Those of you that have been with us for a while on the blog might remember a little review we put together a while ago for a game called ‘Samurai of Hyuga – book 1.’ It was an odd review for a couple of reasons: the review itself was actually written before the blog was even a thing, but more importantly the game it was reviewing was a text based adventure game, which wasn’t something we’ve covered before. The game itself was a good fun romp, and showed a lot of potential to be the launching point of a rollicking fun (if grim) adventure through Fantasy-JapanTM. Much like you expect from something entitled ‘Book 1,’ there was inevitably a sequel, but continuing the Culling and Co’s proud tradition of striking while the iron is frozen solid, we’ve actually delayed writing a review for it until the sequel’s sequel was released. Still, with the successful release of Book 3, I thought it was high time I get off my butt and actually get a review together for book 2.
So join us, friends, as we once again dive back into the land of samurai and spirits, where the demons of the past come alive to haunt the present…
[Be forewarned that the review will go forward with the idea that you’ve played book 1; the Samurai Of Hyuga is a great series of text based adventure books, and one that I would highly recommend checking out, so it would do it a disservice to spoil any part for yourself.]
So we start things off from straight from where the first book ended: with our ronin facing down a hostage situation.
It’s like a scene out of our main character’s worst nightmares. Jun/Junko (depending on if your character is attracted to males or females respectively) has Masashi/Masami (ditto) held with a sword across their neck, and makes it very clear that painting the room with the kid’s blood is not out of the question. This is an exceptional opening scene for a good number of reasons: A) it kicks us straight back into the adventure with a highly tense and action packed scene, and obviously resolves the cliff hanger at the end of book 1. B) This is actually the first time we properly see the main character’s ex-lover in person, and Jun/ko certainly doesn’t disappoint. It’s clear from every venomous word that drips out of their mouth that Jun/ko is completely obsessed with the main character: they seem to resent the idea that our ronin could have any kind of meaningful relationship beyond Jun/ko, hates the idea that their ex-lover could have changed in the years they’ve been apart, and directly calls the ronin their “property.”
If you weren’t getting the memo, Jun/ko’s grasp to sanity is…tenuous.
Through a series of events I won’t spoil, we end up in an inevitable sword fight with our maniac ex, and two things quickly become clear. One, it appears that Jun/ko is physically getting off to the sensation of fighting the ronin. Two, the ronin is absolutely outclassed. Even if they won’t completely exhausted from fighting through an entire yakuza den and one snake demon, Jun/ko would still be the clear winner in a fight between the two. It’s taking everything our lead has just to stop their head from being cut clean off, let alone even trying to go on the offensive. Even worse, it appears that our lead doesn’t have it in them to kill Jun/ko: at the one opportunity they have to actually deal some damage, they hesitate, which leaves them completely at the other fighter’s mercy.
Jun/ko then proves that they have no such reservations, and proceeds to crave their name into our ronin’s flesh. They don’t even have the mercy to just kill the ronin at this point, instead choosing to leave them at the edge of death while also making off with their sword, the one thing that connected the two to their old master. As our ronin barely clings to life, with Masashi/mi trying desperately to fight back tears and halt the small geyser of blood from the main character, the storm that’s been circling overhead continues to crack with thunder and the rain just keeps pouring…
…It’s a pretty rough prologue. But highly effective at setting up book 2.
This is where we come to the meat of the book: our ronin, having probably used up all the good karma they’ve going to see for a while to survive the encounter with Jun/ko, is going to need some time to recover from the battle. Luckily the next stop on their journey leads them to the peaceful town of Tonogasha, a community of artists and artisans. This is a perfect stop, not only to get to the group’s mind off the disastrous event with Jun/ko (in particular giving our poor kid mage a break), but the lack of constant threats should give our favourite ronin a chance to heal.
The fact that the main character is put out of commission for most of the book is actually a pretty genius move. It’s been established that, while hardly undefeated, the main character is an exceptional fighter, which means most physical threats can be dealt with. This goes into over-drive if they let the Jigoku Itto-Ryo take over, wherein they become almost unstoppable (though also a threat to allies and people they don’t want to kill). However, since they spend a lot of the book recovering from their encounter with Jun/ko, the one person they can’t beat, suddenly physical threats are much more of a problem. This allows for the other members of the group to shine a little bit more, since we can’t just strong arm our way past problems for at least some time. In particular, our resident kid mage get’s to show a hidden talent: they play one hell of a mean Shogi game.
Shogi, for those not in the know (and honestly who can blame you), is basically a board game that’s pretty similar to chess…or is chess similar to Shogi? Ehh, whichever. It features some more complexities, such as the ability to convert enemy tokens to your own side, but the fundamentals are the same. The reason I bring this up is because the latest demon on the emperor’s to-cleanse list is somewhere nearby, and we just so happen to come across a tournament hosted by the ‘Demon of Shogi.’ The members of our merry band rightfully point out that it might just be a coincidence, but rumours of supernatural happenings related to the tournament’s host are a cause for investigation. In addition, not only does fate seem to be leading us to where we need to be, even if this is a false lead it’s not like we can do much while waiting for the ronin to recover. And thus we settle in for a nice couple of rounds of Shogi, with our resident mage being the one to do all the playing via magical direction while we just get to moving the pieces. While there are quite a few twists and turns (people seem to be treating this simple tournament with a suspicious amount of life-or-death mentalities), it definitely marks a slightly slower pace than the events of the first book.
