A Heartfelt, but Broken Momento
If you’re old like I am, you grew up with a rock solid lineup of cartoons from the late 90s and early 2000s. I didn’t get into gaming as much as I do now until my mid-teens so watching cartoons on TV was my main source of entertainment, and one of favorites back in the day was Samurai Jack. If you know, you know, but the story of Jack’s trials and tribulations through the past to once again have his chance at defeating the evil Aku was one of the best forms of media during its initial 3 year and 4 season run.
Battle Through Time presents itself during its 5th season, which aired 13 years after the cartoon’s debut. With Jack and Ashi, one of Aku’s “daughters” who had defected and fallen in love Jack, on the verge of defeating Aku once and for all, Aku desperately creates a time portal that throws Jack and Ashi far away. While the two fall through the portal of time Aku sends Jack careening out of the portal, stranding him in a section of time Aku controls completely. Jack must re-live alternate timelines of his past and fight his way back to Aku to defeat him once and for all.
Time travel should not surprise fans, but it’s a nice easy way to check the boxes of all the interesting worlds Jack has done battle in. There’s a spread of old favorites like Aku’s mines and futuristic cities, with newer venues within the show’s 5th season that chronicle the show’s timeline well. Stages are jam packed with characters from the show, with the likes of The Scotsman and his daughters, Da Samurai, and Sir Rothchild all popping in to help Jack with items and hints to aid in his journey.
SJ: BTT artistically looks like a remastered PS2 game, and you can take that as a positive or a negative. While the characters look fine and true to form, the stages, minus specific set pieces, feel very open and bland. I do enjoy linearity for action-platformers, but besides some pretty backgrounds there is not much to really enjoy looking at. Each stage has breakables that include items like gold, throwables, and treasure, but it’s like a sadly applied foundation to hide the blemishes.
What Samurai Jack purely focuses on is its combat and longevity. Combat is surprisingly deep for a system with two attack buttons. Combos are done with light and heavy attacks, with the chance to parry and dodge, and timing these correctly will slow down time and allow Jack to get a quick combo in. Jack also can gather Kiai Fire for a special Kiai Attack which makes Jack invincible and does tremendous damage. Holding these for boss fights is a premium “Get out of Boss Free” card. Jack also acquires different weapons: clubs, spears, bows, guns, your own fists, and more are usable. Though throughout the campaign, I found Jack’s magic sword far and away the best weapon to tackle fights.
But the deep combat system has its flaws. The lock-on system works to a fault but unlocks after defeating an enemy, which does more harm than good. The amount of enemies thrown at you can be aggravating to manage with the faint audio cues for attacks getting overwhelmed by the rest of the ambiance of battle. It feels almost like a sloppier Ninja Gaiden, so be ready to get hit from off-screen a lot. The real savior of Samurai Jack‘s combat are the boss fights, which are tightly tuned and challenging without getting frustrating. These boss fights show off how well the combat is crafted and offer a nice glimpse of what Battle Through Time should always feel like.
When enemies are defeated skill fire and bushido spirit are accumulated, which can be used to upgrade Jack. The upgrade list is actually really extensive, with combos, extra items, and additional damage up for grabs. You’ll soon see that the list is too great for one run of the campaign to complete, so Battle Through Time implemented a score system to encourage repeat runs through the game’s nine levels. Scores go up with fewer deaths and items used, how fast you finish the level, and how many enemies you defeat. Better scores net Jack more gold to use in Da Samurai’s store where you can upgrade weapons, buy useful items, and repair secondary weapons.
How much you enjoy the combat is going to directly affect how long your tenure is with Battle Through Time, as the nine level story only nets around 4-5 hours of gameplay on the normal difficulty. Now are all those levels fun to play? Sure, save the last two. On Normal difficulty casual players of action-platformers will cruise through until the last two levels present a ridiculous boost in difficulty, almost as if the game expected a few re-runs on levels to grab more locked skills. The last stage is wildly guilty of this thanks to a pseudo boss rush crammed with additional enemies which ends up being much, much harder than the final boss. Beating the story mode does unlock special missions as well as Boss Rush mode, and there’s an Endless Mode that unlocks after the story mode is completed on its Hard difficulty.
Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time is a weird enigma. It feels like a remastered title that no one really asked for. While I enjoy seeing one of my favorite childhood cartoons getting a current-gen rendition, it’s sad to see that the love put into this game is not equal to the love I and others have for the franchise. Despite its tuned combat system it suffers from a very short campaign and frustrating design elements throughout. Battle Through Time is the best Samurai Jack game ever made, though that’s not saying much.
Reviewed on Steam.