Anyone who owned that exuberant little Sega tub around 2000, the one with ripsaw disc-reading rapport and a slick library, would know their way around Dobuita. They would have bought their fair share of soda, slugged cans in two manly gulps with a capsule toy chaser. They'd know their way from the dojo to the docks, the Tomato jingle impressed into their cortices like a thumb print on clay. Shenmue very much capitalised on a special, unmistakably Japanese blend of nostalgia and sentimentality. Feed that poor cat in a box. Be the kind-hearted hero. Wander into lilliputian bars in equally tiny streets after the sun sinks beyond the mountains, street lights glowing and neon buzzing. Scooters and alleyways and arcades and odd, stilted hospitality.
I mention the adventures of Ryo Hazuki because Way of the Samurai 3 draws its cues from that particular brand of post-modern adventure-RPG. It features a similarly condensed collection of locations to explore, filled with an equally-broad collection of characters. From mission structure to the measured passage of time, Way of the Samurai trades 1980s Japan for a 400 year rewind to the Sengoku period, but loses none of the quirk or investment. It might not feature the same production values, but Acquire's Samurai sim-lite is essential for anyone wanting to waltz about in a fun, bombastic depiction of medieval regional Japan.
That's what makes it most exciting; the regional nature. This is not some tale of the big shakers. You do not play Nobunaga, or someone of equal import. And diverging from Ryo Hazuki's unshakable sense of integrity, your nameless protagonist is no friend of the people. He or she is a wretch who dragged themselves off a nearby battlefield, half-dead and ensconced within a reasonable suspicion of the military aristocracy. No red carpet roll-out, no consistent celebration of your presence. In a fine depiction of a Samurai -- superstitious, short-tempered and holding life cheap -- you're a troublesome hind who needs to work to earn a decent reputation.
But you don't have to. Within this period terrarium, players are free to murder as they please. They may steal and brutalise and very much put truth to people's assumptions. Every action, good or otherwise, feeds into your perception and any number of the twenty-odd story paths that web and weave through an average eight hour tale. Players certainly earn their reputation.
Traipsing around the various sub-locations of Amana, you interact with the population via Shenmue-esque conversations and undertaking missions. These range from trivial to heavily impacting the direction of your character's story. From punishing a thief and finding lost underpants to infiltrating a Lord's retinue to and ultimately achieving a goal of hericidal dominion. The countryside offers up some interesting locations, and though they're not at all complex, nor do they overflow with Yakuza-level NPCs, each feels tactfully reused like a drama set.
And that's really the best description of Way of the Samurai 3, a sort of digital period drama. It has all the hallmarks of an NHK historical romp; with slightly murkier protagonist. The cavalcade of characters that dot the roads, own the yatai, mattock the fields and man the battlements are, even if seemingly inconsequential, funny and memorable. Wandering the nocturnal streets of Omiki Town and being accosted by thugs feels like a scene from a Sunday night serial; seeing to transgressors with deft strikes and throws and parries, before sheathing a blood-slicked katana in a theatrical flourish and dead-pan demeanor.
Technically, the game won't impress if you're looking to counter Ryū ga Gotoku Kenzan!, but despite its B-tier production values not far from tale-end PS2 output, the PS3 and 360 title looks sharp and runs beautifully through Ghostlight's porting effort. The audio, offering an essential Japanese voice track option, is cohesive and doesn't feel lacking. As much as you can play Way of the Samurai 3 with a mouse and keyboard, controller is really how you want to explore and fight.
I really don't want to spoil too much, because Way of the Samurai is a game about narrative discovery. The tiny morsels to the big story beats. They intertwine and diverge and wholly sell the idea that this is a malleable world, free from relative railroading and making each play-through as compelling as the last. The biggest compliment I can pay Acquire's absolutely curious creation is that, once I died prematurely, I forewent save-scrubbing and sought a fresh path from my blood-soaked Kuchihagahara origins.
I might not have been as noble as Ryo Hazuki, but we walked a similar path.