E3, by its very nature, is often a place filled with surprises. When game developers get together to show off all the new products they've been working on during the course of the past year, there are bound to be things that never blipped on the gaming public's radar. Some of these surprises can be great and unexpected; some can be disappointing (expecting a company's "secret game" to be one title then finding out it's something entirely different is a fine example of this), and others tend to leave everyone sort of scratching their heads while pondering the possibilities of what they've just seen.

The Square-Enix booth is often one place where everyone congregates hoping to be wowed by something totally unexpected, and last year's show was no exception. The usual suspects (Final Fantasy XI, Final Fantasy XII, Kingdom Hearts 2, et al.) were all represented, but Square had at least one surprise up their proverbial sleeve—that game was Samurai Legend Musashi.

On the "surprise scale" mentioned above, the presence of a new Musashi title fell squarely into the "scratching our heads while pondering the possibilities" portion of the chart. A follow-up to Brave Fencer Musashi wasn't an entirely unwelcome thing, but the game on display (with its garish cel-shaded graphics and wild-haired protagonist) seemed to have little in common with the original. Adding to the air of confusion was the following question: Why, of all the intellectual properties Square owns, would they make a Musashi sequel instead of something the fans really want—like another Chrono game? Unfortunately, the answer to that question never turns up. Square works in mysterious ways not meant to be understood by the mortal gamer.

Oddly enough, while most people would invariably think of Brave Fencer Musashi as the inspiration for this title, I kept being reminded of another Square action RPG: Threads of Fate. Threads certainly had a lot in common with the original Musashi game, but it also had a style and universe all its own. The music, the humor, the array of strange characters—pretty much everything in Musashi: Samurai Legend reminded me of Threads of Fate—except that Threads was a lot more enjoyable on the whole.

The game opens up promisingly enough, with a nicely drawn anime intro. Musashi flies around like a whirling dervish of death with a sword in each hand slicing through a seemingly endless array of baddies. It's pretty exciting, honestly, and had me genuinely looking forward to the game. What's disappointing is that when the game actually starts, this hyper-killing-machine form of Musashi is nowhere to be found. Instead, he's been replaced by a guy who moves so slowly he might as well be wearing cement boots. Much like Fullmetal Alchemist, this is another action role-playing game that moves too slowly to ever be fun.

When players take control of Musashi, they learn he's been sucked away to a new world. Some evil corporation is persecuting the locals while they attempt to steal all of the Nebulium (some sort of vital resource for magic) and rule the world. Naturally, there's a princess who gets kidnapped repeatedly, a series of elemental swords to find, local citizens to rescue (they're imprisoned in these little blue balls that Musashi must slash open—which reminded me a lot of Dark Cloud), and a seemingly never-ending array of fetch quests. Naturally, Musashi must save everyone if he ever wants to get home. In short, it's a standard action RPG that doesn't bring much of anything new to the table.

This feeling of "been there, done that" wouldn't be so bad if the core gameplay was engaging. The problem is, the developers have pretty much phoned this game in, and it shows repeatedly. Environments are hopelessly linear, populated with a series of enemies who not only respawn constantly, but lack any sort of real detail in their models. The standard ninjaroid and vaporbot models are repeated endlessly throughout the game with only slight color variations to highlight the stronger versions from the weaker ones. Since the game requires a veritable ton of backtracking to previous areas as new skills and abilities are learned, this means Musashi will be slaughtering the same guys over and over again.

Doing all this re-slaughtering would be bearable if the combat system was a little more engaging. It's a shame Musashi has a standard multi-hit combo at his disposal and little else. Yes, players can learn enemy skills by "focusing" on them then hitting a button at the precise moment of attack, but these enemy skills are more for showing off than being practical. They're nice during the occasional boss fight, but the majority of them will never be used since hacking and slashing with the generic combo attack is just as effective as using the special moves and doesn't drain magic points.

Making the combat even more troubling is the game's absolutely atrocious camera system. The camera has to be manually manipulated constantly throughout the game which makes fighting a constant juggling act between hacking the enemies and getting the camera into position so the player can actually see what they're fighting. During the early portions of the game the camera is a major hindrance; it's only as things progress and the player gets used to the constant manipulation that it becomes manageable—and "manageable" is not synonymous with "good."

Graphically, the game is somewhat unique. Square-Enix has utilized a technique they're calling "manga-shading," which is honestly just cel-shading with chunky black lines outlining the characters. Think of the usual character outline surrounding the typical cel-shaded character, double it, and that's manga-shading in a nutshell. Character models are interesting—they look like anime characters and everyone in the game has huge hands. I don't mean big hands—I mean huge hands—hands that are bigger than their heads. Musashi sports the requisite weird outfit (with lots of belts and buckles that seemingly serve no purpose) and some of the strangest hair ever, but it fits with the manga-shading tone, I suppose.

Environments are nowhere near as inspired as Musashi's character model. The game sports a variety of traditional 3D locales, everything from mines, to lava lands, to rainforests. The enemies populating these various locations aren't anything special either. The enemy models are okay the first time you see them, but since they repeat throughout the game they get old fast.

Controls are mostly responsive, which seems natural since Musashi moves like a snail most of the time. The only time I really took exception with them was for some of the platforming sequences later in the game. In one sequence, Musashi must leap from one platform to another while carrying a female companion (a common occurrence; women seem incapable of walking in this game). To actually make the jumps, one must line up so that Musashi is on the very edge of the ledge (meaning only his heels are actually on "solid ground") or the jump results in failure. There aren't many moments like this in the game, but when they do turn up, they can be irritating.

Nothing is as irritating as the game's voice acting, though. Truthfully, this is one of the worst voice-acted games I've heard in ages. It reminds me of the old days when voice acting was first starting to appear in games and developers just got anyone who happened to be in the office that day to read the various lines. Whoever did Musashi's voice is particularly terrible, but he has some stiff competition from most of the other VA talent. This is one of those times where I often found myself wishing they'd just have gone with plain text.

The rest of the game's aural component is good. The music is light and airy (and again, reminded me a lot of Threads of Fate) and the sound effects are decent.

So, nearly a year after seeing the game at E3, I've finally played through Samurai Legend Musashi. The game that left me scratching my head on the show floor and pondering the why of it all has left me in a pretty similar state after playing through it. Musashi isn't a bad game—it's just one that doesn't do anything to distinguish itself from the pack. One has to wonder why such a project was ever given a greenlight since gamestore shelves are already groaning under the weight of countless "me too" titles that bring nothing new to the table. What is disappointing about Musashi is that I expect more from Square-Enix. The company seems to be mired in a bit of a rut as of late, and churning out average, if uninspired, games like this one doesn't seem to be a good way to get back on course. Rating: 4.5 out of 10

Mike Bracken
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