The difference between life and death in Samurai Gunn is a microsecond. A pixel. A heartbeat.
Samurai Gunn is the latest of a swath of games attempting to master the local multiplayer experience rather than struggle with server stability and netcode for online multiplayer. It harkens back to the days of yore, when friends were invited, beers were cracked and the couch became a warzone.
At its best, Samurai Gunn captures some of that retro magic, but it remains hindered by a distinct lack of polish that makes the split-second timing more of a liability.
Samurai Gunn is a 2D multiplayer game that pits katana-and-gun-wielding samurai against one another in numerous 8-bit arenas. The objective is simple: kill the opposing players by any means necessary. And those means are well within reach: A single bullet or sword-swipe will send someone to their bloody demise.
Your best strategy for success is to master 2D platforming abilities (wall-jumping is crucial, for example), while attempting to outmaneuver your opponents to deliver a killing blow. Two swords clashing at one another will cause the two players to be thrown in opposite directions, so timing and placement is everything to ensure a kill. This gets far more interesting when four players are in the same arena, as you constantly have to play both aggressive and defensive roles.
The game is at its best with four samurai, and as the player count diminishes, so does the enjoyment. Single-player is strictly a series of bot matches and won't keep you occupied for very long at all.
All of the characters in Samurai Gunn have the same abilities, so selecting your preferred samurai really just boils down to a favorite color. The core gameplay mechanic of kill or be killed never changes. The basics are simple and approachable, but there's a fair bit of depth for expert players to master, with techniques like super jumps and dodges that require skill over button mashing. It does feel like some additional variables are missing from the game, though, such as letting players select the number of required kills in a match or the number of bullets you can spawn with.
Because of the one-hit-kill nature of Samurai Gunn, games can become extraordinarily intense. Thanks to pixelated blood spray and small details like bouncing bullet shells, arenas are awash with chaos. The effect really does make each arena look like a corpse-strewn battlefield, rather than a static, pixelated level in a video game.
With all of these effects, it could be difficult to keep track of where your character is at any given time, but Samurai Gunn utilizes an innovative technique to combat the visual overload. Every time a kill happens, the game freezes for a split second, highlighting the assassination in a letter-boxed vignette. At first I was worried it would break up the flow of combat, but the pause actually allowed me a moment to focus on each kill, whether I was admiring my own handy work or cursing myself for getting diced.
This attention to style makes Samurai Gunn very approachable. Even though the characters are made up of just a small handful of pixels, it's easy to gravitate to the art design of one over the other, whether it's a robe-wearing samurai dog or a dastardly dark ninja. The game is also backed by a slick score — a mash-up of hip-hop and traditional Japanese music, as seen in shows like Samurai Champloo and Afro Samurai.
I had a moment when all of these stylistic choices came together and Samurai Gunn started to click. My friends were attacking from all sides, and I dispatched all three of them in a row, with each kill captured for everyone to groan over. I felt invincible. These are the moments that make Samurai Gunn memorable.
Unfortunately, Samurai Gunn's focused gameplay still feels like it needs more tuning. Oftentimes slices that looked like they would absolutely result in a kill led to my death. Players can reflect bullets back at foes with a sword swipe but that, too, felt imprecise and led to frustrating deaths. In a great competitive game, every death feels deserved. Samurai Gunn lacks that consistency.
The lack of polish extends to some very basic options
The level design is also uneven. Levels are organized by themes ranging from bamboo forests to spooky graveyards. Some are clearly designed to work well with the gameplay of Samurai Gunn, while others play like experiments gone awry. Mario-esque clouds inexplicably let players walk upside-down, and randomly-appearing spikes build up frustration for all the wrong reasons.
The lack of polish throughout Samurai Gunn extends to some very basic options. Simple features, like being able to pause mid-match, are absent. There's native controller support for Xbox 360, PS4 and Logitech controllers, but the only way to back out of a game is by reaching over and hitting Escape on a keyboard (which essentially boots the game back to the main menu). I also ran into a bug that made 2v2 team matches impossible to start, even though 2v1v1 or 3v1 worked.
A potentially-cool showdown mode is hurt by these shortcomings. This mode seems to occur when two or more players are within a few kills of each other at the end of a match. The game pits those players against each other in small, flat arenas inspired by classic Japanese cinema. In one, a massive red sun slowly sinks below the horizon as the samurai become engulfed in shadow.
Unfortunately, the game has trouble tracking the true kill/death count for all players, so you can find yourself in a showdown with players who didn't earn it. There's also a bug that seems to leave you in a showdown after all players have been dispatched, forcing a reboot of the game. Showdowns are yet another idea that would be great were it not for subpar execution.
Samurai Gunn could be a great local multiplayer game with a lot more polish
Samurai Gunn's gameplay values precision, but that same value hasn't carried over to its overall production. It feels every bit like a work-in-progress. A fighting game has to be pixel perfect to successfully reward patience and strategy. Samurai Gunn just isn't there yet.
Samurai Gunn was reviewed using a final "retail" Steam code provided by Maxistentialism. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.About Polygon's Reviews