SAMURAI MAIDEN - PS4 Review
System: PS4, PS5, Nintendo Switch, PC
Release Date: December 8, 2022
Official Website: https://www.d3p.co.jp/s_maiden/en/
The famed movie critic, Roger Ebert, had a distinctive review style and ethos that, above all else, questioned whether a film would achieve success for its intended audience. Here at Honey's Anime--and for this reviewer, in particular--we believe that Ebert's philosophy can be extended beyond film and into other mediums, such as video games.
Let's take today's game, SAMURAI MAIDEN--an action hack'n'slash with a focus on character bonds and girl's love relationships that straddles the line between fan service and genuinely heartwarming. Does this game set out to achieve its own goals, and beyond that, does it achieve success in the eyes of the intended audience?
We believe the answer is a solid, whole-hearted, "yes"--we loved every moment of our time with SAMURAI MAIDEN. To find out why we fell in love with this Sengoku-era action game, read on as we review SAMURAI MAIDEN on PlayStation 4!
Sengoku, Swords, and Shinobi
Our playable heroine throughout SAMURAI MAIDEN is Tsumugi, a regular schoolgirl from the 21st century who is summoned to the Sengoku period of Japan on the very day that legendary warrior Nobunaga Oda is destined to die. Due to her lineage as a "Priestess of Harmony," Tsumugi must fulfill her obligation to delve into the Underworld beneath Honno-ji and defeat a powerful "Demon Lord" before he can be resurrected and wreak havoc on the world.
Tsumugi is not alone in her time-traveling hijinks--she has three ninja companions who have come seeking the fabled Priestess. She's joined by Hagane, a shinobi (referred to as ninja interchangeably throughout the game) from a technologically advanced parallel reality; Komimi, a descendant of the nine-tailed fox Tamamo-no-Mae, and a powerful magical user; and Iyo, a shinobi who serves Nobunaga Oda and owes him her life.
Throughout the course of the game's 27 missions (and 15 extra maps), you'll be hacking and slashing your way through a variety of undead baddies, and using a combination of ninja tools and magic provided by your companions. Between missions--each of which last roughly 10 minutes or so, provided you don't fail and need to repeat them--there are fully-voiced cutscenes that play out in a visual novel-style format, with an emphasis on deepening your character's bonds with her friends.
SAMURAI MAIDEN completely delivers on what developer Shade has promised, but it's the finer details that come out through the gameplay that cemented this game as a firm favorite for us.
Let's start with the most important part--the action.
Rip and Tear
As an action hack'n'slash, SAMURAI MAIDEN remains extremely enjoyable throughout its many maps and boss battles. Although Tsumugi begins the game with a single sword, she'll later unlock additional weapons that favor heavier attacks or come with special abilities that help fine-tune your play style.
For the most part, combat involves a series of light and heavy attacks, which can trigger combos unlocked via the bonding mechanics (more on that later). Each of your three ninja girls can offer their support in battle, deploying a unique ability such as an explosive bomb, or an area-of-effect frost hammer. Tsumugi can deal with airborne enemies by leaping into the air and hammering away, and on the ground, quickly tapping the shoulder button will see Tsumugi dash away from enemies.
In the early game, combat can be quite challenging, especially when you haven't gotten all three of your companions yet. Killing enemies yields resources called "inga," which you can spend post-mission to upgrade your weapon, giving you greater attack power and increasing your maximum health. You can also upgrade your ninjas' weapons too, giving the girls far more powerful effects when you call for them.
Iyo, Hagane, and Komimi can only offer their support when their support gauge is full, but thankfully that gauge accumulates quickly enough when you start smacking up enemies. Over time, you can increase both the number of gauges and the speed with which they regenerate. Late-game maps will have you constantly deploying these abilities just to stay alive.
Make no mistake--SAMURAI MAIDEN can, at times, be a pretty punishing game. Individual missions might only last 8-10 minutes, but enemy damage is brutal, and when the enemies swarm on you, it's easy to get sent packing. Respawns are fast and never an annoyance, but some levels humbled us quickly, forcing us back to repeat earlier missions and upgrade our weapons before making another attempt.
Unlike musou games such as Samurai Warriors (or more niche titles like Fate/Extella Link), the number of enemies you'll be fighting at any one time in SAMURAI MAIDEN is fairly limited. A better comparison would be Nights of Azure by developer Gust; we didn't mind the smaller number of foes, particularly since the gameplay emphasized clean combos and deploying skills, but you won't be doing much else besides killing things in each mission.
