When so many sword-swinging games seem to readily devolve into frantic button pounding where you slice and dice foes into itty bits, it's refreshing to stumble across one that takes a more strategic, thoughtful approach to bladed combat. Sakura Samurai: Art of the Sword doesn't skimp on the ol' stabby-stabby, but it favors precision and split-second timing over chaos and flying limbs. There's a cool sense of honor that comes from dueling foes one-on-one, even when you're fighting a large group. It's also easy to get sucked into the campaign, thanks to the rhythmic nature of each battle and the rewarding progression system.
Fate dumps you on the path to eventual samurai greatness when an evil force kidnaps the land's princess and hauls her away to a distant stronghold. A mysterious water sprite gives you a helpful nudge toward becoming her savior by imbuing your sword with the power of the cherry blossom, which doesn't sound that awesome until you use it to turn your blade into a flurry of razor-sharp insta-death for opponents. Progressing across the overworld map is a gradual process that blends short-and-sweet battles set in enclosed arena-like stages with strategic character building. The gateways to different regions of the land remain locked until you defeat each area's resident goon lord, but you have to chop through an army of grunts to unlock the route to reach one first.
On the battlefield, your samurai warrior faces off against foes in a tight third-person perspective that makes combat feel more personal. When you're surrounded by an assortment of enemy archers, spear-wielding grunts, katana-toting samurai, bomb-throwing ninjas, and more, you automatically lock on to face whichever foe is currently attacking. They're nice enough to take turns, rather than charge in all at once, but this doesn't make these duels easy. It's a lot like boxing; you dodge or block attacks and then counter with rapid strikes to break through each enemy's defenses until the enemy falls. Hasty, premature swipes get blocked 90 percent of the time, and spazzing out only gets you killed. Blocking or being blocked too often dulls your katana faster, eventually rendering it half as effective until you visit the local shop to resharpen it.
Though this fighting formula has the potential to grow boring quickly against long stretches of similar foes, Sakura Samurai does a good job of switching up enemy types, their attack patterns, and their toughness. Precision points also encourage you to hone your skill. Dodging attacks at the last second earns you precision points you can trade in for additional coins, though taking damage resets the count to zero. It's a well-implemented risk-versus-reward system that adds more depth to combat.
Skirmishing through the numerous stages along the way is tough at times, yet it earns you coins to upgrade your gear in nearby towns, as well as hearts that permanently boost your health. You may feel overmatched in certain encounters, but this is only a minor setback--frustrating but easily overcome. You don't lose any cash or items, and revisiting a level you failed to complete spits out double the number of coins and amount of health from defeated enemies. It's a natural and clever way to help ailing players without making the quest too easy from the start.
Nearby villages provide a momentary reprieve from all the sword swinging, offering colorful locals to chat with, shops to explore, and minigames to try out. These necessary pit stops are crucial for upgrading and resharpening your katana, as well as restocking health and item power-ups needed to make it through the longer boss stages. You can also hit up the inn to rest and save or lay down some green to compete in skill events, like slicing melons tossed at you with perfect precision, to earn points to put toward unlocking stronger special attack powers. Progressing through the main game unlocks a laid-back Rock Garden mode that blossoms as you accrue steps with your 3DS in sleep mode, a series of timed gauntlet challenges, and even a harder Campaign mode. They're nice extras, and make this one of the richer offerings available on the Nintendo eShop.
Inside towns and in the foreground of combat, the 3D effect enhances the stylish presentation with its added depth perspective. Unfortunately, that doesn't negate the fact that most battlefield environments are bland, empty, and uninspiring. It's less of an issue when you're in the midst of an intense duel, but it's still noticeable enough that it somewhat detracts from the vibe. While it may not be the prettiest game, Sakura Samurai's combat is impressively designed, and there's enough pull to the campaign to keep you trekking along to the end. It's a reasonably short but fulfilling quest that offers some good replay value for those seeking mastery over their virtual swords.