The Samurai Shodown series is back with its first mainstream console 3D (and 360-exclusive) entry and beyond a whole new dimension to battle in, also brings with it two dozen fighters to battle with. 13 are classic fighters from past SamSho games, but 11 are new, and fit in well with the older ones. The SamSho series was a personal favorite in the early ‘90s; it was easily the best-playing 2D weapons-based fighter on the market, and the first two installments have held up remarkably well over time. Unfortunately, many recent incarnations of the series have fallen short of its early greatness, and that holds true to a lesser extent with Samurai Shodown Sen.
Sen still provides players with an enjoyable game, but this 3D incarnation just doesn’t play as smoothly as the best 2D entries. The back-and-forth weapons-based combat is still fast, but not as smooth as in prior games. The jumping mechanic is also pretty broken. Unlike just about every fighting game since SF II, you can’t jump forward and do an attack easily. Also no matter what character you use, you can’t jump very high. Control with either the d-pad or left stick is perfectly fine, although the left stick is more arcade-ish and feels a little more natural to use here. At first, the core gameplay seems largely unchanged from the 2D entries series, just not quite as smooth. The transition from 2D to 3D has been a rough one for many fighters (including this series), and that remains true with SamSho Sen. There have been some major changes made that wreak havoc with the game‘s balance that help it when you‘re on the giving end, but will have you cursing the game if you‘re on the receiving end.
One of the biggest issues is having elaborate unblockable moves readily available with the push of one button, which can easily kill the game for new players. Another major change is heavy attacks being able to fell opponents in just a few shots. While they do take forever to execute, and leave you open to attack if you miss, when they hit, it’s quite satisfying. This addition of a Bushido Blade-esque gameplay setup, where a few perfectly-landed shots at just the right time in the right part of the body that can kill in three hits, certainly is a change from the norm for the series. If you’re in the final round, doing this will also lop off a limb.
While the series has always let you hack folks in half before, it was done in such a subtle way that I don’t think most players really noticed. Here, there’s no way to not see it is they go to close-ups of the severed limb (hands, forearms, parts of legs, and heads can all be sliced off) and go even further by showing you the wound caused to the body, so you can actually see inside the arm that is still attached to the body. It’s quite grotesque, and for some reason more disturbing when done to female characters, but it definitely fits the game well and doesn‘t make the M rating seem tacked on.
Also, the SNK tradition of having an ungodly difficult boss character continues, although this time, it isn’t the main boss, but the sub-boss who provides the greatest challenge/frustration in the game. Draco is armed with a shotgun that can shoot you from either close or long-rage, and hits you basically out of nowhere. His kneeling shots can be jumped over, and his standing ones can be ducked, but they come so fast that correctly doing either is nigh impossible. Expect to die many, many times against him. Fortunately, not all SNK traditions in Sen are bad. The legendary Engrish translation is back, and leads to some of the most absurd, and glorious achievement names ever, like “Kill Thousand of Men”, and “The Crimson Murderousness”. SNK fighting fans have become used to tons of lag when they play online, but fortunately Sen breaks this tradition by offering a lag-free experience. It may not offer anything to play beyond one-on-one combat, but at least it’s lag-free IF you can actually find someone to face.
Sen's visuals are a blend of watercolor for character portraits and menus and 3D for the actual gameplay. The portrait art is fantastic - some of the most beautiful on the 360, and then when the actual game begins, you’re treated to 3D graphics that simply aren’t the best out there. The character models lack polish, textures tear constantly when limbs intersect, and a lot of the little things, like facial expressions, hair movement, and body language, didn’t make the transition from 2D to 3D all that well. Fortunately, the character animation is still pretty good, and the stages are beautiful. Angelica’s desert storefront and Draco’s wild west are my favorite new ones, while Haohmaru’s classic cliffside stage retains much of its charm from the 2D games. And while the character animation is mostly fine, the characters lack the charm in 3D that they had in 2D. SamSho’s characters, and the game as a whole, simply look better in 2D than in 3D.
Sen’s audio is easily my favorite part of the entire experience. The soundtrack is superb, and far better than anything in the newest Tekken, Virtua Fighter, or Soul Calibur games. SNK used a lot of flute instrumentation to create music that fits the feudal Japan setting perfectly. It’s also pretty catchy stuff, and had me wishing that an OST was available so I could listen to it outside the game. The sound effect work is also pretty good - not spectacular, but the sword slashes are satisfying and their volume increases depending on the power behind the shot and depending how cleanly it connects. Perfectly-landed heavy shots sound like they’re slicing through flesh, while lighter ones sound a little less impactful, but still damaging.
While Samurai Shodown Sen delivers a fun experience at times, it doesn’t deliver a very polished one. The broken jumping mechanics and unbalanced gameplay make for a frustrating experience overall. Its fantastic soundtrack and lag-free online play aren’t enough to recommend a purchase for anyone but die-hard fans of the series. Even then, I’d recommend that they either rent it or wait until it drops to the $20-$30 range, as its current $50 asking price is absurd, especially when the far-superior Samurai Shodown II can be purchased via XBLA for a fraction of Sen’s current cost.