It's been more than six years since the company that was Squaresoft brought us Brave Fencer Musashi, a cute overhead action role-playing game for the PlayStation that gave Zelda fans a different take on their favorite genre. While other Square franchises saw sequel after sequel on the PlayStation and the PS2, we didn't hear a peep from Musashi after Brave Fencer. Finally, Square Enix is rectifying that absence with Musashi Samurai Legend, a new sequel with some interesting gameplay mechanics and a lot of quirky charm. We've slashed our way through the first chapter and found the new game to be a likable update to the sleeper original.
Musashi Samurai Legend bears few ties to Brave Fencer, but a couple of similarities immediately stand out: The eponymous hero is once again summoned from another world by hapless citizens in need, and this time around, his hair is even more insane. These citizens are beset by the Gandrake Corporation, led by the malevolent Gandrake himself, who is purportedly a swordsman without peer. Gandrake Corp. wants to develop new magical weaponry and is kidnapping magic-endowed folk to further its nefarious designs. Just before she's kidnapped, a princess completes the "hero summoning" and brings Musashi onto the scene to beat up Gandrake and restore peace to the land.
We've seen some wild settings during just the first chapter of Samurai Legend. After a brief tutorial segment that culminates in a fairly easy boss battle, Musashi is whisked away to the town of Antheum, where he learns that he'll have to gather four elemental swords in order to defeat Gandrake. Antheum is unique because it sits atop the Anthedon, a giant magical sky whale that flies around the planet. As you collect the elemental swords, the Anthedon will gain more power, allowing it to reach new areas of the world it couldn't get to previously. This will naturally open up new places for Musashi to explore, ultimately leading him to the four swords with which he needs to take down Gandrake. He will then be teleported back to wherever it is that he calls home.
The gameplay in Samurai Legend has changed noticeably from Brave Fencer, primarily because it's now played from a third-person perspective rather than from overhead. Don't worry; there's still plenty of slashing to be had. You start off with merely the default katana, which you can use to perform a basic combo by hammering on the attack button. The game pulls a nifty aiming trick that automatically targets your slashes at the nearest enemy target, taking some of the guesswork out of the action and making it easier to take down the many enemies that will come at you.
There's also a lock-on ability that you can access by holding R1, but its purpose is twofold. Besides keeping you facing an enemy at all times, locking on will begin to charge up your focus meter, and once that meter is full, you'll be able to learn a special ability from the enemy that you're targeting. To do this, you'll have to wait until the enemy attacks, which will make an exclamation-point icon appear over it at the very last second. If you hit the attack button just as this icon appears, the game will switch to a quick cutscene where you learn the enemy's attack (and vanquish it in the process).
So far, we've been able to learn an ability from every kind of enemy we've encountered, from the creepy foot-soldier-like ninjaroids to attack robots and bats. One move let us spin around and slash in a circle, while another had us darting forward to perform a direct stab move. These abilities can be easily accessed with button and directional combinations, and they don't use any sort of magic power, so you can use them quickly and frequently to really cut up the hordes.
That magic power is reserved for more powerful special abilities that you'll gain from the magical weapons you'll be acquiring throughout the game. The first of these comes from a giant oar that your feline sensei gives you toward the beginning of the game. You can use it to spin an enormous circle and do massive damage to any enemies in your path. As you progress through the game and pick up the elemental swords, you'll gain even more magical abilities to use. These abilities should come in handy, since the boss at the end of chapter one was a fair sight harder than the relatively simple tutorial boss we took down.
Hack and Slash for Fun and Profit
In addition to gaining all these attack powers, you'll level yourself up in traditional RPG fashion by slaughtering tons of enemies. Each time you level up, your base stats will increase. You'll also be allowed to guide Musashi's development a little bit by telling the game what category you want to improve the most. You can focus on raising your attack power and health or your magic power, for instance, or you can even improve your focus rating so you can learn more enemy abilities. It seems as though you'll be able to acquire some basic gear that you can equip later on, as well, though we haven't encountered any major items just yet.
One last element of the action bears mentioning: a carrying mechanic that literally has you hoisting up a damsel (or dude, we suppose) in distress and taking her (or him) back to safety. But just because you're hauling cargo, the enemies aren't going to lie down and let you pass. Thankfully, you can attack two ways while carrying someone: the first way is by literally hitting the enemy with the person (which looks comical in itself); and the second involves tossing the person up into the air and performing a spin slash that will hurt all the enemies in your immediate vicinity.
Samurai Legend has an interesting sort of collection mechanic that has you amassing a stable of...people. Since the Gandrake Corporation has been kidnapping everyone left and right, Antheum is initially a pretty empty place. You'll find the missing people scattered throughout the game, encased in magical bubbles that only Musashi can break. When you break the bubbles and release the captives, they will return to Antheum, and the next time you go back to town you can avail yourself of whatever service they have to offer. The farther you progress through the game, the more things you'll have to do between battles. Just during the first chapter, we managed to rescue the town's librarian and a fortune teller, who both were able to provide information after their return. From what we've been able to tell, it seems as though some of these prisoners will be located off the beaten path, so you'll have to do some legwork if you want to rescue all of them. According to the status screen, there are 28 people in all to find.
The look of Musashi Samurai Legend is distinctive, to say the least. First of all, there's Musashi himself. He wasn't the most conventional little dude to begin with, and in his new game he's gotten even wackier, thanks mostly to one disturbingly long tendril of hair that flaps around in the breeze as you run around. All of the game's characters have a cartoonlike effect that's similar to cel-shading, which the design team has dubbed "manga-shading" because of its thicker outlines and comic book sort of feel. But what has really impressed us the most thus far is the game's whimsical settings, from the brightly lit town atop the magical-looking Anthedon's back to a dim, creepy forest and a multilevel technological tower where the princess is imprisoned. We can see this being the kind of game where just getting to see the next finely crafted area is a major incentive to keep playing.
Strangely enough, Samurai Legend has a surf-rock vibe going on, thanks to a soundtrack provided by the Surf Coasters. The tunes are used sparingly, though, so it doesn't feel too cheesy or anything; it actually fits with the visual style and generally wacky presentation of the game. In fact, one of the few times we heard the Surf Coasters kick in was during a brief motorcycle minigame in which we had to dodge obstacles and slash at enemies on cycles of their own. Rounding out the "material from notable contributors" department is a lavish and quirky anime intro sequence done by heralded animation studio Gainax.
It's been an awfully long time since we last saw Musashi grace a game console--so long, in fact, that a lot of gamers these days may not even remember his first appearance. But for fans of Brave Fencer, and for newcomers alike, Musashi Samurai Legend looks like it will provide an amusing and entertaining quest with some solid hack-and-slash action, a few innovative gameplay tricks, and a lot of heart and style. The game will be out in mid-March, so stay tuned for more before that time.