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Samurai Shodown (PS4) - return of a legend

Samurai Shodown (PS4) – return of a legend

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

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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 youve heard of SNK recently its 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.

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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 thats 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 theres a definite effort to evoke at least an idealised version of the real historical setting. (By the way, we dont think theres any accepted explanation for the misspelt name, as ironically the franchise is named Samurai Spirits in Japan.)

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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 thats because even relatively glancing blows can cause a lot of damage, as you would expect when youre waving a giant sword about. Its 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 its 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 someones 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 (PS4) - fake realism at its best

Samurai Shodown (PS4) – fake realism at its best

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 its only you thats dishing out the decisive health bar-halving attacks. At the same time theres 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.

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Theres 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 its 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.

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