The beat 'em up genre has seen its fair share of changes over the past thirty years. In the genre's early stages, games like Double Dragon and Streets of Rage provided short and frenetic experiences on Sega and Nintendo platforms that furnished additional replay value alongside a 2nd player. Nowadays, modern incarnations like Devil May Cry and Bayonetta, have developed into large-scale 3D spectacles fought with swords and guns.
In the transition from 2D to 3D and fists to weapons, today's games differentiate themselves enough from their 80's roots to earn a separate moniker: hack and slash. With a growing prevalence of these games in the recent years, traditional beat 'em ups have been few and far between. Samurai Riot represents an effort to rekindle the simplicity of old brawlers. Developed and published by Wako Factory, Samurai Riot sports a slick 2D fighting system, branching level paths and 2-player co-operative play. With satisfying animation and an intriguing setting, Samurai Riot makes a strong initial impression that begs players to explore its various mechanics. However, a more detailed examination reveals a repetitive and shallow fighter that offers mind-numbing fun, but not much else.
Samurai Riot takes place in what can only be described as a modern interpretation of feudal Japan. As one of two playable protagonists, the hot-blooded spy girl Sukane and honorable swordsman Tsurumaru, players navigate a series of linear 2D backdrops, beating up armies of baddies from one story segment to the next.
While not a surprising premise (most beat 'em ups of old offered exactly the same thing), Samurai Riot's execution of the concept is lacking. The player has a limited moveset available with no opportunity to develop it further. Aside from choosing from a broad set of classes upon each new game that adds little to nothing to the gameplay itself (do you want one more life or slightly more health per life?), there's no customization to be found here.
Without a fully developed moveset, gameplay devolves into button-mashing fist, kick, and jump attacks with occasional powered-up super moves. Even when the game’s limited combat suite clicks, it is often hindered by cumbersome and sluggish movement, especially when moving up and down on the battlefield. Thankfully, generous hitbox placement ensures that positioning doesn’t play too pivotal a role during a minute-to-minute combat. This is only a small patch job though in a much larger and flawed gameplay experience.
Making matters worse, enemy minions lack the variety needed to keep the action interesting throughout. Upon first encountering a sumo-like enemy, I greatly enjoyed the ensuing battle, thinking his unique attack patterns and larger health bar were indicative of a mini-boss fight. Imagine my surprise when the future levels spammed the same enemy every 20 seconds, ad nauseam.
This approach of enemy scaling reared its ugly head time and again to the end of the game. One particularly repetitive level had me facing off against tens of horribly mutated turtles that seemed to have been pulled straight out of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. While the reference to the retro-brawler series might be a nice nod, it only served to highlight the gameplay flaws even more. The Nintendo Entertainment System TMNT games, despite having been released over 25 years ago, are simply more fun to play than Samurai Riot.
Although shallow, combat does offer a few thrills. When pitted against smaller groups of varied enemies in the more vibrant and colorful levels, fighting gives way to some fluid animation and satisfying kills, despite a limited list of combo inputs. However, these moments are few and far between, and only made me wish there was more to do when moving from an objective to another.
One thing that Samurai Riot can truly boast about is its branching story. At key junctions during the game, players make decisions that alter future levels and ultimately the outcome of the story. While not as developed as in the likes of The Witcher 3 or Chrono Trigger, these multiple levels and endings add a nice touch to the narrative and make for a game that needs to be replayed several times to truly see everything. It's just a shame that Samurai Riot's redundant combat discourages any replayability the game may hold.
Samurai Riot is a flawed take on the beat 'em up genre. While the game may supply a few fun nights of mindless gameplay, especially if conquered with a friend, its combat lacks the depth needed to truly engage the players, despite its interesting narrative and characters. Given beat 'em ups' storied history, there are far better games deserving your time.