I didn’t mean to play another small game with weird combat mechanics. It’s like eating on vacation – you love the foreign food but after five or six authentic meals you kind of want a burger before getting back to tasting new animals. That’s the mood I was in when I bought Age of Fear 3 which I thought was a traditional strategy game but turned out not to be. Then I grabbed Ultimate General: Civil War. It’s not a hidden gem but that’s why I grabbed it. It looked like Total War Civil War and I hoped for meaty, predictable formation based combat. It might be a very good game, I don’t know because I bounced off.
Shigatari kept catching my eye every time it popped up on Steam. I’m a sucker for Japanese woodblock art. My mind immediately thinks “Samurai? Ninja? Samurai & Ninja!” It’s turn based and has little CYOA bits. The only reason I didn’t grab it sooner was because it was so cheap – at CDN$3.29 I assumed there wouldn’t be much game there. But with nothing else on the horizon and a growing itch to review something I gave it a shot.
Should you Buy It?
For $3? Yes. This game is definitely worth $3 and a bit of your time. There’s some fun, nice static art and a unique combat system that’s equal parts thrilling and frustrating. I was pleasantly surprised by how deep it is. Even now I’ve only fully explored two of the six combat stances and they play out differently. I mastered far more complicated combat systems quicker. It’s hard to give a playing length because it’s not the kind of game you sit down and finish. Like FTL, you’re meant to go on repeated runs even after you achieve victory and mastery. I’ve put in around 8 hours and I intend to come back for more in small, 20 minute bursts. Or just have it idling in the background available for quick bouts of procrastination. It’s a game best appreciated in small doses.
The Japanese drums (which become too pounding later) and art immediately get you in the right bushido frame of mind. Character creation is brief with 3 characters available without unlocking. You’re then presented with one of several starting scenarios. You can choose to follow the offered goal (avenge your master, kill the emperor, etc.) or decide to just wander. Regardless the point is to defeat 7 legendary masters.
Each master resides at the end of a map of interlinked nodes which could each be one of several types (village, mountain, tradepost, etc.). There are a handful of brief CYOA segments for each node type and this is probably the weakest part of the game. I was clicking furiously to get through them by my final playthroughs. Everything except the combat plays out like FTL except there’s nothing chasing you. In practice that means you try to work out the path that crosses the most nodes (while avoiding bridges because fuck bridges). There’s no survival or time elements so you’re just trying to grow as powerful as you can before each boss. Certain nodes (mountain and waterfall) quickly become “must” visits as they have the best chance of increasing your power quickly without risk.
Your character makes progress in one of 3 stats as well as mastering one of 6 stances. Your personality is also tracked with 3 opposing stats. You can become gracious or brazen, courageous or prudent, sincere or cunning. Maxing each stat by reaching either pole grants a bonus and occasional dialogue options. A gracious samurai might talk his way out of a situation while a cunning one might find a way to profit without a fight.
The game revels in a caricature of the violence and bloodthirst of the samurai. Peasants are murdered with impunity, slights are met with duals. Every fight ends in fountains of blood and severed limbs. The art style and light writing prevent this from becoming the least bit grim. It’s knowingly self-serious and silly. It made me think of Groo the Wanderer – an old comic about a well meaning barbarian who ruins everything when he slips into his berserker rage. Even after turning a calm discussion into a pile of corpses your samurai heads to the next node with a cheerful “My services are needed elsewhere!”
Like I seem to say on every review, whether you enjoy the game largely depends on the combat. It’s turn based and tries to model very accurate combat between relatively unarmored, fleshy humans waving sharp swords. You get an idea of your opponent’s actions (based on your perception stat and how secretive the opponent’s stance is) and then decide on your own. Every action has a time factor so the challenge comes from figuring out how to sneak in quick attacks or trade a mortal blow for a light one.
Because the combat is deadly and in-combat healing is not plentiful you’re unlikely to finish the game if you take damage in each fight. I was having a very hard time with this on my first 3 or 4 playthroughs (the game is ironman permadeath). I could win any individual fight but always seemed to die once I reached the first master or shortly after.
It’s not really the game’s fault. The way dodging is described I assumed success was highly random. At first my character had a low perception score so I couldn’t see exactly where the opponent was attacking – I could see if the attack was high, medium or low but not whether it targeted the left or right shoulder. It seemed safer to try and guess which side to parry than to dodge and I tried to play that way for a while, invariably taking damage when some of the 50/50 guesses proved wrong.
