Samurai Jack, Genndy Tartakovsky’s excellent animated martial arts drama, debuted on Cartoon Network in December of 2001. It ran until 2004, returning for a fifth and final season on Adult Swim in 2017. In all that time only two games were made based on the series, and they weren’t great. Now, three years after the end of the show, Japan’s Soleil Games comes along to show us how it’s done with Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time.
Samurai Jack is the perfect vehicle for a by-the-book 3D brawler. We have a hero who must fight countless battles to make his way back through time and defeat the big bad guy, the shapeshifting evil being known as Aku. The series takes place in a warped future Earth populated by aliens and supernatural creatures. Pick a place in the plot, give Jack a truckload of weapons, make one button do light attacks and the other do heavy, and as long as you do it well, you’re golden.
Developer Soleil Games, a team composed of industry vets whose work includes Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden, did very well with Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time. First, they picked the perfect place in the show’s plot for a lengthy, time-hopping adventure. Fans will remember Jack and Aku’s daughter Ashi leaping through a portal in the final episode of the cartoon, reappearing just in time to defeat the evil being once and for all. Turns out the trip through that portal was much more involved. In an officially canon twist, Aku blasts the pair in the portal, sending Jack off on a side adventure through the cartoon’s history. Basically, they’ve taken a moment from the show and squeezed a five or six hour adventure in there. Brilliant!
The gameplay in Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time is as basic 3D action platforming as they come. As prophesied, one button does light attacks and another heavy, and stringing those two together creates combos. Jack uses his magic sword to slice up enemies, but can also switch on-the-fly to all sorts of hammers, spears, clubs, or just his own fists. He can parry and dodge. There are daggers and shuriken to throw, bows and guns to fire. So many different weapon and combat abilities, and they all feel great. There’s a slowly ramping complexity to the combat that makes the game incredibly satisfying to play. Hell, I even enjoy watching videos of myself playing.
There’s plenty of hacking and slashing as Jack makes his way back to the past (again). There’s also a fair amount of platforming, a little puzzle solving, and a great deal of skill and inventory management. Though relatively straightforward, the game’s levels are peppered with little nooks and crannies filled with hidden treasures and helpful NPCs, including everybody’s favourite Scotsman, his daughter, Sir Colin Bartholomew Montgomery Rothchild III, and Da Samurai.
Da Samurai is particularly important, providing skill upgrades, potions, accessories, and repairs for weapons that aren’t magical samurai swords. He’s the reason Jack collects gold during his travels. He also collects skill points, used to unlock new abilities in the game’s three-tiered skill tree. Abilities include things like doing extra damage with a certain weapon and giving enemies a chance to drop extra items upon defeat. There’s a lot of room for customisation, though higher level skills require a lot of rare gems to unlock.
And that’s the game. Fight, earn skill points, power up, fight some more. The developers weave in some poignant moments between Jack and his beloved Ashi, giving fans of the cartoon the feels they are looking for, propelling the incredibly weary warrior forward on this one final adventure. It all comes together so well.
Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time is the best by-the-book 3D hack-and-slash action game it can be. It does nothing new, but it does such a great job with all the old stuff that I don’t mind. If you’re going to be basic, be the best basic you can be.