God’s Hands

Samurai Bringer is a lot of things all at once. It’s a roguelite, albeit one with heavy emphasis on “lite” over “rogue”. It’s got musou vibes in spades, with Dynasty Warriors-sized crowds of mooks to bulldoze as you carve your way to named enemies that actually demand finesse. I’m told by my cowriter Kyle that it bears a passing resemblance to Brave Fencer Musashi, which I have to take his word on because I haven’t played that yet. But most importantly, to me at least, it’s got custom combos. Combos where you build your own moves from scratch, put them in any order you like, and let ‘er rip. This system happens to work a lot like the one in God Hand, one of the single greatest video games ever made. How could I possibly resist?

The premise is simple. You play as Susanoo, stripped of your god powers and dumped in a small village. Your obnoxious sister Amaterasu decides to “help” by dumping many of history’s greatest samurai throughout the land so you can beat them up to regain a fraction of your strength, which you’ll need to save your mortal girlfriend from being sacrificed to Orochi. Great! Thanks sis!

Samurai Bringer is run based, but I think calling it a roguelike/lite isn’t quite accurate. The game is, at its core, about long-term growth. You start out weak to the point where the aforementioned samurai are a capital-P-Problem. You need every scroll you can get your mitts on just to scrape by. Runs, such as they are, will only be a couple zones tops before you die ignobly, sent back to your hub to start over. Basic tutorials are provided but most information has to be learned by doing, and doing means dying. Running roughshod through an isometric Japan feels oddly nostalgic, somewhat like a lost PS1 title remastered with a sharper, albeit still blocky, coat of paint.

So you’re going to do a lot of fighting, and fighting is fortunately where this game is at its strongest. Every single move in this is fully customizable. As you start scooping up scrolls you’ll be able to juice your swings with more power and a frankly ludicrous number of cool effects. Elemental types, properties like afterimages or super armor, wielding them from range with telekinesis, you name it. As you get stronger you gain the ability to make each of your moves hold more and more modifiers, costing more stamina but getting increasingly powerful. A swing of a sword is rarely just that.

Defeating notable samurai on the battlefield unlocks their moveset (and armor styles for fashion!) as a starting loadout for subsequent runs. There are over 140 of these and while they aren’t even close to equally mighty, every single one of them brings a unique preloaded moveset. But remember – all moves are fully customizable! That means that each samurai you defeat is another page in your cookbook, revealing move properties and secret combos that perform completely differently when set with specific scrolls.

This approach towards unlocks gripped my curiousity like a vice. I found myself taking every samurai’s set for a test drive, even if only in the starting hub, just to see if they had any particularly interesting moves that I could steal and adjust to my tastes. It’s a gleeful kind of experimentation, a constant drip feed of not just power, but information and ideas, all of which are given to you to do with as you please. The player is given a degree of creative control that few games offer. SB isn’t just interested in providing options, it wants to see you break its systems wide open and play with the innards. Eventually the game will become your playground, it’s just a question of when and how.

Torii offer a change of pace from the violence. Pass through a gate and you’ll enter a shrine containing some kind of challenge that awards you a stat bonus if you successfully complete it. They range from puzzles to platforming to all kinds of non-combat shenanigans, and more difficult the challenge the better the reward. These break up the constant brawling very nicely, offering some nice variety before you inevitably resume your samurai sweeping. Just keep in mind that the day’s timer doesn’t stop while you’re puzzling!

Oh, did I not mention you’re on the clock? Well you are. Time’s relentless advance is a constant in SB, making your foes stronger with every passing day. This won’t severely affect your ability to handle the hoards of filler mobs, but take too long to get to bosses and you’ll find them considerably angrier. The first time I fought Orochi it took me 18 in-game days to reach it and I’ll give you 1 guess as to how that went. Don’t worry about taking too much time adjusting your combos though; time slows to a crawl while in menus, ensuring that you can’t just make changes right before an enemy swings at you but never moving so fast that you’ll feel pressured to unpause. Plus it has an actual pause function, unlike some modern games.

As you get stronger you’ll want to start using the purple portals instead of the usual level exits, as these contain the aforementioned boss fights and you need to beat all them up in order to take a shot at Orochi. Each is a unique challenge, requiring that players adjust their moves on the fly to take them down. Protip: elemental weaknesses are your friends here, and some of them have some bizarre resistances that you’ll need to take into account.

This is where the roguelikiness fades, as the only difference between each run of SB as far as the bosses are concerned is the order in which you face them and what equippable skills are availed to you. You will need to defeat every boss each time to get a win, no exceptions, and though you can retreat from the spirit realm to heal up and buy upgrades it won’t change your to-do list. SB is less like a typical modern roguelike and more like Rift Wizard; your run to run variety will come from changing how you approach the game, not the challenges themselves.

I don’t want to dwell on this comparison though. SB‘s focus on run-to-run stat improvements means it only gets easier as you play, but make no mistake, your power will feel earned. Whether you’re unleashing full screen laser assaults or hurling yourself across the screen like a razor-lined pinball it’ll be because you collected every individual piece of those moves, built them, tested them, and honed them to maximum lethality. It isn’t just a power trip, it’s a custom built power trip seasoned exactly to your tastes.

Let me tell you a story. The other day I was forcing myself to try out weapons that I hadn’t spent a lot of time with in the interest of thoroughness, and this led to me asking a friend who’d also been playing the game “hey, have you figured anything out with War Fans yet?” With a combination of a decent starting loadout for inspiration, a lot of customization, and a revive skill popped during the Orochi fight, that run ended up being my first win. I took a weapon that I’d actively disliked up until that point and turned it into a relentless screen-clearing death machine. It didn’t just feel like a victory, it made me feel like some kind of violence genius. How am I not going to recommend that experience?

Samurai Bringer offers more to explore and master in a single screen than most action games offer in their entirety. It’s a densely packed fusion of many excellent genres and concepts, all of which mesh seamlessly while never losing sight of what makes the experience so entertaining. Your runs will be as short as they are exciting, and your discoveries will fuel your creativity which in turns leads to more discoveries. It’s all killer no filler, and that’s always worthy of celebration.

A copy of this game was independently purchased for review.