Games review: Samurai Shodown is the best fighting game of 2019

SNK reboot one of their most beloved fighting game franchises and the end result is one of the most distinctive fighters of the generation.

Although everyone has heard of PlayStation, Nintendo, and Xbox, whether they have any interest in video games or not, you have to be a fairly committed gamer to know who SNK are. Even back in their heyday of the 90s their Neo Geo consoles and games were prohibitively expensive, the sort of thing cash-strapped teens would dream of but never actually own. And that creates a very different kind of nostalgia for the brand, particularly in Europe where they were especially difficult to get hold of.

If you’ve heard of SNK recently it’s probably through their numerous retro re-releases and compilations. Although best known for one-on-one fighters like Final Fury, The King Of Fighters, and The Last Blade they also produced everything from shooters such as Ikari Warriors and Metal Slug to sports games Super Sidekicks and Neo Turf Masters.

Although many of those games are still eminently playable today they can be difficult for modern gamers to properly appreciate, given a large part of the appeal at the time was the state-of-the-art visuals. That in turn makes updating any of their games for current formats extremely difficult on any kind of reasonable budget. But the best SNK games played just as good as they looked and that’s something that this new Samurai Shodown helps to prove, by being one of the best fighting games for several years.

SNK has been through many incarnations over the decades but a few years ago it began a renewed effort to return to its former glories, starting with The King Of Fighters XIV – which although not a major sales success was a very creditable effort. Samurai Shodown works along similar lines and also shares many of the same problems, in terms of the low-tech visuals and limited single-player content. On the positive side it not only plays extremely well but also keeps surprisingly close to the tenets of the original games.

Samurai Shodown, as you might guess, is set in 18th century Japan. We hesitate to call it realistic, because in many instances it is not, but some of the characters are loosely based on historical or mythological figures and there’s a definite effort to evoke at least an idealised version of the real historical setting. (By the way, we don’t think there’s any accepted explanation for the misspelt name, as ironically the franchise is named Samurai Spirits in Japan.)

That same sense of fake realism is evident in the style of combat, which is based around the use of weapons, rather than fisticuffs, and is notably slower paced than most fighters. And that’s because even relatively glancing blows can cause a lot of damage, as you would expect when you’re waving a giant sword about. It’s not realistic in the literal sense but the cautious posturing and sudden bouts of extreme violence certainly conjure up memories of countless samurai movies, rather than making the game feel like just a random beat ‘em-up with interchangeable characters.

This unique fighting rhythm has several side benefits, not least of which is the fact that it feels genuinely different to anything else around at the moment – including fellow weapons-based fighter SoulCalibur. But it’s also a surprisingly accessible game, with relatively simple controls and familiar Street Fighter style special moves.

Some actions are unique to Samurai Shodown though, most obviously the ability to knock a weapon out of someone’s hand, which is great not only because it feels more realistic but because you can still win a bout if you manage to counter the inevitable attack that follows.

Samurai Shodown almost feels as if it has as many defensive moves as it does attacking ones, as you jockey for position; rolling, dodging, and parrying to ensure it’s only you that’s dishing out the decisive health bar-halving attacks. At the same time there’s very few abstract complications added on top, in terms of esoteric power gauges or abilities, ensuring your mind is kept on the fighting and not a shopping list of special rules and get-outs.

There’s a weight and power to the attacks that feels just right, and while on a technical level this is a fairly basic-looking game (even though it’s made with Unreal Engine 4) the distinctive art style still manages to impress, with very solid-looking characters that never go too overboard in terms of the absurdity of their designs.

Where there is a problem though is in the disappointingly small roster of fighters and the limited single-player campaign. It’s barely more than an Arcade mode, with only very simple cut scenes and a typically unfair final boss. Other modes are equally unengaging, with some uninspired time attack and survival modes and not much else. As long as the online play stands up to the rigours of the real world then that’s still not necessarily a problem, but this is not a game overflowing with additional content.

What it does have though is an entirely unique style of play that is both very familiar from the original games but also pleasingly unique in the modern era. We’ve enjoyed it more than Mortal Kombat 11 and hope that it will do well enough for the developers to iterate on and expand it, as well as work on other of their classic franchises. Technically they never went away but with Samurai Shodown SNK are back on the map as one of the premier fighting game developers in the world.

Samurai Shodown

In Short: More than just a successful reboot of a forgotten franchise, this is one of the most unique and entertaining new fighting games of recent years.

Pros: Weapon-based combat feels completely different from other fighters, in terms of both tactics and pacing. Distinctive characters and art style, with surprisingly accessible controls.

Cons: Very limited single-player options, with a weak story campaign and little in the way of other modes. Small rosters of fighters. Typically awful final boss.

Score: 8/10

Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC, and Stadia
Price: £49.99
Publisher: SNK
Developer: SNK
Release Date: 25th June 2019 (Switch & PC TBA)
Age Rating: 16

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