Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time


Note: This review contains spoilers for Samurai Jack.

As an avid Cartoon Network watcher growing up, one series that I consistently tried to watch every Friday, and one that would consider one of the network’s greatest shows, was Genndy Tartakovsky’s Samurai Jack, about a time-displaced Japanese samurai trying to get back to the past to defeat an evil entity known as Aku. When the series didn’t make it that far in its initial run, with the IDW comic holding me over in the interim, I was excited when [adult swim] finally brought it back more than a decade later for a fifth and final season to give it proper closure, a season which I found ultimately satisfying. When I heard about a new video game based on the series, Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time, and that it would take place during the final episode, I eagerly played it after a lengthy wait from Limited Run and ultimately enjoyed it, which then led me down a Cartoon Network nostalgia trip. Upon going through another nostalgia trip, I decided to revisit the game and found it to be just as good on my second playthrough as I did the first.

The story starts at the end of S5E10 “CI”, during the point where Jack and Ashi travel back in time. During this, Aku makes one final attack through the time portal, throwing Jack off-course and into a realm between time of Aku’s creation. As he travels through this strange realm, Jack must track down Ashi and find a way back to his own time so he can finish off Aku once and for all.

In addition to serving as a celebration of Samurai Jack as a whole, featuring levels based on episodes from across all five Seasons, the plot is written in a way that feels like a natural part of the series and feels like one final adventure before Jack finally completes his journey. Choosing to set it during the final moments of the series is a clever way to insert the game’s plot without contradicting the events of the show, with the setup providing a neat explanation for how characters who grew old or died by the events of Season 5 can appear younger or alive, as well as coexist in the same area. That said, this game is in no way a stand-alone story and even requires knowledge of the show, especially Season 5, to understand what’s going on.

The main gameplay is that of a hack and slash platformer in which you are graded on your performance, which is fitting for Samurai Jack. While the levels themselves are linear in their objectives, each has branching paths and hidden areas that make exploration worthwhile. Pressing the touch pad can give you a reminder of your current objective if you get lost, though this feature is less likely needed for some players. While the ability to double jump helps greatly with long distances, one skill (more on that later) you will want to unlock as soon as possible is Jump Good, as it can help greatly with hard-to-reach breakable objects.

In addition to the Magic Sword, Jack has a number of optional melee weapons and weapon types at his disposal that the player can pick up, including other swords as well as clubs, hammers and spears. These, as well as various healing and stat-boosting items, can be equipped to the d-pad, allowing you top swap between weapons and use items on the fly (most empty slots are replaced by your bare fists). There are also various ranged weapons you can use, though only one can be equipped at a time, which includes a number of throwable weapons as well as a bow and arrow and even guns (divided between revolvers and machine guns). Ranged weapons are equipped separately from the weapon wheel and can be fired at will using R2, with L2 to aim, though the bow and arrow and the guns require also equipping an appropriate ammo supply, otherwise they cannot be equipped or become useless unless you change weapons in the pause menu.


Ranged weapons can help with keeping your distance or hitting faraway targets.

Exploration is encouraged through various collectibles, found either out in the open, through hidden chests or from drops from defeated enemies. Gold is useful when you visit Da Samurai at shops hidden throughout each level, used to train weapon types or repair individual weapons in addition to regular purchases, which can also include beads that you can equip (max. 1) to grant combat bonuses. Skill Fire and Bushido Spirit, as well as various Gems, are used to unlock new Skills in a Skill Tree, of which there are three different Skill types to consider. Kiai Fire fills up your Kiai Meter, which, when filled, can be activated by pressing L3 and R3 to unleash a special attack with your current melee weapon, with different attacks depending on the weapon type. Dama also grant temporary bonuses, with the color determining whether they increase health (White) or attack (Red) and defense (Blue).

