Between 1995 and 2005, Cartoon Network gave us some of the greatest animation ever produced by any lone studio; Dexter’s Laboratory, Powerpuff Girls, Johnny Bravo, and the original animated Clone Wars is just some of the quality output of that period. Yet, towering above even those fantastic shows, was Genndy Tartakovsky’s Samurai Jack. An effortless blend of fantasy and sci-fi, combining martial arts tropes with American Western iconography. The story saw the titular warrior cast into a distant future by his nemesis, the demon lord Aku. Trapped in an era where evil had already triumphed, Jack wanders the land with only his magic sword and his wits, searching for a way to defeat Aku and return home.
There have been games based on the show before, with the okay Shadow of Aku being the last to grace Sony systems 15 years ago. The ideal game adaptation of Jack would need the boundless energy, style, and production value of a Platinum Games joint. Alas, developer Soleil can’t quite reach those lofty aspirations. Yet Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time is still a fun brawler that manages to capture the spirit of the series.
Taking place during the events of the final season, Jack is thrown into a "place between time", a parallel dimension controlled by Aku. This setting is an excuse to roll out familiar characters and locations from throughout the series. Those Jack has befriended over the years have become enemies again thanks to Aku's mind-controlling amulets. It’s a neat, if a little contrived, way to bundle together the overarching lore into a digestible narrative.
The plot does allow for some artistic variety in an otherwise visually lacking experience. As our hero tries to escape this muddled realm, it's striking to jump from verdant highlands to the black and red horror of Aku City. Aside from the environments and some faithful art design, this looks like a PS2 remaster as opposed to a current-gen title. However, it’s worth noting that the minimalist aesthetic reflects the art style of the show it’s adapting.
Gameplay-wise, it recalls the old God of War titles with its linear shifting between fixed camera spectacle and open arenas. This simple brawler offers a decent selection of ranged and melee options alongside a generous set of upgrade trees. Jack's magic sword is your go-to damage dealer, but he can also wield hammers, staffs, and projectile variants. Anything other than your faithful katana degrades pretty quickly, so will have to be repaired or replaced at Da Samurai’s shop.
Attacks have style and variety but feel floaty, not unlike the homing keyblade hits of Kingdom Hearts. Using blue flame to upgrade Jack's repertoire unlocks a surprisingly deep set of abilities that can liven up the action considerably. A timed dodge counter and slide kick become invaluable on higher difficulties. Elsewhere, a judo throw feels satisfying and can also disarm enemies.
Dama is a consumable dropped by enemies that acts as a health top-up and a short burst of defence. This rewards continually pressing the attack in larger fights. Plowing through the same cookie-cutter enemies does drag somewhat, but upgrades and assorted weaponry mean it’s rarely a slog. Increased difficulty highlights the shortcomings of the combat, particularly the wildly inconsistent hit boxes. Thankfully, normal difficulty is a breeze, and easy is a good chance to rope in some youngsters who might not have heard of the show.
When all is said and done, you're likely going to come to this title if you're a fan of the series. Soleil gets this, and has really gone all out to include a plethora of faithful nods and jokes.
The series voice cast returns, including Phil Lamarr as Jack and John Dimaggio as The Scotsman. Pretty much all major characters turn up at one point or another, and all enemy types are based on foes Jack has fought in his adventures. Then there are the more subtle touches, like Jack's robe becoming more tattered as his health bar degrading (10% Gi is full-on existential crisis Jack from season 5). Finally, ability names and descriptions carry more fun little references. If you have any love for for the property, these little nuggets of fan service will balance out the mediocre nature of the game itself.
Ultimately, this isn't the Samurai Jack game of your dreams. But despite its flaws, this is a good action game that will please fans, and its simplistic nature may even introduce the property to a younger audience.