The term “licensed game” can be a very tricky one. On the one hand, you have some absolute classics out there like SpongeBob: Battle For Bikini Bottom or Spider-Man 2. On the other hand, you have the vast majority of licensed games which are mostly awful cash-grabs. I’m relieved to say that Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time falls firmly in the first category, and is great for both fans of the series and fans of action games.
Battle Through Time starts with Jack in his final battle against Aku, before he is sent back in time to some of the locations seen in the show previously. Although there are a lot of the classic characters here, the story doesn’t really amount to much besides being a whole bunch of fan-service, which I actually didn’t mind too much. There are a few cool scenes towards the end of the journey, and cutscenes are generally enjoyable anyway but don’t come in expecting a fully-fledged tale. What shines through is that this is clearly a loving tribute to everything about the series. I had to hide a smile when I saw one of the upgrades was called “Jump Good”. Although I think this is an enjoyable game for everyone, a lot of your mileage will depend on whether or not you’re a fan of the series. For the fans, this is exactly what we wanted.
This love for the series extends to the visuals as well. All of the characters and locations of Samurai Jack translate fantastically into a 3D environment, and it’s really cool to see a modern game use cel-shading in such a cool way. There are a lot of visual references to the show as well, which means that it genuinely looks like a 3D episode of Samurai Jack. All of the key voice actors are here as well which is fantastic, although I wish there was a bit more of a focus on the story and characters. It feels a little bit like an action figure clip show without a good amount of dialogue.
Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time certainly looks and sounds the part, but the thing that impressed me the most was how it actually plays. It’s a surprisingly deep 3D character-action game that reminded me very much of the PS2 generation, which I mean in the best possible way.
Combat is the main focus of the game here and it’s easily given the most focus. Initially you’ll just be performing basic combos with your sword and fists, but as the game progresses Jack can find a variety of different ranged and melee weapons, all with their own combos and attacks that help keep things fresh. The inclusion of three different skill trees helps slowly introduce new skills and keep combat fresh throughout the seven hour adventure. Game feel is a hard thing to describe, but Samurai Jack just feels good to control, and combat is open enough that there’s plenty of room to mess around with the mechanics.
Each stage takes around an hour to clear with plenty of collectibles and secrets to find within. Almost all of the stages culminate with a boss battle against a character from the show which was a really nice touch, as well as offering a legitimate challenge on the higher difficulties. I found these battles to be the highlight, as I found combat a lot more enjoyable when focusing on a singular enemy that could take a lot more damage.
Projectiles are the only thing that don’t feel great to use. Throwable items feel far too powerful considering how abundant they are, whilst pistols and rifles feel like peashooters and barely worth using. Enemies also became a little too reliant on firing rockets towards the end of the campaign, which meant a bigger focus on using the ranged weapons to get rid of them.
This is a surprisingly challenging game at times too. You can use items mid-battle to regenerate health, akin to Devil May Cry, and I found myself having to do this a lot more than I thought I would on standard difficulty. It didn’t help that I actually liked taking damage, as losing health is represented in a really cool way by slowly having Jack’s gi tear and look more dishevelled. I’m a sucker for character damage as it is, but it was really cool to see here of all places. Once you’ve learnt most of the game’s mechanics it gets a bit easier, but there was never a time where I thought it was an absolute cake-walk.
Whilst in many ways it’s nice to see Samurai Jack be so reminiscent of an older generation of gaming, there are some annoying hang-ups that would have been better left in the past. Cutscenes whenever a gate opens, secret items that become gated off once you progress too far and repeated mini-bosses all made me roll my eyes the further I got into the game. I also found that the adventure started to lose some of its flavour towards the end, and stopped introducing new gameplay mechanics pretty early on. Credit has to be given for all of the good throwbacks, but that also means all the bad ones have to get their due too.
Although there can be some frame drops in more intense moments, Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time works really well on the Switch. The frame rate is sadly capped at 30, but it sticks to 30 pretty well and looks fantastic with plenty of detail in character models and environments. The only problem I had is a pretty common one with playing Switch games in handheld- the vibration is way too high and frequently used. I ended up turning it off when playing handheld.
Beyond just being a great game in its own right, Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time is a sign that licensed games not only work in this age of gaming but are sorely missing. There are so many other Cartoon Network shows that would benefit from this treatment, and I hope Battle Through Time is a sign of things to come.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Adult Swim Games