Samurai Blood Show took me by surprise. It's a defense game with some genuinely interesting gameplay quirks and a striking art style. For a genre that has long become saturated that's an impressive feat, especially when you consider it's a game that has production values and marketing weight of a major publisher (SEGA) behind it.
This is a game in which you'll need to stop invading waves of enemies from crossing a battlefield, moving left to right. The battlefield is separated into five rows, and your defences consist of a range of different soldiers that you summon to the battlefield by playing "cards" with their likenesses printed on them. As time goes on in battles, money is automatically generated and added to the “bank”, which can then be used to randomly draw more cards from the deck. The various units of the game have different abilities and weaknesses, and there's a surprising range of them on offer.
To make things more interesting than this standard formula, there's some deck-building strategy involved. As you complete levels you earn additional cards, and working out the optimum balanced deck has much the same addictive quality (albeit less complex) as the likes of Magic The Gathering.
It's important to have a good mix of units available to handle the massive range of situations the game will hurl at you across a massive range of levels. It's amazing how much variety the developers have managed to squeeze out of such a basic, overused formula. There's also a wide range of different ways to approach each level. By stacking cards on top of units already on the battlefield, they can be leveled up, becoming substantially more powerful each time. So do you create a handful of really powerful units (remembering it costs money to move those units to counter an enemy threat coming along a different row), or build swarms of units and hope that numbers means you don't lose too many precious soldiers?
While it gets challenging, the single player game isn't the secret to Blood Show's success. That's reserved for the multiplayer game which is easily as intense and strategic as any other strategy game available on the iPad. The need to balance defense and sent out aggressive sorties is enough to have competitive friends busy for hours at a time. With Game Center matchmaking its also very easy to get a game going.
The most striking part of the game is in the presentation, though. The game guns for a paper doll aesthetic, and pulls it off brilliantly. Battlegrounds are scrolls that roll in and out as you pan around to look at what's going on around the place. Units moves in a jerky fashion, as though the were made of a few pieces of paper, and the gushes of blood that occur with each death has the same comic impact as a puppet show. The appropriation of traditional Japanese art styles has rarely been done this well in games before, and it’s reason enough to check the game out.
The music is a little abrasive, on the other hand, being both too loud and filled with too many clashing notes. I’m not sure if the developers were trying to evoke the atmosphere of a medieval Japanese battlefield, but this cacophony just hurts the ears.
Overall, though, Samurai Blood Show is one of those rare examples of a tower defense game that does something a little different, and is compelling enough to recommend to almost anyone. This isn’t a mere shovelware or indie project, this is a big, chunky, full-featured game.