There are some collectibles you can find scattered throughout each mission, which unlocks some gorgeous pre-development artwork in the gallery, but otherwise, missions are a linear run through generic mobs with an occasional mini-boss before a more dangerous foe in the final area.
Missions rank your time, enemy kill rate, and the amount of inga collected, on a scale of "D" to "S." You don't get any rewards for S-ranking a mission, but if you're a completionist, it's a nice sense of achievement. Each mission can be played on three difficulty levels--Normal, Hard, and Demonic--but sadly, these difficulties won't unlock until you clear the entire game on one mode first. Thankfully, subsequent replays are much quicker since the cutscenes are skipped, and there's definitely a challenge on these higher difficulties, even with your fully-upgraded characters.
Speaking of characters, let's move on to SAMURAI MAIDEN's next selling feature--your ninja waifu.
Girls Love Girl's Love
Developer Shade certainly wasn't coy with their marketing--the main attraction of SAMURAI MAIDEN is cute girls kicking ass and (eventually) falling in love with the main character.
SAMURAI MAIDEN does a great job of straddling the line between fan service and genuine character design. This isn't a Compile Heart game like Seven Pirates H, where you might feel embarrassed playing in the living room; the girls don't exist purely as fan service objects--they're living, breathing characters in their own rights.
Sure, when Tsumugi rolls, you get an upskirt panty-flash (even on PlayStation, surprisingly); but there are no awkward skinship minigames (looking at you, Mary Skelter). Nor does the story shy away from actually dealing with girls falling in love--our consistent complaint leveled at Gust's Atelier franchise, particularly the recent Atelier Ryza entries that seem unwilling to move beyond "girls who really really like each other."
Iyo, Hagane, and Komimi each build affection whenever you slay enemies with them active on the battlefield, and reaching affection thresholds unlocks special cutscenes or solo missions called "Bubble Pockets." With every new affection cutscene, the bonds between our characters deepen in a meaningful way, revealing each other's painful pasts or hidden secrets.
Some of these thresholds unlock new skills, but the main change lies with the "Devoted Hearts" system. Once unlocked, Tsumugi can activate this in battle, combining her powers with one of the girls to enter a high-damage mode for a certain period of time. Triggering Devoted Hearts starts a cutscene that reflects her current affection for the chosen character--initially, that's just a cute moment but gradually increases to a proper kiss at maximum affection.
Shade's willingness to actually show yuri or girl's love content is such a breath of fresh air after years of so-called "yuri bait" in other developers' games. SAMURAI MAIDEN doesn't feel the need to make the story a queer narrative--the girls just naturally grow closer to each other and find that their affection and feelings are mutual. It's natural, but it also greatly rewards the player for putting the time and energy into each girl's side story.
We played SAMURAI MAIDEN on a PS4 Pro using a pre-patched code, but performance-wise, we didn't find many issues.
We encountered a few slowdowns when lots of enemies were on fire, but nothing that greatly upset our experience. The character designs are gorgeous and always fluid, with clothes ripping and getting smeared during battle, or drenched when the characters enter bodies of water.
Load times were snappy, and the art style is a beautiful combination of cel-shaded anime vibes with a historical Japanese aesthetic. Enemy designs aren't terribly imaginative, but we found them more distinctive than musou games like the Warriors franchise, with a combination of foes on the ground and in the air.
At times it's obvious that Shade is a small studio running on an undoubtedly limited budget--but they make the best of what they've got, and deliver a great gameplay experience with memorable characters.
History buffs--or anyone who happened to play Samurai Warriors 5 this year--will probably see the final plot twist coming a mile away, but the main heart of SAMURAI MAIDEN's story is the beautiful relationship between Tsumugi and her retinue of ninjas.
With a smattering of fan service and some heart-throbbing yuri elements thrown in for good measure, SAMURAI MAIDEN is an excellent new IP from Shade and a thoroughly enjoyable experience from beginning to end.
What do you think about SAMURAI MAIDEN? Are you playing the game? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below, and as always, thanks for reading!
Author: Brett Michael Orr
I'm a writer, gamer, and reviewer of manga & light novels, from Melbourne, Australia. When I'm not creating a new world, I'll be absorbed in a good JRPG, watching some anime, or reading up a storm!