HIGH Chaining counterattacks between multiple enemies.

LOW The near-endless grind.

WTF How are skeletons bleeding this much?!

I’ve been playing Katana Kami: A Way of the Samurai Story for the last two weeks, but it feels like it’s been two years.

It’s not that it’s particularly painful to play on a moment-to-moment basis –as an isometric hack-and-slash dungeon crawler that shares some structural parallels to the original Diablo (in that it’s narrowly focused on one town and one dungeon) the combat is passingly satisfying, there’s loot aplenty, and the enemy variety is solid for the opening stretch of the campaign.

Unfortunately, developer Acquire boldly disregards the rule that once I’ve proven I can overcome an obstacle, it’s time for me to move on to the next obstacle. Before long I was grinding away, doing the same thing over and over again with no assurance that there was even an endpoint. When I entered this tunnel, it was a pleasant walk for a little while, but soon there was no light in either direction and I kind of hoped a train would come and run me over.

Katana Kami – which is only tenuously connected to the Way of the Samurai series – begins with a blacksmith named Dojima being harassed by some local thugs. Dojima is deep in debt and the collectors kidnap his daughter and hold her as collateral until he’s paid it off. Our “hero,” a wandering ronin, happens upon the scene and offers to help raise the money… but only if he can marry the girl as a reward. (The game gives us three different dialogue options for this exchange, all of which are variations on “I’ll save your daughter as long as I can bang her afterward.”)

Fortunately for our horny samurai, a portal in the village opens up to a dungeon called Jikai where he can descend through several dozen procedurally-generated floors and loot to his heart’s content. There’s plenty of cash to be found, but there are also a number of weapons and materials for upgrading. The first few levels had me battling skeletons in caves, but then Jikai expands to woodland areas with increasingly-fanciful opponents like golems and oni.

The player’s stats are reset at the end of each run, but as long as they make it out of Jikai alive via one of the exits that spawns after a boss battle, they get to keep whatever equipment and money they have, and anything stored back in Dojima’s shop is permanently safe. If the player dies, they have a chance to recover their lost items by returning to the floor where they were killed and defeating the enemy that’s now carrying the goods.

The combat isn’t terribly deep or innovative, but it gets the job done by offering the usual quick attack, strong attack, block and dodge. The slowness of the combat takes some getting used to – I had to reprogram my reflexes to hit a button about a half-second before I wanted to – but there’s satisfaction in using a well-timed block to trigger a devastating counterattack, which can then be chained to other nearby enemies. Death animations tend to involve massive geysers of blood spraying every which way, and an entire screenful of such mayhem is a sight to behold.

While the combat is simple, each sword type has its own play style, which encourages experimentation and eases the sting of losing one’s favorite weapon, since it means trying out something new and possibly better. My one consistent, nagging criticism is Katana Kami’s automated camera, which will often obscure the action behind trees in the foreground. It doesn’t happen often, but it never quite goes away, either.

For a while I fell into a rhythm with Katana Kami, feeling myself inching closer to the finish line with every attempt. But then I actually reached the end of Jikai, and… nothing happened.

I defeated the dungeon’s final boss and was greeted with no other option than to return to the village and start over. No fanfare, no credits, no change whatsoever. That’s because, of course, the objective of Katana Kami isn’t to reach the end of the dungeon, but to raise the money to pay off Dojima’s harassers. The only way to do that, apparently, is to grind, even when the game has nothing new to offer.

There are ways to speed up the process. Playing online increases the payout and gives players the opportunity to kill each other for their money. Also, Dojima getting his shop set up and supplying local gangs can result in a major cash boost. The debt collector holding Dojima’s daughter asks for the money in increments, and only stops by at certain intervals, with each dungeon run equating to one in-game day. I highly recommend that anyone who plays Katana Kami search the pause menu and locate the option that calls him to come sooner. To pay back the entire debt at the game’s default pace would be a one-way trip to insanity.

Even when paying the debt off as quickly as possible, there’s no avoiding the fact that reaching the credits in Katana Kami means diving back into Jikai and winning the same battles ad nauseum, long after any sense of reward has faded. It’s not just bad design – it’s actively disrespectful of the player’s time.

Roguelikes always involve repetition, but the difference between a good roguelike and a bad one is whether there’s a sense of momentum from one run to the next – some feeling that I’m slowly chipping away at a discernible goal by gaining the right tools or learning the right lessons. Katana Kami occupies that space for a while, but then keeps going for no good reason. Players with the self-discipline to call it quits when the final boss is felled may find value here, but as a whole, Katana Kami is a solid eight-hour roguelike stretched and distorted into a thirty-hour grotesquerie.

Rating: 4.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Acquire and published by Spike Chunsoft. It is currently available on PlayStation 4, PC and Switch. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Switch. Approximately 30 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. The entirety of that time was spent with online functionality enabled.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated Mature and contains Blood and Gore, Language, Suggestive Themes and Violence. There’s some moderate profanity sprinkled about, but the main offender here is the violence, as massive geysers of blood erupt from enemies when they’re killed.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All dialogue is text-based, and audio cues play no vital role. It’s fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.

Mike Suskie
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