I’ve been a fan of Samurai Jack since it debuted back in 2001 (when I may have admittedly been a bit young for it), and was extremely hyped when the new season came out. A game based on the series, especially one produced by a company well known for handling licensed games that don’t coast on their sources. One of my most anticipated games debuting at GenCon this year, Samurai Jack: Back to the Past is a “co-opetition” game from USAopoly set during the events of Samurai Jack’s fifth season. Taking on the role of one of Jack’s friends, both old and new, players must keep defeat Aku before Jack loses his sanity and all becomes lost.
Warning: Spoilers for Season 5 of Samurai Jack below
What’s In The Box?
The game itself is not huge, with most of the game consisting of cardboard hexagons, cards, and a few miniatures. However, the quality of the materials that make up the game is top notch. The art is all taken from the show itself, either direct scenes or using the stylistic background art that helps give the show its distinctive look. The box uses the bold lines and high contrast colors of the show to help it stand out in your collection (as well as a couple fun little appearances by Aku to peek out from between your games).
Inside the box, nearly every character shows up in one form or another, whether as an item, like the Scotsman’s Daughters, a villain to be defeated, like Scaramouche, or as one of the five playable characters. Funnily enough, you don’t get to play as Jack himself. Instead, you act as one of his allies: the canine archaeologist Rothchild, the acrobatic and feral Monkey Man, Ashi the daughter of Aku, the ghost of The Scotsman, and robo-mayor Max. They, and Jack and Aku, are all represented by the standout part of this game: the full color minis used as game pieces.
I’m not exaggerating when I say these are collector quality pieces. Substantial, colorful, and beautifully painted, they add that extra level of craftsmanship to the game we’ve come to expect from USAopoly. You’ll be hard pressed to keep these things in the box and not on the shelf when not in use.
How’s It Played?
The gameplay is centered around defeating Aku (what else could it be?). The goal of the players is to traverse through different areas collecting helpful items to defeat the boss at the end of the path. Player’s play movement cards to move themselves, Jack, and Aku along the path, and gather support cards to help them earn honor and defeat the villain at the end of the line. After defeating two of Aku’s henchmen, you battle the Master of All Evil himself. The game ends when Jack goes crazy or the evil is defeated, and the winner is the one with the most honor points. Seems simple enough, right?
Nothing is ever simple when Aku is involved. In a sense, Jack operates as an NPC for the game, which is something that you don’t see frequently in a board game like this. Jack is sort of like the prince in Masque of the Red Death in that players will want to be in the same space as he is at all times. If you’re in the same space as Jack, you gain one honor, get a special card draw, and Jack becomes a little more sane. But if he’s left alone, or he ends up sharing a space with Aku, he’ll go a little more cuckoo. When he’s at full crazy, he’ll succumb to his inner demons and the game will be over.
Aku is the other “NPC” of the game, operating independently, like Jack, but doing his best to muck things up for the players. Not only does he make Jack more insane, he also flings players with whom he shares a space into a portal, negating their move and sending their plans into disarray. Finally, should he reach the end before players, he will occupy a space on the villain board players would normally buy. And he always goes for the cheapest option. As he torments you more and more, you can almost hear his high, shrieking laughter in your ears.
The other thing limiting your chances of survival is good old fashioned competition. Just because you all want to help Jack doesn’t mean you want to help each other. While not allowing you to be as vindictive as, say, Munchkin, there’s still plenty of opportunity to screw over your fellow heroes by taking up limited space on each area, stealing the cards that help them best, or even maneuvering them straight into the path of Aku.
One of the most unique parts of the game is the board itself. While there’s a static board that acts as a “pool” for support cards and Jack/Aku movement cards, the game board changes each round. The ground literally shifts beneath your feet from turn to turn. After each villain is defeated, the fifteen interlocking hexagons that make up the board are shuffled and laid out again at random. The support cards are gained based on their placement on the static board, and you must use all of your movement cards before you can use any again (assuming you don’t retrieve them early by playing your hero’s home area). While there’s only so many variations to be made, the fact that it does change not only gives you a feel for the chaotic world of Aku, but also gives Back to the Past an incredibly high ceiling of replayability.
