I’m an old-school Samurai Jack fan, so Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time arrived on my (figurative) desk with a fair amount of excitement. However, I approached my digital copy of the game with extreme caution; my previous experience with the PlayStation 2 release Samurai Jack: The Shadow of Aku left me with a sour taste in my mouth.
Although Adult Swim Games has a pretty good track record with me (I’m a dedicated fan of both Rain World and Wasted), the lingering fear that Battle Through Time would be another Samurai Jack-related disappointment weighed on my mind. Fortunately, as soon as I finished Time’s very quick tutorial, all of those fears melted away. Although not without its faults, Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time manages to capture the look, feel, and spirit of the show and its charismatic lead.
Before I continue, a word of warning: If you’re not familiar with the Samurai Jack series, you may be very, very confused about what’s happening in Battle Through Time. In fact, the game unfolds like an expansion of the animated show, as opposed to a standalone adventure. Generally, I can recommend tie-in games even for those who aren’t familiar with the source material; I frequently play anime-based JRPGs without knowing much about the characters or their respective plights. Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time, on the other hand, almost requires some working knowledge beforehand.
Don’t get me wrong — it’s still a wonderful experience if you want to turn off your brain and lose yourself in the fluid combat and addictive leveling system, but you’ll appreciate everything so much more if you’re a fan. Now I understand how all those Dragon Ball fans feel when I review Dragon Ball games. It totally makes perfect sense now!
With that in mind, I’ll quickly and simply explain the game’s setup. During a seemingly deadly encounter with arch-enemy and adorable demon Aku, Samurai Jack becomes dislodged from the flow of time and space, sending him careening wildly through a number of different eras. In order to survive and put all the pieces of the world back together again, our hero will slice and dice a countless array of enemies and, occasionally, duke it out with some old pals who are under the insidious control of Aku. That’s a gross oversimplification of the story, mind you, but that’s the game’s plot in a nutshell. As you may have guessed, this framework allows the dashing samurai to visit several different eye-catching settings and lock horns with a wide variety of different foes. It sounds beyond goofy on paper, but it’s a blast to play.
Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time often feels like a relic (albeit a polished relic) of the past; developers don’t make third-person hack-and-slash games like this very often anymore. It has a decidedly retro feel, though it overcomes the simplicity of its design with tight controls, fluid animation, and a combat system that’s suitably complex and easy to pick up.
Fighting feels great, whether you’re swinging the samurai’s iconic sword, smacking around villains with a staff, or blasting irritating enemies who try to snipe you from rooftops and ledges with a handgun. Again, it’s a very simple system, but the game’s top-notch animation and the rock-solid frame rates make the action feel superb. In other words, Battle Through Time accurately captures the action found in the cartoon, which is no easy feat.
Starting out, you may feel that poor Jack doesn’t have a lot of tools in his arsenal. Thankfully, as the story progresses and you litter the battlefield with the shattered remains of your adversaries, you’ll begin adding skills to our hero’s wheelhouse. You’ll also get your hands on an array of weaponry courtesy of Da Samurai, who shows up every once in a while to offer you items from his shop.
While the combat shines right out of the box, it really starts to come together when you have a well-stocked supply of throwable weapons in your pocket. Flinging throwing stars at enemies while you hack and slash at their buddies will soon before second nature, turning the tide of battle in your favor without breaking a sweat. The game also rewards you for your tenacity; the harder the difficulty, the better unlockables you’ll attain.
Battle Through Time has very few faults, though the lack of proper voice acting throughout detracts from the overall experience. While cutscenes and major story beats feature the cast of the cartoon, incidental dialogue — for example, running into one of your old pals between skirmishes — ruin the feeling that you’re playing an extended episode of the show. I know this probably sounds like a very vapid complaint, but so much of Samurai Jack’s charm comes from the actors and actresses who bring these characters to life.
As such, when you’re forced to simply read the dialogue without a voice to give it that extra kick, the overall experience suffers as a result. It’s during these moments that Battle Through Time begins to feel dated; a bit more attention to these encounters could easily elevate things, even if these exchanges serve as nothing more than to provide small but throwaway chunks of exposition or information.
Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time feels like the first truly good Samurai Jack game, a concept that you’d think wouldn’t be that difficult to execute. Sure, it follows a very traditional hack-and-slash formula with some mild RPG elements to help spice things up, but the presentation feels slick and response — exactly what you’d want from an action game featuring our beloved heroic sword-swinging samurai.
Were it not for some shortcomings in the voice acting department (or lack thereof), Samurai Jack would shine a bit brighter than it does in its current state. Even then, it’s a solid adventure that should appeal greatly to those of us who have followed the show over the years.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 Pro version of the game. A code was provided by Adult Swim Games.
Finally, after years of waiting, Samurai Jack fans finally have a game that captures the look, feel, and spirit of the cartoon series. It's not a perfect experience, mind you, but fans who've ever wanted to control the charming samurai now have an opportunity to do so.