Once I tried dodging I did much better. It was far more reliable than I anticipated and it let me build up XP until I could parry reliably. This evolution took another 3 or 4 play-throughs, each one getting longer as common opponents no longer posed a threat. Once you reach that skill level it makes sense to actively seek out as many encounters as you can and the game provides. The previously hated bridges become single node smorgasbords of guilt-less carnage. I killed 14 rival samurai in one very early node alone, gaining XP and loot with each kill.
I actually never finished the game at the time of this review. Every time I reach a specific master I lose. I don’t even fully understand why I’m losing. It feels like he has some sort of time dilation power. I thought I had the timing worked out over and over and he’d always one shot me. I decided to give up and say “no mas” but then restarted out of stubborness. It was my best start yet. I stumbled on a stat and skill combination that let me breeze through every encounter, maximizing XP and gold. Armed with my new secret techniques <aside – if anyone knows wtf this video that I just linked to is I’d love to know> I was intent on not only finally finishing the game but unlocking a number of characters (they unlock through achievements like ‘amass 1000 coins’). I had built my character in such a way that should have guaranteed me the win once I reached my nemesis.
Cocky, despite losing every other time, I tried to sneak in an extra little thrust at his leg. I cut it too close and the weird time effect did me in again. I’m fairly certain I would have been fine if I wasn’t greedy and my parry followup would have killed him. I think that’s what makes games like this addictive; knowing that failure is caused as much by your own personal failings as the RNG or harsh mechanics. Winning the game and overcoming them is a tiny step towards overcoming your real life faults. For now I give up and remain a blemished soul.
After each death you are awarded Ancestor Points which are a constantly growing pool you can spend on power ups at character creation. It’s a common mechanism for these permadeath roguelikes and I appreciate why it’s there. If you’re not very good you’ll slowly become more powerful and eventually be able to win through overwhelming bonuses. What I don’t like about it is that it muddles my ability to judge how good I am. Did I beat the game because I’m awesome or because I died so many times previously that my foes were slow, weak and prone to missing for no reason? Not a full complaint, just an observation.
Loot and equipment is fine. It’s mostly small incremental bonuses to speed or damage but there are a few named swords that sever limbs or stagger opponents as well as a persistent sword that you upgrade every time you find a new weaponsmith (and why you seek out mountain nodes).
All these little procedural games that rely on combat and CYOA segments to fill up the time have a problem with repetition. The great ones have so much content that you need multiple playthroughs for staleness to set in. This is a much smaller game, things will start to repeat on your first playthrough and by your 5th most will be familiar and rote. As that happens you lose the flavor of the game. You no longer make decisions in a role playing sense, you just try to maximize numbers so you can beat the bosses.
The game becomes one of efficiency instead of exploration and atmosphere. That can be fine. I played FTL long after this stage, the combat was so enjoyable in and of itself that beating the score or unlocking a new ship provided enough motivation for another familiar playthrough. Shigatari’s combat, while interesting and fun, isn’t as engaging as FTL’s so it didn’t suck me back in with FTL’s crack-like siren call. It does have layers though, lots of layers. It just becomes more and more costly (in terms of slog) to make progress on those layers as there’s not much to learn in slaying dozens of common enemies as you restart. But for $3? There’s plenty of fun even if you get bored before you finish this (hard) game.
If I did take price into account I’d score the game higher. It does a lot for $3. Since time investment is the resource I judge against I end up at 72. If you’re bored and want to kill some time between meatier games, and you like the feudal Japan setting and turn based 1v1 combat you’ll like this for a while. How long depends on your tolerance for repetition and desire to have “perfect” runs. I’m still not done with the yellow bastard. That sounds super racist. I mean the boss who keeps killing me. He wears a yellow outfit. I’ll keep coming back doggedly until I do finish it, even if it takes me a month of 10 minute sessions.
<Update – I beat the game on my next playthrough, this time by not being greedy and giving myself plenty of time to parry, the Gedan mastery made sure the parry didn’t break and the followup strike killed him. It was an interesting character build. As the commenter below suggested I tried using a more fluid build by switching stances. It was very effective and I breezed through the rest of the game in satisfyingly bloody fashion. There is a final level after you beat the 7th master. My quest was to defeat the emperor, I’m curious how the other starting scenarios end. Good game.>