First Look: Samurai Jack: The Shadow of Aku
We get a look at Sega's upcoming game based on the popular Cartoon Network franchise.
Sega officially announced that it will be publishing a game based on the popular Cartoon Network franchise Samurai Jack for the GameCube, PlayStation 2, and Xbox. The game is being created by publisher Amaze Entertainment's Washington-based Adrenium Games Studio and has been in development for some time. Originally slated to be published by Bam Entertainment, it has since been picked up by Sega and is due for release soon. We had the chance to try out a work-in-progress version of the PlayStation 2 game to see how Jack's adventures translate to consoles.
For those unfamiliar with Samurai Jack, the character is the brainchild of Genndy Tartakovsky--also known for his other popular Cartoon Network series, Dexter's Laboratory--and was first seen in November 2001 when the series premiered on the Cartoon Network. The original cartoon revolves around the adventures of a samurai who has been banished to the future by his nemesis, an evil shape-changing wizard named Aku. Jack's banishment is Aku's way of dealing with the warrior, who has trained specifically to defeat the wizard. Rather than deal with Jack in the present, Aku sends him to a bleak time in the future when his rule over the land is even more entrenched than it is in the present. However, Jack is undaunted in his quest to defeat the wizard and fights him in the future. At the same time, the samurai is trying to find a portal back to his time so that he can stop Aku before the bleak future can come to pass.
Samurai Jack: The Shadow of Aku's story mirrors the cartoon's closely and puts you in the role of Jack as he attempts to help the oppressed people he encounters in the bleak future while trying to find a portal to his own time. Adrenium has worked closely with the Cartoon Network and Tartakovsky to ensure that the game stays true to the popular cartoon. As a result, fans of the series will be pleased to see a number of little touches included to keep the game in line with its animated counterpart. You'll see a number of familiar faces from the series, such as Aku, Mad Jack, and the Scotsmen, as well as some original characters designed specifically for the title.
The third-person game follows a pretty standard linear structure that will send you through a set route of 24 levels that span four unique realms. You'll get around via a two-tiered hub system. The first tier lets you go to any of the four realms you've opened, while the second tier lets you get around the specific realm. When you're in the realm hub, you'll meet various characters who will inform you about the missions you have to take on and will tell you where to go. Each level will have you fighting enemies, exploring your surroundings--which feature hidden areas you can uncover--and solving puzzles to progress. You'll come up against assorted boss characters spaced out along the journey, and you'll engage in suitably slashtastic fights against them.
The gameplay in Samurai Jack: The Shadow of Aku is reminiscent of Capcom's Maximo games, albeit with a more over-the-top feel. Jack will make use of his trusty sword to dispatch enemies and deflect projectile attacks. He'll be able to attack with two different slashes--an uppercut and a sideswipe--that can be mixed up to perform a number of combos once he finds scrolls left behind by his ancestors that teach him the moves. Because the bleak future Jack finds himself in is hardly inviting, he'll also make use of shuriken and bows and arrows to take out the various foes he encounters. As you make your way through the game you'll earn elemental upgrades--such as fire, ice, and electricity--for Jack's sword and other weapons by rescuing trapped innocents. Attacking enemies is a snap because a colored arrow--green, yellow, or red, depending on on their proximity--will appear above the head of the enemy you're currently auto-targeting. You'll be able to switch your target by facing another enemy or by using a projectile and manually aiming at your desired foe. The projectiles will have two distinct ranges. While arrows can attack enemies from a respectable distance, Jack's throwing stars require you to get in a bit closer to your foes.
You'll find various collectible items--such as sushi, armor, and relics--to pick up on your travels by breaking crates or defeating enemies. Assorted types of sushi will restore your health to different degrees, while armor will increase the number of hits you can take. An armor meter will appear above Jack's health meter and will allow you to take anywhere from 3 to 12 hits before starting to lose health, depending on the pickup. You'll also find relics that you can use in shrines to power up Jack's health or Zen energy. The Zen energy system in the game lets you use Jack's elemental swords or trigger a Matrix-like bullet-time mode called Sakai mode, which will reduce your enemy's speed and let you get in a number of attacks before they can react. While using Sakai mode or Jack's elemental sword powers will drain the Zen energy meter, you can refill it by defeating enemies or collecting Zen crests.
The graphics stay true to the cartoon's stylized look and do a good job of bringing the unique world to life. The modest detail from the cartoon has been translated smoothly to 3D without any hitches. Jack looks and moves nicely, and his standard moves have been embellished somewhat to better fit the gameplay. Jack's look will change in the game to reflect his current level of health. For example, Jack will look clean-cut and ready for action when he has a full health bar and will look far more beat-up and disheveled as his health depletes. The enemies you'll meet stay true to the cartoon's look and also animate well. The environments are a bit more conventionally structured than some of the cartoon's surrealistic landscapes, but they manage to work nicely. We tried out three different levels: the introductory stage set in a standard valley environment, a forest level whose centerpiece was an enormous tree we had to climb up and into in a bit of Zelda-esque gameplay, and a boss fight against Mad Jack set in an enclosed arena. While the three levels were quite different from one another, they fit well together. The various effects for Sakai mode and the assorted enemy attacks complement the art style and look appropriately dangerous. At present, the game's camera is occasionally problematic due to some awkward angles that obstruct your view in enclosed spaces, and the frame rate, though generally smooth, becomes inconsistent when the action heats up onscreen. Hopefully these issues will be fixed in the final version.
The audio in the game is solid, though a bit sparse, which follows the cartoon's atmosphere. You'll hear ambient tracks and some instrumental pieces during your adventures, but they're pretty unobtrusive. The voice in the game is also modest, although it benefits from the input of the cartoon's voice talent, which helps give the game a nice layer of authenticity that should please fans.
From what we've played, Samurai Jack appears to have made the leap to games pretty well. While the game doesn't do anything amazingly new, it manages to stay true to the license while offering a solid overall experience. The clean visuals and audio re-create the cartoon well, and the gameplay is accessible to casual players. Hardcore players and fans of the cartoon will also be rewarded by some extras to unlock, mostly art galleries, which you can open by finding various secrets in the game. Samurai Jack: The Shadow of Aku is currently slated to ship this March for the GameCube, PlayStation 2, and Xbox.
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