretty conclusively. Unless it gets some needless sequel, prequel, or other ill-advised revival, we probably won’t see another tie-in video game. This is bittersweet, just like the ending of the show. For that reason, Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time is an appropriately subdued requiem for a great show, instead of the bombastic crashing finale that the fan in me really hungered for.

Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time is a competent, if linear and somewhat unbalanced, action adventure. You can tell that the game studio was made up of true fans who poured their love for the show into this game. But the scope and grandeur of the Samurai Jack IP are sadly limited by this game's low-budget restrictions. It's fun for what it is, but it left me hungry for more.

Rating: 8 Good

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

I've been gaming off and on since I was about three, starting with Star Raiders on the Atari 800 computer. As a kid I played mostly on PC--Doom, Duke Nukem, Dark Forces--but enjoyed the 16-bit console wars vicariously during sleepovers and hangouts with my school friends. In 1997 GoldenEye 007 and the N64 brought me back into the console scene and I've played and owned a wide variety of platforms since, although I still have an affection for Nintendo and Sega.

I started writing for Gaming Nexus back in mid-2005, right before the 7th console generation hit. Since then I've focused mostly on the PC and Nintendo scenes but I also play regularly on Sony and Microsoft consoles. My favorite series include Metroid, Deus Ex, Zelda, Metal Gear and Far Cry. I'm also something of an amateur retro collector. I currently live in Westerville, Ohio with my wife and our cat, who sits so close to the TV I'd swear she loves Zelda more than we do. We are expecting our first child, who will receive a thorough education in the classics.

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