The only real issues with the game come at the very beginning and at the very end. The first is mainly a nitpick but, damn, the manual is NOT easy to read. Folded like a map rather than bound like a booklet, it can be hard tracing where the different rules are. While it does follow the path of the game step by step, things like how Jack works, how Aku works, honor, etc, aren’t explained in a well-clustered way. There were several times I found myself having to check the rules over and over because we had no idea what was and wasn’t legal.
The second issue is a little more impactful and that’s the ability to snowball in the game. Thanks to Aku and the leapfrog mechanic of movement where you go to the next available terrain if the first one is occupied, it’s easy to find yourself near the end of the path with little to show for it. And if you don’t have the support cards to beat the villain? You just go off to the side with Jack to watch, missing out on a share of the honor points gained from not helping defeat the villain.
Miss one of these but collect enough support cards and you might be able to make it. But if you get shut out of a round, or only get one or two, you will be in pretty bad shape when it gets to the end of the game. The “Encounter” cards help balance a little, but a savvy player could still easily mess up another’s chances fairly early with just a couple moves.
USAopoly puts a lot of love and polish into their games, and Samurai Jack: Back to the Past is no exception. It’s much like the season from which it takes inspiration: a well crafted love letter for fans, with lots of references and in-jokes throughout. Unlike some licensed games, I think Back to the Past only works best when played by people who have actually seen season five of Samurai Jack, or at least have seen the original run. The sometimes confusing rules and snowballing can turn a more casual player off if the property isn’t there to keep the enjoyment flowing. However, this is MUST HAVE for any fans of the show who want a fun, affordable game that captures the spirit of Tartakovsky’s masterpiece and comes in a beautifully rendered package.
Samurai Jack: Back To The Past is available nationwide at your local game shops (something USAopoly encourages you to support) as well as on Amazon. It retails for $34.99.
Be sure to keep an eye out on the Fandomentals for more reviews and coverage of USAopoly and all the games from your favorite properties!
Images via Adult Swim and USAopoly
Pokemon Moon, a different take
Majority of pokemon games have shown us that even though we are completing the same goal, we still want to continue on this journey. Every Pokemon game in my opinion never felt boring or similar to the previous games. Game Freak takes the same formula time and time again, but they improve upon the story and game play. This formula has worked for a long time, but the biggest change to this system was with the release of Black/White 2. For the first time we had a Pokemon game that had a sequel. For a long time we had games that were separated from each other so that each one felt like a fresh start.
Now the big questions is, why did they decide to do this? Other games do this and succeed, but Pokemon never did this before. My guess is that there were unanswered questions at the end of the game. The bigger question is why not just make a bigger game? The fans would love a longer Pokemon game to get themselves into and draw them to anticipate another game of the like. Maybe Game Freak decided to make more money by splitting a game in half since dlc isn’t something they can add to their game. I say that, but they can make it easier for you to acquire shiny Pokemon and the like, but for their sake, I hope they never do that.
Those were just, what ifs, things that may or may not have happened. I can’t even tell you if that is true since I didn’t even finish Black. I can tell you that Moon/Sun is the game where they truly took a risk. They decided to take the game in a completely different location, change the gyms into a different type of battle and also change the race of the character we were used to seeing. I think that was the biggest thing that surprised me when I first learned about this game and it still surprises me that the character isn’t white or Japanese. Just by the looks of the sprites, it never occurred to me that the character would be Japanese even though the game was made in Japan. I always thought the character would be white, but now I realize that they were just Asian with the old anime art styles.
I think the reasoning that I thought this is because I never really thought of Pokemon as an anime or anime game. There aren’t a ton of animes that have aired as long as Pokemon and even if they had, they weren’t in the limelight on American television. Only two that I know of that have shown on major networks are Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh. Anime games give a certain feel to it and it usually follows a certain timeline in the anime, so it is best not to watch the anime if you don’t want anything spoiled for you. Pokemon has a different storyline from the show so that you didn’t have to relive the episode again. It is smart to think that the people buying the games, are the same people that are watching the show. It isn’t true for every show, but Pokemon has been running for a very long time and it doesn’t seem like it will end anytime soon.
