Sa-da-may? Sad-aim? Sa-da-mee? However you pronounce it, you’re a ninja.
Sadame is the latest spellchecker-unfriendly release from Rising Star Games (not to be confused with purveyors of crime and Scottishness, Rockstar Games), a company who has a history of bringing over Japanese releases to the RPG-poor shores of Europe including, amongst other indispensable titles, Hello Kitty: Rockin’ World Tour. Indeed, ‘history’ is an appropriate word, as Sadame is a game that wears its bygone influences in a subtle but proud manner.
Publisher: Rising Star Games
Reviewed on: 3DS (Review code provided by publisher)
It’s a Japanese word, meaning ‘fate that you can’t escape from’, according to designer and writer Kazunori Watabe, and encapsulates a handful of themes that float around the game. There are hints of Buddhist philosophy, history and even reincarnation wound into the gameplay, such as in the respawn mechanics. Clearly, this is not exactly Hello Kitty: Rockin’ World Tour.
Sadame appears to be a little cliché-heavy, as it’s a Japanese game featuring ninjas and demons. It’s often described as an RPG, but that’s not entirely accurate; the interaction with non-player characters is pretty limited, and usually confined only to the beginning and ends of a stage; they generally pop up to pre-warn you about the demons ahead, or to thank you for vanquishing them and offer you the shinier contents of their village (as if you wouldn’t have just taken them anyway). Also, the focus of the game is very much on combat and combat alone. Every time you trot onto a new screen, enemies rise from the floor in waves until you slice them up like an angry deli worker working by the kilo. This risks becoming a bit predictable and cyclical, although the combat is varied enough to keep things interesting for the most part. As well as long and short range attacks with your chosen fighter’s weapons, you can also thread these together into combos and perform magic to replenish health or strike down multiple foes. Both of these facets can be improved and added to as you progress. Combat occurs in real time, and flows reasonably well; however, it occasionally comes unstuck when the limited directional controls leave you struggling to line-up properly for certain attacks. The magic is obviously rationed and takes a while to work, because otherwise knocking back the undead would be easier than confusing Donald Trump. This makes it all the more satisfying when you finally manage it, and especially useful when you realise how many bad guys the game is prepared to throw at you at once.
While some of the key RPG elements are missing, other mainstays of the genre such as levelling-up characters and increasing your powers with collectable weapons and gems, remain very much integral parts of the game. However, the RPG tag does seem quite misleading still if you’re expecting dense plots and detailed characters; this is mainly a screen-by-screen hack and slash affair, having more in common with something like Streets Of Rage than Final Fantasy. As a result, it does unfortunately flirt with repetitiveness at times, due to its heavy reliance on action and swordplay.
One of the game’s best features is the choice of weapon-wielders you get. You’re given the option of playing as a ninja, samurai, monk or rogue (a woman who has one of those sword-tied-to-a-long-stick jobbies). I have no idea how the last one fits in with the theme, I like to imagine the developers just had OCD and insisted on an even number of characters, or just realised there were no women in the game at the last minute. The strengths and weaknesses of the protagonists are balanced well, if predictably. While the samurai is powerful and handy with close-quarters combat, favouring heavy jabs and strong swings of his sword, the ninja prospers far better by dashing around and hurling shurikens from afar. The monk, meanwhile, is able to call upon magic far more regularly than his counterparts using long-range attacks, and has what appears to be a very big twig as his lead weapon. The rogue, confusingly, seems to be good at both short and long range, boasting a bow and arrow as well as the aforementioned Frankenstein stick/sword thing, and was my particular favourite for dealing with the undead hordes.
These reanimated corpses and other enemies are a particular highlight of the game. While your potential pugilists are fairly nondescript and non-interesting, the bosses are wonderful, towering titans. They’re all huge and brilliantly realised, drawing on classic tropes but doing so pretty entertainingly. You’ll fight fire demons, giant prawns, disembodied building-sized skeletons and even a Cyclops, which provides the most entertaining fight you’ve had with a one-eyed monster since that early night you had while home alone last week.
What’s even more interesting is that these end-of-level behemoths are all based on Japanese civil war generals; the whole affair is set in the 15th and 16th centuries or thereabouts, and documents a time when the country tore itself apart under warlords from different territories. It’s 100 years after the Onin war, and demons have turned up in Kyoto, strutting around and acting like they own the place; it’s your job to send them back from whence they came. Not the most intricate of plots, admittedly, but it’s enough to get things started and justify the ensuing blood-letting. While the real-life history doesn’t quite qualify as educational, it’s a nice touch, and it adds an extra dimension to the hacking and slashing to know that the game is rooted in ancient reality, even if a little loosely. Aside from these boss battles you’ll also find plenty of variety in the less deadly enemies coming for you. These are all derived from folklore and legend, so you’re left to dispatch zombies, devils and something called a Club Ogre, which sounds less like a threat to your HP and more like a trendy Shoreditch nightspot.
There’s no 3D, sadly, but the graphics you are presented with are nothing to complain about. The game looks simply lush, largely rendered in rich, earthy colours that give it a very recognisable and atmospheric feel from the beginning. The music is similarly impressive, consisting of sweeping orchestral scores featuring traditional Japanese instruments.
This particular title is available for download on Nintendo’s eShop 3DS store. It’s currently up or £12.99, which is not a small price for a download-only game that could charitably be described as “niche”. However, as you’re presented with four characters that feel noticeably different to control, there’s undeniably some serious replay value. At the time of writing I am yet to finish the game with any of them, but in the interests of issuing a timely review I’m putting this out there having sunk many a fun hour into it.
It’s possible that Sadame could have limited appeal outside of Japan, and is unlikely to attract a casual browser on first glance. This is a shame, as it’s an instantly playable game that is clearly lovingly made, although a little repetitive. Despite this, it’s target audience and anyone else who may find themselves drawn to it, will not be disappointed. The historical reference points are a great touch, but subtly done. This makes for a largely accessible title with more depth for anyone who might be looking for it; an historical Eastern epic with bags of reply value, much like Hello Kitty: Rockin’ World Tour really.
So… Sadame. Who’s game?