The action-film genre is credited by many to have been created by the 1954 theatrical release of Akira Kurosawa's 'Shichinin no Samurai' (translated to Seven Samurai), which told the story of a group of Samurai who agree to help defend a village against hoards of bandits in exchange for food. The film has been remade and referenced in countless other works, conferring upon it almost iconic status among fans and critics alike. Seven Samurai 20XX the game is unlikely to spawn a remake, nor be credited with the creation of a genre. And it certainly won't be granted iconic status.
A third-person beat-'em-up with swords, Seven Samurai 20XX is a result of a collaboration between Kurosawa Productions (the studio setup by Kurosawa) and Sammy, although it is not entirely clear what this collaboration contributed to, other than licensed plagiarism. In what is tantamount to a retelling of the Seven Samurai story, you are Natoe, a wandering Samurai living in a futuristic world in which ruthless mechanical antagonists, known rather cunningly as humanoids, terrorise the populace. After saving a family from a humanoid attack, and a chance meeting with another Samurai called Kambei, Natoe is drawn into assisting the defence of a village that seems to be suffering from random and progressively more savage humanoid attacks. There is a sub-plot thrown in - which takes plot-precedence once the village is safe - about the Child of Heaven going missing from the nameless City, and the Steeple of Light losing its power (which relates to the final confrontation), but it is all fairly throwaway stuff and serves more as a means to pad out the experience.
Comprising of eleven chapters, your mission in Seven Samurai 20XX is no more glorified than killing lots of humanoids - there aren't even any buttons to push, or doors to open. Sure, the game tries to give the illusion of having objectives, such as searching for five more Samurai to assist you in the defence of the village, or solving the mystery of the Child of Heaven, but you've really seen everything the game has to offer after the first level. Each chapter is essentially broken down into areas, whereby in order to progress you nearly always need to eliminate each and every foe before the exit to next area opens. And there you have it. No more, no less.
In order to accomplish his task, Natoe is armed with two swords, and only has two attacks; a strike attack with a single sword or Nitoh-Ryu mode, which amounts to a time-limited super-attack, using both swords and bestowing faster attack speed and damage potential. To avoid permanent use of Nitoh-Ryu mode the timer lasts about 90 seconds once activated, after which you revert back to your single sword. The meter does recharge fairly quickly, allowing you to use a cheap hit-and-run tactic, meaning you need only ever fight in Nitoh-Ryu mode. Using either attack it is possible to chain strikes together, which, other than giving a smug sense of satisfaction, can unlock swords that Natoe can equip and use - but only on a subsequent play-through upon completion. Swords are also gained through defeating the boss characters, although changing weapons only seems to make superficial differences.
Natoe can defend himself too, with either a block or deft sidestep. Timed correctly, you will achieve either a Just Guard or a Just Step respectively, both awarding you with a bonus. A successful Just Guard whilst in Nitoh-Ryu mode, for example, will reset the timer to the full 90 seconds, thus with continually well-timed Just Guards, you can, in theory, remain in a permanent state of double-bladed mayhem. A Just Step, meanwhile, will expose your enemy for a swift counter-attack, replete with a slow-mo and blade trail. On occasions you may get a Just Attack, inflicting greater damage to the unlucky recipient, although this is usually obtained through luck rather than judgement. A somersault completes Natoe's move set, although given the vulnerability whilst attempting this manoeuvre it is rarely worth utilising.
On the subject of Natoe's limited moves, there are occasions - whilst zipping around the screen slashing away - that he will fly off in the direction opposite to the way you are pressing to execute a slow-mo attack. This only serves in making you feel that the game is playing itself, and lowers the difficulty level (which isn't too high to start with) another notch. Aside from this anomaly, the controls function as you would imagine, although they do sometimes feel sluggish in the heat of battle.
So it would appear that the game is all about hammering away at the attack button - pretty uneventful. But, being grateful for small mercies, the addition of Just Guards and Just Steps does add a smattering of strategy to proceedings - there is a slight thrill in successfully pulling-off a Just Guard with seconds of the Nitoh-Ryu timer remaining - though be warned that there is little else to provide any depth to proceedings. There are a number of skills (read: moves) that you can perform with your sword, but there is little incentive to do so when you can button-mash quite successfully in conjunction with use of Just Guards and Just Steps.
