Cherry blossoms are really pretty, but their inclusion doesn't make Sakura Samurai a great game.
Sakura Samurai is a bit of a peculiar portable game, especially considering it is a download title for the 3DS. It's slow-paced in almost every way, ranging from how the character moves to the way combat unfolds. Saving can only be done in specific areas, making it almost useless if you’ve only got a few minutes to play it. Still, despite the fact that this is a decidedly anti-portable portable game, Sakura Samurai is fun, albeit a little listless.
The gameplay could be succinctly summed up as samurai Punch-Out, as it is predicated on dodging enemy attacks and then quickly striking while there is an opening. There are differences, chiefly the fact that you travel through beautiful feudal Japan lands fighting foes instead of sparring in a boxing ring, but even with the period piece trappings, the game boils down to one-on-one fights with a little outside fluff adding some variety.
With the exception of a region’s final stage, each stage (simply displayed on a world map) is a single area with a wave or two of enemies. The enemies follow several archetypes, but there is a little variety in how they attack you, as you’ll have to learn their tells to find out when and where to dodge. A town in each of the three regions provides you with an opportunity to heal and save, buy items, upgrade your sword, and compete in several mini-games. The relative expanse of these towns gives you the false hope that there is depth to this game, but there really isn’t. Each town lets you level up your sword if you’ve got the cash, and the only differences between them are the type of mini-games available (which are usually slight variations on the same concept) and the layout of the buildings.
The game becomes repetitive, especially as the lack of enemy variety rears its ugly head. I found that most of my failures would come about when I was lulled into a near sleep by similar enemies until the game threw a slightly different one at me. Fortunately, some areas are more exciting than others, especially when the larger-than-life bosses show up. At the end of each region, there is a challenging boss that spews some sort samurai hate-speech at you and then brings the pain. Easily the highlight of the game, the bosses feel underutilized, which makes their appearances very welcome but also shines a light on the game’s shallow nature outside of these encounters.
For a download title, Sakura Samurai is still a meaty package. An initial run through the story mode will take most players about three or four hours, and after completing that, you unlock an Expert mode, where enemies do double damage. In addition, there are three enemy gauntlets and a sakura garden, which blossoms into a beautiful 3D landscape as you acquire steps within the system’s pedometer. In general, the graphics look nice in 3D, and the art design, ranging from the setting to the characters, is pleasing to the eye.
If you can get over the repetition, Sakura Samurai is a worthwhile experience. However, with the onslaught of better games on the eShop, you’re not missing too much if you skip it.