Samurai Jack: The Shadow of Aku Preview

The quirky Cartoon Network series becomes an action platformer for all three consoles.

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Sega's been working the animated series licensing angle pretty thoroughly as of late, first with a forthcoming action game based on the venerable anime Astro Boy and now with a hack-and-slash platformer that draws from the upstart series Samurai Jack, which makes its home on the Cartoon Network. Titled Samurai Jack: The Shadow of Aku, the game will place you in the role of the eponymous hero so that you can travel through a number of diverse worlds while dispensing justice with cold steel as only a samurai can.

Jack's back, baby. And once again, he's up against the evil Aku.

The story in Samurai Jack: The Shadow of Aku loosely follows the overall story arc of the series and is your typical "good versus evil" plot. The diabolical, shape-shifting Aku is once again up to no good and is bringing terror and chaos to the land. Of course, only Samurai Jack has the skills (and the gumption) to stop him. The game takes place across 24 levels that make up four distinct areas. These levels are filled with a pretty even balance of combat, platforming, and light puzzle-solving (that is, of the switch-throwing and key-finding variety). You'll be fighting against some memorable baddies from the television show, including the Scotsman, Mad Jack, and Aku himself.

Mechanically, Samurai Jack is pretty easy to figure out, but it does have some depth--more than is initially apparent--that you'll pick up on as you play. Jack has light and heavy sword attacks at his disposal, as well as everyone's favorite move, the double jump. As you progress, you'll pick up ranged weapons, like shurikens and a bow, and you'll also be able to imbue Jack's sword with elemental powers (to make it a fire sword, for instance) at key moments. On top of all these weapons, Jack has a fairly elaborate combo system at his disposal that will allow you to string together light and heavy sword slashes into lengthy attack sequences. You'll also discover canned combo attacks as you move throughout the levels that can be activated by blocking and entering the appropriate button sequence. Hitting light-heavy-light-heavy, for instance, will make Jack execute a barrel-roll maneuver that will have him flipping horizontally through the air and slashing at anything in his path.

In addition to all these standard attacks, the ace up Jack's sleeve is the Sakai mode, which you can activate by holding down the appropriate button. While you're in this mode, the action slows way down so that you've got plenty of time to move around enemies to set up your attacks. In addition, you're way more powerful while Sakai mode is active, so you'll tear through enemies with far fewer hits than normal. The catch is that Sakai mode is limited by your zen meter, which drains very quickly while the mode is active. You can gain more zen by defeating enemies or finding power-ups that replenish the meter, but since it drains so quickly, it's sensible to save it until you're up against a really tough foe.

There are a whole lot of pickups scattered around Samurai Jack's levels. Some of them are immediately useful, like sushi that restores your health (and elicits a satisfied-sounding "Sushi..." from Jack) or armor that buffers you from taking damage. Other items, such as the collectible green relics that are hidden throughout every stage, won't help you in the short term but can be quite beneficial over the course of the game. When you collect enough relics, you can return to a shrine to meditate on concepts like your health, strength, and zen. In other words, collect enough of the items, and you can upgrade your attack power, health meter, and zen meter. You can go back and forth between levels, and once you finish a level, you'll be informed regarding how many relics you found in relation to the total number available. As a result, you can upgrade Jack's powers pretty substantially throughout the game.

You can upgrade Jack's powers throughout the game by finding a specific number of relics and then using them to meditate.

Samurai Jack presents a coherent aesthetic package in video game form, thanks to the involvement of the creator, Genndy Tartakovsky, and the show's artists. The graphics have a flat, cartoonlike look that isn't exactly cel-shaded but does a good job of evoking the style of the animated series anyway. The game's animation is pretty impressive, and it allows Jack to perform all sorts of flips, spins, and other fancy samurai moves as he dispatches his enemies. The music has a mystical, Eastern quality to it that fits in pretty well with the theme--which is understandable since the show's composer worked on the game. Finally, the voice actors from the series are also on hand to voice the game's characters, so fans will get a wholly authentic experience.

From what we've played so far, Samurai Jack: The Shadow of Aku will provide a pretty entertaining action platforming experience, especially for anyone who's a fan of the show and enjoys taking control of their favorite characters in 3D. The game is slated to ship in March, so we'll bring you more on it in the near future.

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