Sakura Samurai review: All the fun of a great action RPG without any of the dawdling around

Sakura Samurai: Art of the Sword is a brilliant game. In this polished and challenging adventure, there is not one bit of wasted space or a moment of B.S. time-killing. Every encounter, decision and action serves the central swordfighting gameplay–and that’s a very good thing, because the fighting system is fun beyond belief. Easy to learn, tricky to master and full of fast, on-the-fly strategy, it propels the quest forward so addictively that you probably will need to heed the innkeeper’s advice to take a break every thirty minutes.

Button-mashing will get you killed: you must read your opponents’ movements, then dodge, wait for an opening and strike quickly. This isn’t Punch-Out, however; you face multiple enemies who may or may not take turns attacking, and though the game automatically (and lightning-quick) locks onto the current attacker, you’re free to break loose and run around the arena at will.

In every battle, you’ll constantly juggle priorities: Waiting until the last possible moment to dodge will earn you Precision Points (redeemable for money and fame), but all your uncashed points vanish if you’re struck or blocked. Coins and health points often burst from defeated foes, sometimes landing out of reach, and you must decide if breaking free to gather them up is worth the risk of being hit from behind by an attacker.

And, in classic Nintendo tradition, all of this is fun because the controls work beautifully. The fighting system uses every button on the 3DS in an intuitive, easy-to-remember manner. There are no touch controls.

Sakura Samurai is also a beautiful production, with charming character designs, clever (but minimal) dialogue, dazzling effects and excellent music. The game opens with one of the most stylish, awesome prologues I’ve ever seen. Yes it really is that good. And that set-up serves all the story you’re going to get for most of the game; once the prologue ends, you’ll get a quick training session before being flung off on your quest to save Princess Cherry Blossom. The overworld is a large, colorful 3D map full of branching paths and tantalizing glimpses of the areas you need to unlock. In addition to the dozens and dozens of battle arenas, you’ll also encounter impressive multi-room fortresses for the terrific boss battles and quaint one-street villages in which you can rest, save, purchase items, upgrade your sword, get advice and play sword-based minigames to earn special attacks.

Humor abounds in everything from the villagers to your Kappa mentor and the formidable-but-kinda-likable boss warlords, one of whom (SPOILER) “regretfully” tells you the princess is in another castle. And, in one of my favorite item-attacks ever, you can throw frogs at your opponents to startle them (and this is the one time in the game you can button-mash and get away with it.)

Sakura Samurai also features a very player-friendly atmosphere. Even though you will die a lot in this game and find yourself with no money, no items and little health, it’s at these moments when the game sends your mentor out to mark a nearby arena. When you enter the indicated battle zone, enemies will drop many more coins than normal. You could still get killed, but you get to keep any money you earn. The game is, in essence, paying you to practice. Very nice!

In addition to the main quest, Sakura Samurai contains an optional pedometer-based virtual rock garden that flourishes as you walk (and provides items for the adventure), as well as unlockable survival modes.

So, do you own a 3DS? Are you connected to the eShop? Got $6.99 to spend on an awesome game? Don’t hesitate. It’s not the longest game in the world (you can probably finish the main quest in a day or two), but it’s very replayable, fun from beginning to end and more than worth the price. I hope this is just the beginning of a great new Nintendo franchise.