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Hana Samurai: Art Of The Sword review

"This game is, like, seriously awesome" - Traditional Japanese Proverb

Fencing is beautiful. Where a gunfight's trademark is destruction, hosing an area with bullets in the hope that one hits a fleshier surface than wall, its pointy equivalent is more artistic. Every swing is measured, not necessarily intended to hit, but to allow for a future strike. It seems odd, then, that gaming rarely makes use of the feeling that flashing steel inspires: in the last few years we've had Skyward Sword and, well, Red Steel. That's about it.

So it's all the more unlikely - and wonderful - that a serious contender for the title of best sword fighting game in recent history comes from the 3DS eShop. Hana Samurai distils the essence of classic swordplay into a three-button action game. It's as simple as that and is all the better for it.

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Its heart lies in third-person battle-morsels against multiple enemies. In stereotypically Japanese fashion, each opponent attacks one at a time and, with the exception of boss fights, these encounters almost always follow a similar pattern - they rush, you dodge (press B and a direction) or block (old L or R), then strike (press A) until they fall.

This sounds simplistic, but the beauty of the battle system is in how it prevents any attempt to break its thoughtful, skilful approach. You can't hack and slash because every failed attack slowly blunts your sword, making successful forays less effective. You can't constantly block for the same reason. Dodging is your best option, but every enemy type attacks differently, only given away by physical and vocal tells that will alert you to when and how you're about to be attacked.

Then there are the various rewards for playing the game particularly well - a precision rating based on successive last minute dodges (and reset to zero if you block or get struck), as well as the fact that a better dodge enables you to strike more times before an enemy can block again, consequently building a bar that allows you unleash your only attack which can hit multiple enemies. Even the 3D serves a function, helping you to gauge your distance from enemies' attacks.

Feedback Loop

Everything in the system affects another part of the system, and grasping all of this is massively important when it comes to boss battles, lengthier fights set after some unforgivingly checkpoint-free levels. It's brilliant and unlike almost any other game out right now. In fact, the best comparison for it is Punch-Out!!'s calculated fighting style, which brings us on to another little touch we enjoy: the game's homage to classic Nintendo series.

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Travelling around the overworld is a matter of using a map that will be immediately familiar to any Mario or classic Zelda fan. Shops are taken straight from Link's N64 outings and the hurriedly explained storyline of a lone samurai searching for a captured princess is made more recognisable when vanquished bosses tell you that you might want to check another castle to find her.

The only real problem is, unfortunately, a big one; this game is very, very short. Nearly £7 gets you just about three hours of story mode; it all ends just as you're mastering battles. An unlockable Expert mode and some standalone marathon fights go some way to extending the experience, but it's not enough.

It's a shame, because this is one of the best eShop games we've come across. Hana Samurai's length makes it seem like an experiment in how to pull off a sword fighting game and it's a resounding success: now give us the full version.

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