Indeed, the overall pace of book two is a lot steadier. This isn’t a criticism; I actually kind of love the slower pace this book takes. The pacing allows us to get a lot more moments where we can just interact with the delightfully well written characters of our quirky group and the characters that we bump into along the way. For example, there’s a pretty cute moment where we need to sell the horse the group bought just to carry the ronin while they were unconscious, and Masashi/mi objects. Turns out the young mage has grown attached to the thing, and couldn’t bear to part with it, despite the fact that we couldn’t have had the horse for more than a few days. It’s overall just an excuse to have the characters bounce off each other, but its moment like that that really helps to the sell the fun relationships the group shares. Hell, we spend an impressive amount of time in this book just going on shenanigans related to either setting up or ruining a potentially romantic moment between Hatch and Momoko. It’s all such a fun romp around.
That being said, we do kind of run into one of the more major issues with this set up, namely that the slower pacing can make it feel like we’re just kind of twiddling our thumbs. While it was pretty clear from day one that this group is such a rag-tag outfit that most of our plans are going to be improvised as we went along, this really does feel like the characters are likewise just waiting for the next plot point to roll around. There is some logic to this, since the main character is completely out commission for a lot of the first half of the book and thus needs some time to recover, hence why everyone takes this time to rest. But it does feel like we get a little side-tracked by the slim chance that this ‘Demon of Shogi’ is who we’re looking for, when instead we could using this time to track down some slightly more solid leads. I think I don’t mind as much since I like the characters enough that I don’t mind the plot slowing down enough to make some room for simple character moments, but I’d perfectly understand if someone took issue with it.
Likewise, while I enjoy watching the characters bounce off each other, this book does have kind of issue with balancing Momoko’s subplots. While we won’t go into too many details for fear of spoilers, the book has to force the player down some pretty specific routes to get all the points of the good doctor’s subplots in order. While the rail-roading is somewhat necessary, since otherwise it would be difficult to move all the pieces necessary to the right positions, it feels a little bit rushed/maybe not as natural as it could have been. It stands out so much because the relationships to the other members of the group advance so smoothly and naturally that this one sticks out a bit, not the least because the placid pace of the book also stands in contrast to the somewhat hurried nature of the excursions. Still, I think the subplots do add some good twists, and does a good job of letting the group as a whole have some good character moments.
Still, Momoko aside, the book continues the trend set by the first book of allowing the player to have a lot of variety in how the ronin responds to situations, a fact that continues to impress me. While it obviously only works in the pre-established parameters that you chose in the first book (ie, are you calculating or brutal, charming or stoic, etc), there’s an huge amount of work put into making sure the ronin has a ton of different ways to react to situations. It feels like it almost every other paragraph that one of the stats effects how the ronin reacts or perceives something, and even more impressive is that it never feels like they conflict with the character. While a perverted ronin and a chivalrous ronin will have two pretty different thought patterns, both feel perfectly in line with the pre-established past and the somewhat cynical basis that can’t be changed. Even more impressive is that to the four major stats (impulsive vs calculating and brutal vs finesse) actually do have something of an effect on the proceedings, and change some of the options available to you.
The one part of this arrangement that I’m kind of unsure of even now on is that this is tied to the ‘Attunement System.’ To put it simply, your Attunement is kind of the closest thing the game has to a scoring system. In the game’s universe, it’s how in tune the ronin is with their spiritual energy, and thus their spirit animal, both of which might be the key to understanding and coming to terms with both their past and themselves. In a practical sense, it tracks if you’re making logical decisions/answering questions correctly, and if you’re keeping your ronin consistent with the parameters you chose at the start of book 1. The former is perfectly fine: it allows the game is have some kind of consequence to making the wrong decisions without just kicking you straight to a game-over screen (which would be a problem, since Choice Of Games games don’t have checkpoints), though the latter is something I keep going back and forth on. While it makes sense to keep a character consistent (it really wouldn’t make sense for the ronin to keep going back and forth between perverted and reserved, for instances), I think it does encourage a kind of a liner style to how to you play the ronin. To give an example, there was a choice in book 1 where Toshio/Toshie (the final member of your band that changes to match your preferences) has spied a look at your sword, and noticed your master’s name engraved on it. The choice is to either snatch the sword back, or to let the ninja continue to hold it. Since I’d been playing the ronin as the type who wasn’t eager to let the party get on info on their pretty grim and personal past, I chose to snatch the sword back, but lost Attunement for it. It’s a pretty minor issue overall, since you could have a third of all your choices be ‘wrong’ ones and still keep a pretty high Attunement Score, but it does feel like stats you chose in book 1 is now the only “right” answers to questions you couldn’t have seen coming. I also kind of worry that this will box the player out of being personally involved in the ronin’s development later on down the road: it would have been neat if you could have chosen a drifter ronin in book 1 that slowly warms up to their party and becomes more protective in later books. But with the stats being frozen, you’d be kind of out of luck in that regard. I think we’ll have to see the effect Attunement has on later books before we can make a final call.
Still, it’s not a deal breaker. Much like the first book, Samurai of Hyuga book 2 is an absolutely fantastic text-based adventure, with a highly engaging and immersive world and instantly likeable characters. Book 2 doesn’t necessarily cover a huge amount of the ground in the grand scheme of the adventure, but it does present a lot of excuses to get caught in the main party’s shenanigans, and a does a good job of establishing themes and plot points for the next couple of legs on the journey. With book 3 already out, now’s a great time to get into the next part of the story that started in book 1, and to prove that you are indeed still the toughest ronin around.