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Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad
System: Xbox 360 :: Rating: Mature :: Players: 2
Genre: Action :: Released: 27 February 2009

By Damien Wilkens
28 January 2010 I like stupid video games.

For a lot of you, this should come as no real shock. Hell, I wrote an entire feature on it a couple years ago. Quite often my personal enjoyment can supersede quality, design, or complex narrative. Now, don't get me wrong, I love games like Ico and Okami, and think that we frankly need more of them. I'm also usually first in line to discuss the finer points of Shadow of the Colossus and its daring approach to storytelling, or how Beyond Good and Evil is the unsung classic of the decade. But sometimes I just wanna kill shit.

If there are any advantages to living in the generation that birthed YouTube comments and the Internet meme, it's that shallow entertainment isn't hard to find. And since marketers think males in my age group are stunted man-children, it's a pretty safe bet that either ninjas, boobs, or zombies will be involved. Involving all three, however, that takes some talent.

The Onechanbara series has existed in Japan for about five years now, and for budget titles, they're fairly popular. I knew of them but never had the urge to import one, because, really, if I took the time to play every Japanese game involving bikini models and samurai schoolgirls, I'd never leave the house. Bikini Samurai Squad marks one of the rare times the series has ventured into the Western market, and appeared to be just the thing I was looking for: a light, shallow experience that I could run through in a day.

After spending a good 10 hours with Bikini Samurai Squad, I'll say this much: looks can be deceiving.

You start the game as you'd expect, choosing between Story or Survival mode and then selecting an underdressed avatar with which to slay the zombie menace. There's Aya, the half-naked cowgirl. Saki, the half-naked schoolgirl. And Annna (that's not a typo), the half-naked police woman. On the surface, the game is your standard hack and slash fare. You progress through pretty repetitive stages many of which share the same exact game area and slice through hundreds of cookie-cutter undead. It's not a particularly good-looking game. The zombies in particular look as if they've been plucked directly from Zombie Revenge for the Dreamcast in all of their 128-bit glory. The ladies themselves are a bit more detailed, but not by much. It could easily be a PS2 game without much of a compromise, and on the surface, it's what you'd expect from a budget title.

The gameplay, on the other hand, is a different beast entirely. Every swing of your sword causes torrents of blood to spray from your foes, covering both your character and her weapon. If your sword gets too dirty, it will be rendered useless and constantly get stuck inside enemies, so you have to repeatedly shake off your sword often in the middle of combos to remain effective. Blood that accumulates on your character works towards filling the Splatter Gauge. When full, whatever lady you're controlling at the time turns into a violent, screaming, meth-head. This is known as Rampage Mode, and doubles the power of your attacks whilst slowly draining your life at the same time. There's also an Ecstasy Meter that grants you access to special attacks after completing large combos. All of this, in addition to an RPG leveling system that requires you to build different stats for the three playable characters, may seem like a lot to keep track of, and it is.

But wait, there's more.

Hidden in the game are mysterious red mist monsters that can't be defeated through normal means. The only way to kill them is with a Cool Combo, a sequence that requires extremely precise timing on the part of the player. As you progress through the game, you can perform up to a 20-hit Cool Combo, though getting past six hits is just about impossible. You see, not only do you have to time every button press perfectly, but the timing is different depending on how much blood is on your sword. Also, fighting the red mist monster almost instantly drives you into Rampage Mode, which kills you. And in each successive stage you have to pull off a bigger and longer Cool Combo to defeat it. What is your reward for all of this? You get a bracelet. What do the bracelets do? They offer power-ups for your characters to enhance the game, like say, making the Cool Combos easier to do. I'm not kidding. It's the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest with your bare hands so that you can get the helmet and harness waiting at the top.

Oh yeah, and don't forget about Double Rampage mode, which results from the last hit of a Cool Combo leading into a rampage, or the Chaotic Luster Maelstroms. Those are kind of important, except for when you play as Annna, because she has guns, and the blood gimmick doesn't affect her at all for some reason. Oh! And there are the Clear Sight Counterattacks. I still can't do those regularly, and I've already beaten the game once. Confused yet?

It wasn't long after I started Bikini Samurai Squad that I found myself looking at the manual, something I haven't had to do in years. While it offered me warranty instructions in both Spanish and French, at no point did it mention any of the above game information. I had to look up the basic mechanics of the game on the Internet. This is unacceptable. There is no in-game tutorial, no mention of the red mist monsters and why they're important. Nothing.

Perhaps the most ironic thing about all of this is that I really liked the game in spite of its limitations. The basic gameplay is quite satisfying, and there are a surprising number of offensive options available to you at any given time. The main problem is that the game itself is too damn cryptic. There are hidden quests in each level. Completing these quests will unlock extra clothing parts for your characters. Of course, you have no idea what any of the quest objectives are until after you've already met them. It's a comedy of errors from a simple design standpoint. There is a depth of technical swordplay that rivals the complexity of a Devil May Cry or a Ninja Gaiden here, but a good 90% of the people playing the game will never have a chance to see it.

Is it stupid? Yup. The storyline is instant-skip material, and at the end of the day it's still zombies vs. bikinis. You can play dress up and change the color of the in-game blood to a bright pink or even the more perverse white. But is it the shallow, light game experience you'd expect? Not by a long shot, and ultimately, that is both its greatest accomplishment and biggest failure. It's a nuanced, complex game that's been placed inside a box of silly and then wrapped by someone that hates the idea of you enjoying it. Those that spend the time to master it will find a rewarding, and easily replayable experience. Most others will find a decent, if repetitive kill-fest that just so happens to give you an ass to stare at in the process.

Final Grade: 7/10

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