Innovative and fun gameplay that walks a fine line between satisfying and frustrating.

User Rating: 7 | Hirari: Sakura Samurai 3DS
Despite it's Samurai theme and sword wielding protagonist, Sakura Samurai: The Art of The Sword is not your everyday slash-em-up. In fact, I would argue it's not a slash-em-up at all. Its combat is based on pattern recognition and reflexes. It's 3D-enhanced graphics could practically be replaced by a series of flashing lights and you'd be left w/ more or less be left w/ the same system from a gameplay perspective.

For a game that is not at all driven by graphics, it does look quite nice though. It's set in what appears to be feudal Japan and has your typical accents of flowers and period costumes. They visuals are by no means stunning from a technical perspective but they are clean, functional and stylized, leaving the focus squarely on gameplay. (I might complain that this could look even nicer had they upped the slightly cartoonish quality by using actual cell shaded graphics but that is just a personal preference of mine.) The sound too is nice but definitely not a selling point here. The music is sort of dramatic w/ a Japanese flair and has a tendency to fall in the background. The effects are similarly non-obtrusive but are essential to game play as it's one more cue to know what an enemy is about to do. Overall, the presentation is pleasing enough though it does have a sort of generic smart-phone game kind of feel to it.

At its core, Sakura Samuri is a reaction game. You encounter a group of enemies and face off against them one by one. You wait for the enemy to make a well telegraphed move, react to it and then counter. The enemy then dies of retreats either to mount another attack or wait for his buddies to take over until all of them or you is dead. At no point are you really allowed to take the initiative. Some enemies can be run down and killed but for the most part you wait for them to strike and then counter strike. That's it. It sounds bland but the strict adherence to this system is what makes the game unique and fun to play. It means you can't power up your character and run in there slashing like a madman. You must be careful to observe your enemies motions and, to a lesser extent, the sounds they make to identify what attack is coming when. There is no other way to win and figuring out a new enemies attack pattern is both challenging and satisfying.

The biggest problem is the way the game ramps difficulty. Enemies gain take more hits as you progress through the game but that is negated by power-ups which are available for money which is easy to come by by completing mini-games in the game's three seemingly identical towns. Difficulty is created by and large by simply having you face more enemies in a row. Ones that are initially an exciting challenge become ones you might just make a mistake on. There is a simple, old-school appeal to this demand for repeated perfection but it does get frustrating at times. Thankfully, dying doesn't set you back much and while I did find myself angrily snapping my 3DS shut and wondering whether or not this kind of masochism was something I should be doing for fun, it never stayed shut for long after that and by and large the game was quite enjoyable for half-dozen or so hours it took to get through it.

Upon completing, gamers are presented w/ the option to play through a much harder mode for those who really want to test their reflexes but the main play mode is enough that this is worth the price of admission. It is really a rather unique game and one that works well on a handheld, though I recommend headphones since the grunts of attackers make it much easier to time evasions. Possibly, this could have been fleshed out into a full retail release w/ a longer campaign and greater flexibility for customizing your character but as it stands, it makes for an excellent pick-up-and-play challenge on the road.