History + Zombies = Awesome

HIGH Friendship super attacks are a delight.

LOW The bird ninja is essentially a machine built to stun-lock the player.

WTF That was a twenty-minute conversation leading into a 2-minute obstacle course.

If nothing else, Samurai Maiden has a great premise.

As the game opens, a modern-day student is dragged through time to the night that Nobunaga Oda was killed inside of a burning castle back in feudal Japan. With the help of a ninja, she’s able to intervene and defeat the zombies packing the halls, saving the embattled lord. This change in history leads to the opening of a rift that introduces more monsters, interdimensional enemies, and dire consequences should the player fail to fix everything that’s gone sideways.

A new 3D brawler from the developer responsible for such light fare as Bullet Girls Phantasia and Kandagawa Jet Girls, Samurai Maiden is basic, as far as gameplay goes. The player controls the titlular samurai, pitted against fantasy creatures and the undead as she attempts to unwind the damage caused by her trip back in time. There’s a surprisingly elaborate plot involving curses, demons and fated encounters, but the real attraction here is the swordplay — and as long as Samurai Maiden sticks to it, things work well.

Samurai Maiden has satisfying combat flow down pat. While there’s just one moveset with new abilities unlocked as players deepen their relationship with ninja sidekicks, the player is able to select from a couple of different swords that offer various strengths and encourage fresh playstyles. Slicing enemies has a satisfying feel to it — baddies stagger when slashed, they do exaggerated windups before unleashing attacks, and they even clearly telegraph where their ranged attacks are going to strike. Armed with the ability to block and dodge without restriction, it’s an incredibly fair combat system.

In addition to the base swordfighting, players have a trio of ninja to rely on, each one equipped with an elemental attack that charges up as the player racks up hits on opponents. In addition to special attacks, the sidekicks can help by using items, throwing rocks, and swinging across chasms. Every ability is useful at one time or another, and the player is free to swap between sidekicks at any point. One interesting wrinkle is that one ninja is always in combat with the player at any time, and they can be attacked by enemies. Samurai Maiden isn’t harsh enough to allow them to be KO’d, but they can be interrupted mid-attack, meaning the player has to be strategic about when and how to use the ninja – they can’t rescue players from unblockable boss attacks, and using one at the wrong time will waste their energy.

While the gameplay is solid, level design isn’t particularly interesting. The occasional castle or cave liven things up a little, but the majority of levels find the player hopping through a series of floating islands, with monsters popping up every time they arrive at a fenced-in arena. This leads to plenty of uninspiring backdrops where a uniformly-bland skybox hovers above the action. The platforming isn’t great either – the player is armed with a double-jump which smooths things out considerably, but the camera clearly isn’t suited to the action as it never pulls back far enough to give a good sense of where the character is going to land. Thankfully, outside of the challenge obstacle course levels, there’s not a ton of jumping required – it’s just enough to be annoying without being a dealbreaker. However, Samurai Maiden‘s biggest issue is how it handles character advancement.

Killing enemies earns currency that can be used to power up weapons and unlock costumes – the strange part is that the player’s health is directly tied to their weapon level. Every time a weapon levels up, it gains a few points of attack and a few hundred points of health. This means that switching to a new weapon not only massively lowers the player’s attack ability, but their health as well.

I’d gotten my base sword up to level 20, allowing me to tank my way through fights with over a thousand hit points. Then I made the mistake of trying out a new weapon in the next level – late in the campaign – and was suddenly getting one-shotted by almost every opponent. If players want to try new weapons, they’re essentially forced to grind for currency, which slows everything down considerably. It’s also strange that new abilities are tied to friendship levels with the Maiden’s ninja sidekicks, and these are raised by using ninja abilities in combat. The result? It’s vitally important that the player never lean on any one partner too much, or they’ll never get the chance to learn how to parry attacks or do aerial combos.

Finally, there’s the story, which deserves to be mentioned — I’m not clear about whether to treat it as a plus or a minus. It’s written well enough and the characters are enjoyable, but the presentation is a little challenging for what’s otherwise a fast-paced action game. Every level starts and ends with a long Visual-Novel-style conversation between characters that runs from five to ten minutes long, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that these take up more time than actually playing the levels does. It’s generally good stuff, but I can’t help but feel it could have been edited down. Thankfully, these can be skipped on replay, which is the only thing that makes grinding for levels tolerable.

Samurai Maiden is entertaining enough – the characters are likable, the combat is high-quality, and there’s enough to unlock to keep players coming back for ages, and all of its flaws are things that can be ignored or worked around. In the end, it’s a charmingly upbeat experience about a schoolgirl cutting up zombies with a sword, and what’s not to like about that?

Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by SHADE and published by D3. It is currently available on PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 40 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: This game was not reviewed by the ESRB, but it contains Blood and Violence. Despite the schoolgirl vs. zombie premise, there’s nothing too lascivious or gory here. Player clothes are never torn off during combat, for example, and enemies die in fiery disintegration, rather than being torn to pieces.

Colorblind Modes: There are colorblind modes available in the options.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: I played most of the game without audio and encountered no difficulties. All dialogue is subtitled. Subtitles cannot be resized. This game is fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls.

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