Review – Samurai Maiden
Being able to have 2000 years of history to pull from as reference points in your media is an advantage I never imagined when coming to Japan. As an American expat, I’ve been heavily indoctrinated with tons of books, movies, and games that circle around key moments of history for the USA. Mel Gibson being a guerilla revolutionary in The Patriot, Denzel Washington’s powerful role in Glory, and the dozens of RTS titles circling The Civil War, including Sid Meier’s Gettysburg.
So the fact that Japan can plumb almost ten times the amount of history to create backdrops for everything, from visual novels to simulations, is fantastic (though it feels like we often just get action titles). But at no point did I ever think that my next Japanese history lesson would come in the form of a scenery chewing, fourth-wall breaking, ecchi-tempting, insanely hilarious and frustrating title that I still cannot tell if it’s a joke or not. I’m referring, of course, to Samurai Maiden.
Tsumugi Tamaori is just your average Gen Z high school student, with a perchance for history and a hobby of practicing a forgotten swordsman style that only her family seems to remember. Then, for no apparent reason, she finds herself whisked back to the Sengoku era, right in the middle of the assassination attempt on Nobunaga’s life. Tsumugi ultimately interferes, preventing the subsequent suicide of Nobunaga, which is not what historically happened, so you can guess this changes things. Her presence signifies the arrival of the Priestess of Harmony, who will prevent the release of the Demon Overlord by beating back the undead hordes now overrunning the land.
Naturally, a lone high schooler cannot do all the fighting by herself, so she’ll be assisted by her posse of anime stereotypes. You’ve got uncertain ninja girl who thinks you’re the greatest thing ever and wants to idolize you. You’ve got busty older sister cyborg who constantly flirts with you but in a “just kidding” sort of way. And you’ve got shorter, tsundere fox girl who thinks you’re a fool but likes when you compliment her, but she can’t let you know it. Utilizing the power of explosions, swords, giant hammers, panty shots, and insane combos, this ninja group will brutalize their way across Honshu, occasionally kissing each other passionately because that’s how true fighting styles are unlocked! Just like my wrestling coach said!
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s make one thing clear: Samurai Maiden is either built for people who enjoy fan service or is mocking the concept of fan service, and the line is so blurry that I cannot tell which way the knife falls. If you’re someone who is uncomfortable with revealing outfits, massive innuendos and just pointless gratuity without it crossing over into actual hentai, then this may not be the game for you.
The tone never reaches anything to the extent of Gal*Gun or Senran Kagura, and it’s a far cry from Neko Secret Room, but the game is pretty heavy with flashes of underwear and cleavage. Tsumugi’s outfit will become battle damaged as time goes on, but, unlike certain titles where you’re down to your underwear, you’ll just have a bit more thigh showing than before. Every moment allows you to pause the game and enter photo mode, which allows the floating camera to be positioned anywhere. It’s nothing that needs to be focused on too much: this is a female protagonist hack ‘n’ slash arcade game, that has unlockable outfits and no shame about what they’re doing. Just be aware.
As for gameplay itself, Samurai Maiden uses a unique system of combat that focuses on one fighter with a rotating assist fighter. Tsumugi is always the leader with the trio of Iyo, Hagane, and Komimi on the sidelines. As you fight, one of the other ninjas is there to fight alongside you automatically, and you can swap them out at any time. Dealing damage charges up meters simultaneously for each assist character, and, when the bar is full, you can unleash a powerful attack from them. You quickly learn about hot keys to basically fast-trigger the attack, letting you quickly swap in other fighters as they become available. This system, along with their traversing assists (Komimi can throw items, Hagane can swing over some gaps, and Iyo delivers items) makes for an interesting side mechanic in the frantic combat.
As for Tsumugi herself, you start out pretty hamstrung in terms of what you can do, which can be disheartening. The game begins with you having a light and heavy attack, a pithy jump, and a dodge roll which quickly becomes your best friend. This results in the first few stages giving you depressingly low scores for speed, enemies defeated, and Inga (the game’s money) collected. Thankfully, more and more moves are unlocked through the Album feature, where the three assists will train you in additional actions.
Once you get things like new combos, recovery movements and the coveted double jump, the game opens up in a big way, allowing for the double fist of moving forward with more confidence and also going back and getting better scores on older levels. It’s pretty amazing that Samurai Maiden has an astonishing number of levels that are then given replay value through multiple difficulty levels that incorporate stronger mobs. Just in terms of longevity, the sheer dedication to allowing players to go back and go again and again, without it feeling too repetitive, is admirable.
On that same note, the combat system itself is, well, waffling. On the one hand, once you get good at rolling and detecting enemies, you get into a major flow that allows you to coast through a lot of stages easily, though not boringly. Keeping on your toes and turning the fights into a rhythmic dance is the name of the game: slash, dodge, be aware, have Hagane electrocute everyone, and repeat. The more you do it, the better you feel, and the more fun you have with the game. I loved when the combat turned into a well-choreographed moment of slashes and flourishes. Everytime you get a mini boss, there’s a slow motion closeup on the final attack, which can either look amazing or ridiculously bad depending on where the camera decides to be at that very moment.
