Samurai Maiden review

This is D3 Publisher’s latest attempt at the over-the-top action game series, following cult classics such as Earth Defense Force and Oneechanbara. On the surface it shares far more similarities with that latter series, though, sporting a combination of hack-and-slash gameplay and a purposefully out-of-place high school protagonist.

Thus it may somewhat come as a surprise to learn that Oneechanbara developer Tamsoft is not behind Samurai Maiden. Shade has instead taken up the mantle, a developer comprised of ex-Quintet staff, one whose legacy stretches all the way back to the mid ‘90s.

Samurai Maiden sees high school girl Tsumugi Tamaori dragged back half a millennia to the Sengoku period of Japan, or, more specifically, the day of the Honnouji Incident, a key point in history where Nobunaga Oda was executed at the hands of his own general, Akechi Mitsuhide.

After learning from Oda himself that Mitsuhide intends to resurrect the demon lord, Tsumugi – who’s actually the descendent of a prophesised exorcist – joins three Oda clan members on a journey into the underworld itself to prevent this. Meanwhile, history threatens to change its course following Oda’s discovery of a modern-day textbook Tsumugi accidentally dropped on the floor.

Novel time travel narrative aside, Samurai Maiden fails to make a good first impression with its weak, unvaried swordplay. You’ve got a single light attack, a single heavy attack, the ability to dodge out of harm’s way, and…that’s it.

The problem lies in how almost every ability, even something as simple as an upwards sword slash, is locked from the start. Perhaps this was done to symbolise Tsumugi’s journey from novice to master sword user, but this element of her character development is made obvious enough via lengthy dialogue sequences, not to mention your own mastery of the game as you play through it over time. 

This doesn’t change in a meaningful way throughout the game’s first five chapters, where much of your time will be spent running from point to point, mashing buttons to cut down small groups of seemingly identikit skeleton enemies, while taking unthreatening amounts of damage to the point where dodging isn’t particularly important. Dull wouldn’t begin to describe it.

But reach chapter six and the unexpected happens: Samurai Maiden begins to transform into a much more interesting game. By this point, you’d have earned enough Inca (orbs that strengthen weapons) and gained enough rapport and affection with your allies (used to access training sessions) to expand the arsenal of attacks available to you in a meaningful way.

Crucially, the levels themselves become more demanding. More enemies are introduced, sure, but it’s how different foes are combined together that counts. Rabbles of smaller minion enemies pose a legitimate threat when faced off in armies alongside larger bosses, as if their sole purpose is to overwhelm/distract/annoy you.

As levels also get longer, the game’s single-use checkpoints finally reveal their true purpose too, testing your consistency across an entire stage and adding tension to trickier encounters after a single failure.

Your allies’ abilities also find new meaning. You can direct Iyo to lay traps, decoys, and healing jars, but this requires waiting a non-trivial amount of time for her to run over to your chosen location to set them up. Not something you can always afford to do in the middle of an intense battle where hordes of smaller enemies threaten to overwhelm or displace you.

All of the above lends the combat in Samurai Maiden a slower, more thoughtful tempo compared with its faster, slicker contemporaries – justifying the decision by the designers to omit a combo entirely from the game and its ranking system.

One scene sees you face-off against a sub-boss and its goons while simultaneously avoiding and utilising the potency of a sharp spinning metal trap that runs around predetermined routes. Or you might discover a stack of explosives precariously stacked atop a high wooden shelf. Sure, it’s easy ammo to hurl at enemies, but breaking the shelf to release the explosives also risks setting the whole stack alight, resulting in instant death.

Point is, Samurai Maiden ensures that when there is repetition to be had – inevitable when re-encountering familiar foes – proceedings are still kept fresh via the introduction of new twists in every chapter. These subtle changes, like being robbed of an ally who was your only means of healing, go a long way toward mixing things up.

The game’s visual design is similarly economical. An attractive application of cel-shading isn’t quite enough to hide a lack of variety in locales as you traverse the mountainous Japanese underworld, but this choice of setting naturally accommodates the light platforming between bouts of combat.

It’s the characters that have evidently received the most care as far as the presentation goes, sporting detailed, painterly appearances. The attention to detail is most apparent in how eyebrows are drawn over hair rather than underneath it, something that’s often overlooked in games replicating manga-style artwork.

Samurai Maiden manages to successfully carve out its own niche in the action-adventure genre, firmly setting itself apart from D3 Publisher’s own Oneechanbara Origin. It does a lot with a little, often demanding a more thoughtful approach to encountering foes. It’s also comfortably the best game developer Shade has made since Brightis on PlayStation. Just be prepared to wade through an early grind for abilities and a plot occasionally weighed down by exposition.

Tested on PS5. Steam Deck not yet supported, game boots to a blank screen.

SCORE
7