Moon feels great because you don’t have your Pokemon learn hm moves this time around. Pokemon with the moves are given to you so that you can train your Pokemon with any moves you see fit. It is the only game where I didn’t actually catch as much Pokemon because I didn’t need a filler Pokemon to learn the hm move. That was a big thing to me because I lost interest in those Pokemon because they were good for getting me places, but not good in a fight. Moon seemed too fast to me because once you beat all the Kahunas, you were already at end game. You did have another goal while on your way to the final four, but it didn’t give you any character development. Let me rephrase that, you didn’t get any character development for your character, but you got it for all the other characters around you. Then again, Pokemon never really felt like a game that gave you great character development for your own character.
Moon was strong with changing the gym system and giving us a villain that we could actually relate to. In my eyes, it revolutionized Pokemon games in the near future. I was happy with the game, but it left me wanting more, like there was something taken from it for another game. Maybe that game will be called Super Moon/Sun. Another game that gives you more story and some additional Pokemon and legendaries as well. If I didn’t know better, I would think that this was Game Freaks way of having dlc. This is just my own opinion, so please tell me what you think about Pokemon and what the future will hold for the game series.
Let’s Unpack This: The Expanse
Let us journey to the Belt and beyond in the official board game adaptation of The Expanse! Tenye wa tim gut!
Thanks to Wizkids for providing the materials for this unboxing, and stay tuned for our full review.
The Expanse currently retails for around $30.00
Why KotOR II Is Overrated
Knights of the Old Republic II–or just Kotor 2, as it’s known in fandom–is one of the most respected games in the Star Wars fandom. The more or less common consensus about it is that it was a bit underdeveloped but still very good (and you can always use Restored Content Mod). And anyway, it’s the best because of its story, not its gameplay.
I have no problem with this opinion, actually. I vaguely remember playing it in 2005, and I remember I kinda enjoyed it. But lately I decided to make use of a holiday discount and try replaying it. And…well, now I feel it was a mistake.
As the story part is considered the best thing in Kotor 2, I will mostly talk about story–though a bit of gameplay talk is in order, too. But before I dive in, I must remind that I am not in any possible way “a gamer.” My list of played games includes only several Star Wars games, Heroes of Might and Magic III and IV, and Loom, (which, by the way, is the best game I ever played both gameplay-wise and story-wise). I’m absolutely sure that more experienced person would find problems I encountered to not be problems at all. But as I’m equally sure games should consider casual gamers’ needs, too, I will still talk about them.
How Does It Work as a Sequel?
As Kotor 2 is, obviously, a sequel to the first, Revan-themed, Kotor.
That game had two basic endings: either Revan is hailed as a hero and savior, or Revan installs themselves as a dark emperor. Basically, whatever ending do you choose, they seem to be immensely prominent figure in the Republic. What does it have to do with the second game? Nothing.
We start in the midst of a civil war that started…somehow. Three mighty Siths emerged from nowhere and devastated the Republic while Revan was, for some reason, out from the picture. The lame-ness of this plot device is actually kinda lampshaded in the game itself. If you chose Revan to be a woman, then you can get the deliciously sexist, “You know, those women and their feminine logic!” remark from several characters.
Nothing that happened in the first game has any bearing on what happens in the second one. The war that was ended there, continues here. The problems that were there are no more. The ideas that were there are no more. The few shared characters could as well be totally new characters, having so little in common with their previous selves.
The only thing that is really important is, Revan. Not as a person, a hero or anything, but as something our playable character, Meethra, can be constantly compared to.
There are things that improved since the first game, sure. I appreciated the rebalanced pazaak game, for example. Or that when you loot a crate the game marks it as “empty.” Also, the ability to equip two weapons and switch between them was something the first game was thoroughly lacking, as well as much more advanced crafting system.
But all this came at a cost of Fake Difficulty as it is. Consular class lacks its past abilities. As you constantly play with your companions as PCs, you have to equip them all no less than your main. Counterintuitive skill trees, crafting options, and the sheer amount of sudden changes don’t help at all, as well as lack of autosaves and quick travel. They changed so much, while seemingly having the same interface, I’d even say that playing the first game can impair your ability to understand second’s gameplay, not improve.