Samurai Maiden does its very best when it is progressing with stabbing, slashing, spinning and even bomb throwing to keep things intense, exciting and engaging. Which is why it’s so BAFFLING that the designers constantly decide to inject elements of platforming and exploration, which simply do not work most of the time. First of all, there are a series of enemies that can come flying at you from any direction and then explode, which is incredibly annoying when you are trying to time a jump over a gap.
Secondly, Tsumugi’s minute movements are ideally optimized for being in close quarters, parrying and dodge-rolling, jumping only to execute mid-air attacks and blocks. So when I need to suddenly throw on the breaks and try to use my goddamn LiDAR to figure out if I can clear a gap that looks three feet wide but is actually a meter, I plummet off camera, lose precious health and ultimately disrupt the flow of the game. It’s a constant hindrance that, thankfully, doesn’t occur every stage but certainly occurs enough.
The camera, honestly, is the biggest annoyance in Samurai Maiden. You need to adjust its sensitivity immediately to find out how much you can stand it jumping about, and, in the case of the Switch, how badly your Joy-Con drift will affect it. If enemies come from anywhere except straight ahead of you (and they always will), you need to be able to reposition quickly so that you don’t get sucked into the nonsense. Getting hit once will result in you being swamped and probably beaten to death in a heartbeat, so you need to be constantly on top of things. There’s an autolock camera feature, but it’s less reliable than trying to run Unreal Tournament on a 486. It will unlock at the worst possible moments, will not pivot despite being locked, or will decide that “straight up your ass” is exactly where the most advantageous views are. Thanks, buddy.
But, again, when it’s good, it’s so good. It’s like musou-lite combined with actual damage and results. Samurai Maiden lets you get new weapons for Tsumugi over time, and then you can upgrade those weapons, improving damage and effects based on your play style. You can adjust based on what you do best (heavy hits or tag n’ run) and then get the other ninjas to help you out in turn. The first time that I beat Kenshin, the first boss, it took me over an HOUR of dying while I tried to figure out the exact moments to dodge, strike and how far to run. I stood over her zombie body like frigging Matt Murdock, screaming “I BEAT YOU” while the other people on the train looked at me in terror. The satisfaction of good fights is off the charts…when they’re good.
Samurai Maiden is intentionally funny, though some of it may come from unintentional moments. I’ve never heard a single person of the younger generation refer to themselves as Gen Z, but Tsumugi never lets us forget it, weedling it into every fifth conversation. Hagane will constantly make references to bedding women, but then will quickly dismiss it before everyone gets weird. Nobunaga is an idiot, in spite of everyone calling him brilliant, and the voice actors/actresses have undeniable chemistry in the different scenes.
Every single character, in spite of fantastic voicework, have exaggerated, dramatic poses for each line they deliver, which makes me feel like they figured out how cosplayers would want to look first and then figured out what they would say second. It’s like watching a junior-high school level play at a school that needs to be immediately shut down for offensive content. I’m stunned someone didn’t burst into an impromptu ballad before being whisper-screamed at by a drama teacher who is only sober on weekends.
When all is said and done, Samurai Maiden can be consumed in three doses: gentle sips, hearty swallows, or drowning in mayhem. You might only do a stage and then get tired of the repetition and need a break. You might be able to progress through the story as it unfolds, unlocking elements as needed and getting stronger. Or you can obsessively grind each level as you move forward, getting more and more Inga to elevate the side characters and unlock new outfits, because of course that happens in this game.
Players ready for the second or third choices need little else to bring them into the experience. However, if you want to piecemeal Samurai Maiden, you’ll lose steam quickly and get distracted by long dialogues between fights and stages. Personally, I went right down the middle, and I think that’s the best course for everyone. It’s fun, it’s funny, and it keeps me coming back for more, and that’s all I want in a game.
Excellent character models and gorgeous effects, Samurai Maiden delivers exactly what it needs to in terms of presentation, though it arguably looks a bit lower resolution on the Nintendo Switch.
When I’m in the throes of combat and havoc, it’s everything I could ever want. When I’m walking around aimlessly looking for where to go next or falling off platforms, I sincerely wish the game would simply stop.
An excellent mix of traditional Japanese elements with modern electronica, the soundtrack is perfect world building music that seems to exist in a vacuum: ideal for the game, not really exciting for everyday life.
Humor and fighting are such an important pairing that rarely works, and this is levels of camp and schtick that is wonderfully balanced with swords and ninjas. It’s not as adult as some games, and that makes it all the better.
Final Verdict: 8.0
Samurai Maiden is available now on PS4, PS5, PC and NinSwitch
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
A copy of Samurai Maiden was provided by the publisher.