It was already weird enough that Genndy Tartakovsky, director of several stylish, critically praised but toy store-rejected cartoon shows got to finish Samurai Jack. A fifth season aired on Adult Swim, over ten years since the original was cancelled. It’s even more weird that a few years after that, in 2020, a new Samurai Jack video game has appeared. The third game from emergent developer Soleil, Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time is possibly the most aptly-titled project in video game history. Playing this game feels like, as Jack makes his way through a greatest-hits revisit of the show’s time periods and zany characters, traveling through time yourself back to what many refer to as the “PS2 era.”
Making my way through this dated, yet contemporary licensed action game tied to a show I watched premiere back in 2001 is a surreal feeling to say the least. Bringing back older, classic IP isn’t a strange move by itself. After all, it’s 2020 and I’ve been consistently hyped about a TV show based on Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. That’s a Famicom game. It’s the way Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time looks, sounds, feels, and operates just like a game that would have come out in the early 2000s. Except it’s in clear as day HD, without the residue you expect in one of our piles of PS2 remasters.
It helps that Samurai Jack as a series lends itself brilliantly to videogames in the first place. Jack is a straightman samurai who is tossed into a portal through time by evil demon Aku, forced to battle his way back to the past with a magic sword and his own grit. Along the way he’s ripped back and forth through time, always running into some force or presence under the influence of Aku. In Battle Through Time, the story starts just as the final season is ending, but instead of what actually happened we’re treated to an alternate version that sees Jack thrust back into time again, as Aku tries a last-ditch effort to regain the upper hand.
As Jack, we as the player guide him through a series of levels set in the various times and locations from the show, as Jack reunites with lost friends and left behind enemies alongside dealing with a new threat. It’s a fine, videogame-ass way to both re-tell and expand on the original story, without compromising the original material in a corny way. Like I said earlier, it’s like a greatest hits showcase, but all the hits are aware they’re hits, or rather they all remember Jack (even if he has to fight them first).
What really gives Battle Through Time its PS2 energy is how this game is structured, how it looks, and what it has you do. Once you’re given control you’re immediately spit out into a barren, rocky area, with minimal detail but sharp, contrasting colors that both look like the show, but also a familiar environmental necessity of an old game in this same space. You also spend just as much time breaking things and collecting different kinds of currency and collectibles as you do fighting.
And while the visuals definitely look like a 3D version of Samurai Jack, there’s a striking lack of things like outlines or textural detail on the character models, giving them this weirdly smooth look. It almost has a low budget aesthetic, but at the same time you can tell it isn’t nearly as low rent as it looks. It’s more like, well, a natively HD PS2 game! It’s just the whole vibe this game has, and in some ways it’s hard to explain. If you grew up in that era, and played games like, well, the previous Samurai Jack videogame, you can just feel it. It’s not quite nostalgic; it’s more like a nagging deja vu that’s fueled by uncanny valley energy. Also, touting the original voice actors back and having tons of non-voiced dialogue is just pure gaming throwback.
When it comes to combat, though, you can tell Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time is a contemporary game. This is a game made in the now, in our post-Dark Souls, post-God of War, post-Monster Hunter world. As much as playing Battle Through Time can feel like a game you played 20 years ago that never existed, you’re also participating in an increasingly complex combat system that isn’t afraid to punish you for messing up, especially in boss battles. There are various combo strings that get more complex as you fill out your skill tree, parries and combos that expand your defensive options, and weird stuff like a sliding dash move that helps Jack exert control over a combat room.
But while there’s a contemporary level of complexity, there’s still some oddball touches that harken back to that bygone era just as much as the other mechanics contradict it. There’s a ranged attack component that has you picking up little bits of ammo from things or enemies you break open, and using them is just a matter of mashing a button as much as you want. It even lets you cheese out boss fights, which is a thing you can choose not to do, but it being there makes it feel less polished. There’s a super move that’s fueled by some of the collectibles you’re constantly grabbing, but using it stops the action and sends Jack off in random, barely controllable directions like an early Dynasty Warriors. But when you’re going one on one with a boss, dodging super fast tells and struggling to get even a few hits in before you have to defend again, you’re back to feeling like you’re playing a more kid-friendly version of Sekiro (this is a big stretch don’t look too far into it) funded by Cartoon Network.
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I came away from Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time mostly confused, but also satisfied in a wispy, abstract sort of sense. The unexpected deja vu, the dated exploration and environments, the random visually indistinct collectibles, all of it felt homely in a way that didn’t feel like a cheap nostalgia grab. The combat is full of familiar modern tropes done better elsewhere, but between that and the whole post-32-bit retro vibe, it’s impressively difficult to suss out if any of that is deliberate or not. I don’t think I’ve played anything like it in a long time, and for me that’s worth the price of admission.
Have you been playing Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time? Did you grow up with the show or come across it later during its Adult Swim run? Are you catching the same vibes I did? Let us know what you think of this game and our review over at the Prima Games Facebook and Twitter channels!