One hidden collectible in the game is Corrupted Emperor's Kamon, of which there are 50 scattered around the levels and may require a guide to efficiently hunt them down, and revisiting levels replaces collected Kamon with Gold. Collecting all 50 unlocks a secret alternate ending to Season 5 and the series as a whole, which is well worth it for those who were unsatisfied with the original ending, and this carries over into repeat playthroughs on the same save file. Incidentally, if you complete the game without collecting all 50 Kamon, the show’s original ending will play instead. Contrary to popular belief, where people will tell you that the task needs to be done on a second playthrough, it is actually entirely possible to achieve this on the first, especially if you have a guide to help you out, since the Kamon are already there from the start.

While the Skill Tree system works well as an incentive, the execution is a little flawed, in that advancing through them can get very grindy due to how much Bushido Spirit and Gems, which are more difficult to come by than Skill Fire, are required the further you progress. Various helpful skills are often placed towards the bottom of these trees, including maxing out Health and Kiai Meters, exacerbating this further. Completing objectives will help with obtaining Skill Fire, though getting the max amount from these will more often than not require multiple playthroughs. All non-throwable weapons that aren’t the Magic Sword break over time and give you Bushido Spirit relative to their durability, encouraging their use while also discouraging Da Samurai’s repair services, though this can only get you so far due to how long it can take to break enough weapons in a single playthrough.


Getting this far across two playthroughs takes an unbelievable amount of grinding.
Only one third of the skill tree is shown here.

There is, however, one way to more easily stock up on Bushido Spirit in more timely fashion. After you’ve stocked up on weapons, either from enemy drops or Da Samurai shops, play through the Ruined City stage until you reach the final boss fight with Scaramouch. Saramouch has various attacks that will instantly break your current melee weapon regardless of durability, which you will want to intentionally let him use. Repeat this process until you’ve exhausted your weapon supply or obtained enough Bushido Spirit. It is also recommended to do this on the lowest difficulty for best results, as you will take the least amount of damage possible from this, though you should also stock up on healing items beforehand to help last to the end of the fight.

While the gameplay is otherwise generally good, one issue that stands out is Jack’s lack of invincibility frames, which can be an issue when large groups of enemies start ganging up on you. The ability to dodge roll helps, as does automatically running after a couple seconds, but these only do so much, especially since underground enemies can potentially trap you in a way that prevents you from dodge rolling and leaves jumping as your only means of escape.

Though the series’ iconic outline-less art style is difficult to translate to 3D, this game manages to find a way to translate it near-flawlessly. On top of this, the animations are incredibly smooth, especially during cutscenes, with said cutscenes even managing to replicate the series cut-in visuals at times. The story also opens and ends with actual footage from “CI” to serve as a bookend, though there is a minor hiccup in visual continuity where Jack’s appearance in the time portal switches to his in-game model when it shifts to 3D, regardless of his more disheveled appearance in the footage. Related, the game also replicates the clothing damage Jack often takes in combat, with said clothing damage being reflective of the player’s health. The game will also play the original (S1-4) Samurai Jack opening narration on startup, completing the experience.


The series' iconic art style translates surprisingly well to 3D.

While the visual style of the show remains intact, so does the voice cast as of Season 5, creating a more authentic experience for fans. As he has proven with Avatar: The Last Airbender and Samurai Jack, Greg Baldwin does an amazing job emulating the late Mako, and here he sounds nearly indistinguishable from Mako’s Aku. Mako can also be heard through archive audio from Aku in the past, including the original opening narration, so it’s also still nice to hear him voice the character one last time. The background music generally fits within the style of Samurai Jack, with it being more prominent during gameplay and absent during cutscenes, though the Ruined Tomb background music sounds like it wouldn’t feel out of place in a Kingdom Hearts game. That said, one track in particular, the one that plays when you visit Da Samurai’s shop, is extremely catchy and memorable, with my only complaint being that it doesn’t play at every shop location for some reason.

For fans looking to get more out of the series, Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time is a solid recommendation despite its faults, though non-fans may feel less inclined to pick it up. For those dissatisfied with the original ending, the effort required to unlock a potentially better one is worth it alone.

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