How Does Its Main Character Work?
This was sadly something that soured the whole game for me. The main character, The Exile, is basically…no character. Sure, they have a bit backstory and some informed attributes, but that’s all. Remember how you could talk, argue, bicker, and commiserate as Revan? Forget it.
You have choices, sure, but those are far less personalized. You almost cannot joke, or brag, or anything. You either do or don’t, either agree or disagree, and in the end, each and every companion has much more personality than your main hero, your in-game avatar.
The hero’s main function is to listen. Listen to the companions. Listen to the NPCs. Listen to the authors that wanted you–a player–to listen to their pseudo-philosophical harangues. That are very, very long and you shouldn’t (and sometimes cannot) skip them.
I guess this setup could work better, though, for those who don’t want their PC to be anything more than an interface for interacting with the environment. When I “switched” to it, I felt it really works. The game has no interest in The Exile, true–but it really wants you to think and listen.
Also, I should commend the game for the fact that it has little gender preference. Though it’s obvious The Exile was written as a male, you can play a female Exile and miss nothing important (it’s more dull, though).
It was…okay, I guess? Sure, if you like playing consular, you have to spend several level-ups on game-essential skills you weren’t given just for fake difficulty’s sake, but otherwise it works surprisingly smoothly.
How Do Its Other Characters Work?
They don’t work, they talk. Talk. TALK. You cannot escape it; every single one of them has some important idea or other to bestow on you. And, as mentioned earlier, you either literally cannot skip it, or you can but you shouldn’t as somewhere inside that rant was a grain of game-essential information.
Let me make myself clear: it’s not that they are badly written or have dull backstory. It’s that the main function of such monologues is not interaction but lecturing. Interaction-wise you have Mira and Bao-Dur who at least would listen to you and you even can have something like a dialogue with them. Otherwise, everyone seems completely uninterested in anything but themselves.
They are fine. You will have to equip them all to a tee, that’s true, but otherwise they are fine. The only problem is, the game has an influence system but doesn’t have any place where I can actually see what influence I have on which companion character. It’s just a quick “you get”/you lose” notification and nothing else I could find.
Let’s Talk About Kreya
She is lauded as the most interesting and subversive character, and I hated her. Yep. That’s all I can say about her.
Why do I hate her? You see, she is the epitome of what is wrong with that game. Her main and only function is to be dismissive, sassy, and lecture the protagonist. If you happen to agree with her point of view–you’re lucky. If you don’t, it will be game-long mind torture.
I won’t say her point of view is morally bad, more that it’s poorly thought out and incredibly dull, nihilistic junk you can freely get from our beloved HBO series. By the way, I can describe her using that series: imagine a cross between Dowager Sasstress and Batfinger. That’s Kreya in all her glory.
Actually I’d argue she is the true protagonist, not The Exile, who is there only as a device for watching her incredible story of hard labor and bitter betrayals. Problem is, I don’t like her, so I’m not interested in her story, but I cannot escape it anyway.
She is mostly okay as well, actually, apart from two aspects. First, she is so obviously a villain, your character has to be very dumb not to notice it. That, or your character is a plot device that has to play dumb so that we, the players, could see Kreya in all her Batfinger glory. Second, if you don’t like Kreya’s particular sort of sass and don’t want her in your party, you’re screwed. She will sass you anyway and you cannot escape it.
I could talk at length about other little and not so little aspects of this game that bothered me. The non-romance. The constant sexism of all the NPCs and companions who will never hold their offensive remarks if you play female Exile. The astonishing laziness of game development that can’t be hidden even by restored content more. Or, how I feel the “subversive” and “interesting” Kreya’s goal to extinguish the Force is kinda similar to the goal of extinguishing Newton’s Laws. Or, that many quests and some features totally require a manual.
But I still managed to enjoy the game, even if it was kind of a hate-play. It still has nice fights. It’s interesting to try playing different characters with different skill sets (though you have to make several tries before you configure what skill sets they or your PC need because it’s not intuitive at all).
Basically, it’s a fine, if glitchy, game that has its good sides. It’s just neither really deep, nor the best-written Star Wars game, and one that really wants you to listen to the authors’ nihilistic rants.