Two masters of the sword stand face to face in a field, blades unsheathed and eyes unblinking. A blood red moon hangs in the air, and the silence is deadly. The tension is palpable, and as you feel that bead of sweat slowly trickle down the side of your head, you decide to make your move. With one quick step, you go for the killing blow, only for your sword to hit nothing but air. Your opponent reads you like a book, backing away with a single, precisely timed hop, and now you're wide open. One press of the circle button is all it takes -- the last 45 per cent of your health bar disappears and you've lost the match. A brutal end to an intense battle, but you can't wait to do it all over again.
This is Samurai Shodown at its absolute best. Compared to a lot of other fighting games, it's often slow, methodical, and very, very deliberate. There's hardly any emphasis on difficult combos or constant super attacks -- it's all about finding the most effective range for your character, baiting your opponent into making a mistake, and capitalising on each and every opportunity to the best of your ability. Even at its most basic level, this is an incredibly tense experience.
But don't let the tension fool you -- Samurai Shodown is actually quite an easy game to pick up. Everything revolves around four fundamental types of attack: light blows, medium blows, heavy blows, and kicks. The lack of combos means that you'll mainly be dishing out one strike at a time, so it's all about knowing which strike is most effective for different situations. Light blows and kicks are generally great at finding small openings, while medium attacks can punish opponents who overextend. Again, it pays to be considered in your approach.
It's the heavy attacks that really cement Samurai Shodown's identity, though. Slow but extremely damaging, heavy blows can strip a third of your health bar -- they're so dangerous that whole rounds can be won or lost in seconds. The ever-present threat of losing so much health so quickly gives each and every match a kind of intensity that many other fighting games would kill to have, but it's all about risk versus reward. As hinted, heavy attacks are slow to start, and, if blocked, they leave huge openings. New players may find them frustrating to deal with at first, but stick with it and you'll come to appreciate just how much they bring to the game.
On top of basic kicks and weapon swings, each character also has a few special moves to call their own. These range from projectile-flinging attacks to stances that counter incoming blows, giving each member of the cast a unique feel. Indeed, at just 16 playable characters, Samurai Shodown's roster isn't exactly expansive, but every warrior is distinct in both their style of play and their immediate look. For what it's worth, we've thoroughly enjoyed playing as all of them.
In the gameplay department, at least based on our time with the release, Samurai Shodown is a knockout. Satisfying and rewarding, it's a near perfect blend of back-and-forth action, bookended by supremely tense stints of watching and waiting for the ideal time to strike. We simply can't think of another fighting game that captures the stop and start nature of a deadly duel in quite the same way. It really is like a classic samurai movie standoff given video game form.
For those out of the loop, Samurai Shodown arrives over a decade after the release of its predecessor, Samurai Shodown Sen, and as such, it's been billed as a reboot of sorts. Utilising the ever-popular Unreal Engine 4, SNK deserves credit for pushing the series back into the spotlight with some lovely visuals. It's not quite up there with stunners like Dragon Ball FighterZ, but thanks to a gorgeous colour palette as well as lots of cool attack animations, it's an undeniably stylish title. The presentation, too, in all of its traditional Japanese glory, is a treat for the eyes.
Having said all that, Samurai Shodown does feel rather retro -- but that's certainly not a complaint. In a time when big name fighters such as Tekken 7 and Street Fighter V have skimped on single player content -- at least at launch -- Samurai Shodown opts for an old school approach. Here, you get a full-on, story-driven arcade mode complete with opening and ending scenes for every character. It's a structure that, for whatever reason, many developers have deemed outdated, but we can't help but love it. We'll take a dedicated arcade mode over a nonsensical cinematic story every single time.
Digging deeper, you've got classic survival, time attack, and versus modes. And beyond that, things get a little more interesting with the dojo mode, which lets you fight against '"ghosts" of other players. The sell is that as you play, the game builds up copies of your characters which learn over time. It takes note of which attacks you use and how you move, transforming your habits into a computer-controlled opponent. We've fought against a number of ghosts already, but most just spammed certain attacks, or jumped around the stage like they were possessed. We assume that as more and more people get their hands on the game, the ghosts will gradually get smarter, but right now, only time will tell if the dojo will live up to its intriguing concept.
Naturally, though, it's online where your skills are really going to be tested. Unfortunately, we didn't get to battle it out across the web as much as we would have liked, given that this review is based on the game pre-release. In short, though, the netcode seemed a bit iffy. We had a couple of matches where things started off fine, but as the rounds went on, there were some definite lag spikes. Other matches were playable but far from perfect, and taking SNK's spotty track record into account when it comes to online components, that's a bit of a worry. Again, we can only hope that things straighten out once the game's available to everyone.
Samurai Shodown is back and it's arguably better than ever. SNK has delivered a truly gripping fighting game where the tides can turn in an instant, and it's this constant sense of tension that creates a uniquely electric experience. Against a backdrop of faster paced, combo-heavy fighters, Samurai Shodown stands out as a deliberate and excellently judged duelling simulator. Against a worthy opponent, there's simply nothing quite like it on PS4.