However, the game does try to bring something to the table. At each end-of-level you are presented with a number of stats, including possibly the most bizarre stat ever shown in a videogame - the number of calories you have burned, of which you can probably expect to shed about fifteen-to-twenty calories by the end. You are also awarded additional points to your weakest area over the level, increasing your guard meter (allowing you to block for longer), Nitoh-Ryu time limit or health points. This normally results in extra health points, which is no bad thing, given the sparseness of the recovery items. Furthering the RPG-like elements the game offers, you can frequently take a break from the action to talk to people. Unfortunately though, these are largely pointless diversions, reeking of filler and are largely not worth bothering with.
So, lacklustre plot, uninspired combat, little real skill required. Are there any redeeming features? Well, whilst traversing the levels and slashing away at foes, you will be bewildered by how very hard the developers have concentrated on putting flashy lighting effects into the game. Jean-Michelle Jarre would no doubt be impressed, for each of Natoe's attacks is imbued with a dazzling light-show ready to escape, especially when you rack-up strikes in Nitoh-Ryu mode. But whilst you or a casual viewer may 'ooh' and 'ahh' at the light-extravaganza, the trade-off is that the sparkly effects seriously hinder the frame rate and also visibility, making timing of blocks or sidesteps a matter of luck rather than judgement, thus eroding the already-threadbare strategy elements.
Sparkly lights aside, eye candy comes in the form of the Samurai and boss character models, which are clean and tidy and feature vibrant colours and variation in artistic design. The same doesn't apply to either the environments or the humanoids though, suffering as they do from being restricted to a horribly bland colour palette, and lacking any imagination or flair. Everything is far too angular (no smooth lines here), and too many of the humanoids comprise of only one or two shades or dark blue or black. The lack of detail is presumably to help control the frame rate issues, for there is no doubt that the PS2 hardware is being pushed hard by the pyrotechnics (as evidenced by the slowdown incurred when enemies and light-shows mix). You have to wonder, though, if the designers should have concentrated on improving the sub-par environments and character models, rather than putting on a veritable firework display.
Despite all of the problems with Seven Samurai 20XX - of which you can add long load times, frequent cut-scenes, lack of enemy AI and lacklustre sound - it is not a terrible game. The simple premise of hacking through scores of humanoids, trying to beat your previous highest-combo can be fun, in the same way that a quick sword-slashing session in any of the Dynasty Warriors titles can be. Sure, you won't come back to this in a month, nor have experienced a truly great gaming moment to tell your friends about, but it is simple escapism, and isn't that what games are about?
But ultimately you will be disappointed; for there are missed opportunities at every juncture. For example, with a cast of seven, why is control restricted to just one? Level structure, too, could have used some variation - different mission objectives would have provided a much-needed boost. The village defence level, for example, would have been a perfect setup for you to defend key choke-points, thus adding some diversity to proceedings. Failure to offer such variation leaves you with a game as shallow as a puddle in the desert in July. A chance to do something, anything, other than kill-move-kill would have been welcomed.
So when you complete the game - which will take around six or seven hours - what are you left with? A new mode of play, Survival (which allows you to fight the boss characters in order) is available, and a hard play mode becomes accessible. Unfortunately, there are no multiplayer options provided - no one-V-one swordfights, nothing. As already noted, completion allows a chance to play through again but with the added bonus of being able to choose the weapons Natoe wields. Though, given the lack of strategy in any particular fight, playing through again would be for the completists and masochists only.
So, Seven Samurai 20XX strolls happily down the path of mediocrity, and whilst by any means not a terrible game, it certainly isn't a good game. The repetitive slashing action adds nothing to the genre, nor does it have the strong narrative of the source material, with the only variety coming from pressing guard or block instead of attack. Seven Samurai 20XX is easy to pick-up and play, and will provide some modicum of entertainment for the brief period it lasts, but those looking for some depth and a more immersive experience should look elsewhere.