Sadame very much slots into the category of “kinds of games I really like to play. An action JRPG set in an alternative universe where the heroes of the Sengoku period have turned into monstrous demons, it has a strong theme and setting, and the way it appropriates traditional Japanese art aesthetics and borrows liberally form Japanese mythology is the kind of stuff I love to see in my fantasy.
Related reading: It goes without saying that Samurai Warriors is the game to go to if you’re a Sengoku aficionado. Matt’s full review of Samurai Warriors 4.
Unfortunately it’s just not a good game. Sadame is a story of wasted potential and limited meaning. It does too little with all of its strengths, while focusing too much energy entirely too heavy on a set of mechanics that are just not up to scratch.
From the outset you’ve got a couple of different characters classes to choose between, each with their own preferred weapons and attacks. Naturally, as I always do, I picked the rogue, on the promise that she (rogues being always female in games such as this) is both fast and lithe. It helped that her weapons of choice were bow, and a traditional Japanese polearm; I do like characters with ranged skills.
From there the game doesn’t waste any time in sticking you into the thick of the action. A mission might start out in an area that is peaceful and has a couple of NPCs to talk to, but almost immediately from there hurls you into action areas, at which point there’s nothing to do but fight horde after horde on the way to the eventual boss. These all play out the same; you’ll enter an area with enemies, and these arenas are usually a little bigger (though only just) than a single screen. There, you’ll need to defeat a certain number of waves of them before being able to move on to the next section. After clearing a couple of these sections you’ll get to take on the boss, and defeating it will end the act.
The enemies themselves are gorgeously rendered, from the simple grunts, through to the more ornate designs in the skeleton horsemen, killer squids, and so on. The exact mix of them that will appear in each wave is randomised a little too, so no two play throughs of the game will technically be the same experience. Unfortunately, though they are gorgeous renders of Japanese mythological beasts, none of these grunts are interesting to actually fight. I mean, if I’m going to be swamped by a horde of Kappas, I want the encounter to be more interesting than a horde of sprites shuffling around before attacking my hero (if she was too close).
Almost universally enemies slowly meander around the screen before eventually beelining towards your character once they get close enough to “spot” him or her. Remember how I picked the rogue? Well, an effective strategy for me quickly became to remain on the periphery of the screen and simply fire away with my bow at the enemies that neatly lined up for me. If they never got close enough to “spot” my girl, they would simply wander around aimlessly and allow me to pick them off. A great sneak, is my rogue.
If you manage to get caught up in a horde (or be unfortunate enough that a wave of enemies includes a lot of archers that are able to return fire), then Sadame can be difficult, in a frustrating sense of the word. There’s a significantly long reaction animation when an attack strikes your character, meaning that she’s unable to do anything as blows are raining down on her until there’s just enough of a pause to get out of there. Unfortunately when a mob has closed around it can be difficult to see what is actually going on and to spot a pause among all the mess, so the only resort is to button mash the dash button in the hope that one of the button presses is timed luckily enough to get away.
So there’s no strategy involved in moving through Sadame’s hordes, and, as visually vibrant as they are, and despite the extreme, visceral bloodletting that happens with each defeated enemy, it’s difficult to really feel connected to the action. There’s just no sense of satisfaction in defeating such enemies that shuffle like they’re already halfway dead, and when that is all you’re doing for 90 per cent of the game, it starts to become a real grind far too soon.
The boss battles should have been the remedy to this, and the reward for playing through the grind. Unfortunately, as with the rest of Sadame, not enough is done with them. They are visually spectacular, and each boss manages to fill the screen with raw menace, but once the fight actually begins one of two things happens; their attack patterns are so predictable and simple that there’s immediately evident exploits that make it easy to whittle down their health. Alternatively the simple attack routines feel cheap, like the game is exploiting you, and those battles are particularly irritating.
But what really lost me, from a game design point of view, is a moment where was insta-killed without any projection or forewarning that there was even a threat ahead of me. I was presented with two bridges to cross; one would progress the game and at the end of the other was a shine maiden stranded on a small rock that needed saving. I assumed there would be some kind of risk in trying to rescue her. What I was not expensive was for a whopping big skeleton to crash up through the bridge from the abyss underneath and destroy it (and me in the process). Lesson learned, I guess, but any game design professional would tell you to never, ever, have insta-fail conditions that are not projected in advance.
In theory I would be willing to forgive all of this through. None of the faults with the gameplay are game breaking, if there was something to bind it all together and give it meaning. I mean, Nier itself isn’t the greatest game when you break it down into individual components, but that narrative that sits over the top makes every second of the game breathtaking.
So what really irritates me about Sadame is not how it plays; it’s just how little is done with its concept. There’s no sense of character – the brief bits of dialogue seem to suggest that I’m hunting Shingen Takeda, Nobunaga Oda, and other champions from the Sengoku era, but nothing is really made of that. This is a world that is meant to be screaming under the horror of invading hordes of demons, and yet the survivors sat in static positions as I floated between in-game chapters, saying nothing of worth beyond giving me hints of what to expect ahead.
In other words, for a setting that is meant to be dark, tragic, and very Japanese, I went in wanting something down the lines of Onimusha and ended up getting 101. There’s a lot that can be done with a spartan approach to storytelling – consider how effectively gothic the atmosphere of Diablo games are – but if you’re going to go down the minimalist route you really need to do something special to make the most of the setting, and at no stage did I get the sense that Sadame was interested in using the setting or art style as anything more than window dressing.
Related reading: It’s not technically a JRPG, but if you’re looking for a very Japanese action game, Senran Kagura Burst is genuinely good value.
What’s left is a competent, but wholly remarkable and uninteresting hack-and-slask JRPG. There’s plenty of loot to reward the grind if you can handle how overwhelmingly generic the experience is, but, I wasn’t really going in for loot. I wanted a game that was like Muramasa: The Demon Blade; a game that would take the aesthetics of classical Japan and really do something with it. Instead, Sadame proves itself to be vapid and uninspired in the extreme, and so very disappointing as a result.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld