[Hey! This is the part of the blog where Oli raves about stuff in FULL UNMARKED SPOILERS! If you have any interest in Samurai of Hyuga, Book 4 and want to experience it without spoilers, we advise reader discretion.
As a extra warning: Book 4 featured some real dark scenes which we’ll be going over, which may include some content that some readers may find distressing. For those topics, reader Discretion is REALLY advised.]
To call book 4 of Samurai of Hyuga ‘a hell of a trip’ feels like a colossal understatement. Let’s just, in plain language, break down every major event that occurs in the book:
The Ronin returns to the north and accidently meets a pseudo father figure in Ichiro, ascends to their old home and has a damn showdown with Jun/ko before finding there’s a third student, has a less than fun road-trip with Jun/ko wherein they finally forgive themselves for the death of their student/s, gets magically connected to Jun/ko with a literal thread of fate, find best-lad Bashō is once again part of the plot, regains the Jigoku Itto-Ryo by potentially killing of some characters from all the way back in Book 1, finds out that Ichiro is both the third student and a complete asshole, finds out that the crazy politics going around is part of a super grim scheme to ‘open a gateway to hell’ (which I initially thought was a metaphor), nearly go through with a suicide attempt, go through the world’s most quickest and most effective political campaign I’ve ever goddamn seen, find out the previously mentioned portal was a LITERAL gateway to hell, relive the trauma of being so hungry that actually ate their oldest friends (some not even fully dead), go through the self-reflection to accept this part of their past and move on, have a crazy showdown with Ichiro in hell as he turns into the physical embodiment of the Jigoku Itto-Ryo itself, be the reason (one way or another) that Jun/ko loses an arm and is stranded (?) in hell, and finally escape through the portal only to find that Masashi/mi has entered some kind of comatose state and that the ‘Lady’ they heard about previously has amassed a damn army ready to march on the Emperor himself. All the while, Jun/ko has gone through a complete character arch, which includes trying to move SLIGHTLY away from their super murderous tendencies and resolve the past trauma about their sexual assault from their father.
Phew. Talk about an eventful instalment, right?
I’m not saying that the book does a terrible job of portraying the above events, or that it would have been impossible to make the whole thing flow smoothly in a single instalment. However, I hold to my main statement in the normal review, namely that the pacing of the whole endeavour feels is a little bit rushed. Like, just to give an example, the whole bit about the Ronin recalling their early childhood trauma of literally eating their friends is a SUPER important part of the main character’s story, since we find out just what it was that allowed them to use the Jigoku Itto-Ryo, and see them work through an event which has been haunting them for years. However, this whole reflection of the event is concluded within the space of a single chapter, wherein you also have to help Jun/ko overcome the pain that their father’s assault has left them with (a matter which itself is resolved in a pretty shockingly speedy time) AND finish the fight with Ichiro and the final demon boss of the instalment. In the end, it sometimes feels like the elements of the book are all crammed into a space that’s not quite big enough to accommodate them all, resulting in the story feeling like it’s moving at a pretty aggressive pace.
I understand that sometimes there just isn’t much use in dragging thing out, like with The Ronin’s past: once the issue is laid out, the only way forward is to have the main character reflect on everything that’s occurred in their life and why letting the regrets of their past actions weigh them down to the point of stopping would be a larger insult to their friend’s memory than holding onto those feelings of regret. However, my main problem is that it sometimes feels like the conclusion comes a bit too rapidly, or that the turn about from ‘haunted for life’ to ‘accepting the past’ feels a little unearned.
Of course, I could complain until I’m blue in the face, but it wouldn’t be very constructive without at least trying to puzzle out what might have been an alternative option, which admittedly I have only a single, not exactly great one. Basically, I ponder if it wouldn’t have been better to stick to the pace set in book 1 and 2, wherein there wasn’t a strict necessity to kill a demon a book. If Book 3 focused first on just slaying the demon posing as the baron with its second half focused entirely on letting the training of The Ronin’s students breathe as a concept, that would leave actually taking out Shatao reserved to the first quarter of a hypothetical Book 4, with the rest setting up the political situation in the northern reaches, the complicated relationship with Jun/ko and regaining the Jigoku Itto-Ryo. In this idea, I suppose the ending would probably be right around the betrayal at the manor or at the moment The Ronin attempts seppuku (a matter we will DEFINITELY be getting back to), with Book 5 then being given all the room it needs for The Ronin’s own political campaign to take place and for all the introspection that taking a trip to the spirit world entails.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand that what I’m laying out is almost entirely beyond the pale, since it would cause the speed of the story to start grinding down to a damn glacial pace. I do understand that people weren’t the biggest fans of Book 2’s pacing, understandably because of it being a lot of build up without a solid conclusion, and that even this proposal must sound like a nightmare. Book 3 in this hypothetical scenario would especially be a real hard sell, since you would have to justify the player spending most of it bumbling around Tanimura teaching numb-nuts, just in time for the book to end on another cliff-hanger. However, I feel like that is the only way to fit in the sheer vastness of the Samurai of Hyuga’s ambitious narrative while still letting each individual subject and character have all the room they need to actually breath.
However, we can talk about hypothetical scenarios until Choice Of Games finally let me delete my damn old save files, but in the end all I’m really doing is suggesting food for thought, and in some ways feel like I’ve harped on long enough. The bottom line is, while I’m not the biggest fan of the kind of speed this instalment has and somewhat wished there could have been a different outcome, I understand that this isn’t a simple problem to solve, and it’s not like it detracts from how much I like this series overall. I can but hope that maybe things might take a bit of opportunity to slow down, even if I may be yelling into the wind at this point.
I just want to clarify that I am in no way shape or form saying this issue with pacing is universal, or that series creator Devon Connell was making some kind of mistake when he made the narrative choices he did. Indeed, let me just use this space to give a massive shoutout to the guy: the amount of detail and the number of alternative versions to the game’s scenarios you can come across by choosing different options is crazy expansive. For the sake of the reviews on each instalment of the series, I ran through each book multiple times using a variety of different parameters (ie, some runs would have polar opposites in stats, some with a male Ronin and some with a female Ronin, etc) and the amount of content hidden away under pretty specific situations is mind bogglingly at times. A good example in Book 4 is the variety of ways the possible romantic situation with Jun/ko can play out depending on your choice genders for both them and The Ronin; the idea of having kids comes up regardless, but a lot of text is changed around to accommodate each different possible combination of genders.
Even more impressive is the scenes or text that only appear under pretty specific circumstances, to the point where some players might not even be aware they exist. A good example is when The Ronin and Momoko are trying to get entry to the yakuza den all the way back in book 1; if you choose the most racy of the three options, you might be given a scene of The Ronin’s imagination becoming less than child-friendly, but only if you have a perverted Ronin – more impressively, there’s a specific version if you have a female perverted Ronin, but ONLY if they are also attracted to women. Considering you might have just picked one of the other options, that’s a crazy extensive number of ways for a scene to play out, especially considering this isn’t exactly a massively important part of the book. Hell, just the fact that the different stats cause The Ronin’s mien to shift around so drastically is a real treat, even if the stats are mostly a ‘cosmetic’ thing and don’t impact the actual events of the story. It’s clear that Mr Connell is a guy with a real eye for detail, and a real dedication to letting said detail shine through. While I grouch about pacing, I could never fault the sheer amount of work that has to go into making so many different versions of minute scenes in each book. If nothing else, let it be said that Samurai of Hyuga definitely earns it’s choice-game cred.
In any case, it wouldn’t be a Spoiler Talk without some scene analysis, and there’s a veritable goldmine of choice for important scenes and characters that could be broken down.
Let’s start with a big one – Gensei, the main character’s master, gets a lot of scenes in this book, and they’re used to great effect to create a multi-layered character. On one had, he’s a horrible bastard that took in two children specifically to train them in a sword style that is outright unnatural, and he would be the first to correct anyone who mistook his treatment as kind. On the other hand, one of those children was likely to have been straight up killed if anyone else found them, and the other belonged to a family that is bat-shit bonkers to the point where Gensei was a damn saint in comparison. On the other-other hand, the sword style Gensei created has some weird and slightly ill-defined connection with the literal plane of hell, while he simultaneously created a scheme to broker peace between two warring clans and thus save thousands of lives. And this is all without getting to the pretty complex relationship the main character has with the sword master: The Ronin struggles to come to terms with the fact that, while still being 100% justified in their hatred of Gensei, they can’t pretend that he wasn’t an extremely important person to them. His methods were inhumane, but because of them, The Ronin is now in a position to shape the future of Hyuga, even if it’s a responsibility they struggle with.
I appreciate that, when comes to Gensei, there’s not really a ‘right’ interpretation of the man. It’s equally possible to argue he was a well-meaning samurai whose extreme methods were cruel but necessary for the technique he was attempting to cultivate, while it’s just as possible to argue he was simply a man possessed by an ultimately selfish vision that he dragged others into. The one point that is harder to argue about is the fact that he was the closest thing The Ronin ever had to a father, making their relationship difficult to process for the both of them. Indeed, I reckon a character with so many flaws could have been the only one to have raised everyone’s favourite ronin. The Ronin is a person of many vices and whose past is marked in a small river of blood, but that doesn’t stop them from trying to actually do some good with their lot in life now, a fact that is a good reflection of Gensei himself. It’s no wonder why a pivotal moment in the story is when The Ronin finally thanks Gensei for everything after the toughest battle in the series, and with it finally let’s go of the final piece of their past.
In fact, let’s talk about The Ronin’s other pretty dramatic battle with their past, namely their metaphorical battle with the memory and guilt of consuming their oldest friends, some of which weren’t even god-damn dead. It’s a horrific revelation and grim beyond compare…BUT, what an amazing way to tie in some many aspects of the character to a single moment that feels both pretty justified and super god-damn tragic. It’s a scene that makes the most out of the character’s backstory, namely their status as an orphan in the dilapidated old-capital, is definitely gruesome enough that you can understand why it’s weighed on them all this time, to the point where it was even hinted at a few points in one of earlier book. I can’t remember the exact moment, but I recall at one point The Ronin have a momentary thought about the ‘those other kids from the orphanage,’ and just that brief memory causes them to hesitate. They almost miss what someone is saying at the time because they have to take a second to convince themselves that their actions at the time had been justified at the time, though notably avoiding actually saying what they did. Hell, all the way back in Book 1 Masashi/mi wonders if the reason The Ronin appears as a child in the spirit world is as a result of some kind of event causing a dissonance with their actual age and how appear in the pretty symbolically charged other plane of reality, and I’m fairly certain this qualifies. It’s a tragic enough backstory that Bashō would have swooned on hearing; The Ronin, so shackled by the guilt of betraying and eating the only friends they have ever had, represses the memory and then tries to bury it somewhere deep within themselves. But in doing so they also never find the peace necessary to move past beyond the event until Book 4, so many years later, filling the gap with sake and blood all the while. It’s only when confronting the memory straight on can they finally look back and realize that the best way to seek redemption for the horrific chapter of their life is to live as best they can, and to carry the memories of their old friends with them.
It’s a super touching moment, and a good example of how Book 4 helps to develop The Ronin as a character since, while we only learn the full details in this instalment, we get to see them move past an event which has been hinted at ever since the series’ debut. One of the best things about it from a narrative point of view is the fact that it’s an event that any player will find dreadful – I mean it’s a kid cannibalising others kids holy hell – but doesn’t make The Ronin beyond redemption. Just the descriptions of the hunger they were experiencing at the time makes my stomach curl, and even the fact that The Ronin was extremely young at the time might at least explain why they went for such an extreme solution. A child might understand right from wrong even at that age, as the Book itself notes, but they are also more easily driven by instinct, and for a starving child growing up in a world that cares little for it, anything must seem better than wasting to death. It is overall a rough mental journey for The Ronin to undertake, and I’m not expecting them to have a sudden change of personality now it’s over, but is a very well written part of the Book, and continues the already great development our main character was going through. It’ll be interesting to see how this effects events in the future books.
That all being said, there was a thought going through my head as I read that section of the book, though maybe it would be more accurate to call it the start of a theory. As I read through that scene, and the previous moment wherein The Ronin finds their master’s corpse and finds that consuming people is a fundamental part of the Jigoku Itto-Ryo, did anyone else feel like the fact that you could actually find this out all the way back in Book 3 a little odd? Like, the journey The Ronin takes to regain the dark power of the sword style is core part of Book 4, and there’s a suitable amount of build up and fallout for discovering the truth, but it can all fall a little flat since the player may have actually known for a whole instalment by that point. I understand that this is news for The Ronin, and so their shock and disgust is understandable, but it almost seems like the narrative makes more sense if The Ronin could only find out about Jun/ko’s past at the beginning point of Book 3, not the least because it’s specifically the memories of their ex-lover that are erased. Even if you chose to ask about the true power behind the Jigoku Itto-Ryo, Jun/ko is still erased, and they still retain memoires about the sword-style, with only it’s application and their killing intent being the thing they lose. Now, maybe there’s roundabout thing about how memories are structured that makes deleting the former easier and the latter harder (ie, maybe it’s easier to make it seem like The Ronin was Gensei’s only student compared to restructuring how they learned the to fight), but it’s never made entirely clear. I don’t mean to make a big deal of it, since the act is ultimately undone by The Ronin regaining most of their memories, but it’s definitely one of the stranger parts of how the story is put together.
Anyway, back to scene analysis, since we’d be remiss to not talk about one particular moment that is probably among the grimmest moments in the series. Having been betrayed by the one remaining person they thought they could trust and having discovered the truth behind the dark power they wield, The Ronin attempts to turn their sword on themselves. Sat alone in the dojo where they grew up, exhausted and now sure that there’s no hope for themselves most of all, they decide that the only right thing left to them is bring the cursed line of the Jigoku Itto-Ryo to an end. With bleeding hands and the moon reflecting off their blade, they think on just what a mess they made of everything, before finally pointing the weapon to their body…just in time for Fake-Jun/ko to reappear in the story, and the only thing that ends up getting killed is the mood.
While I’ll freely admit to not liking the pacing of many scenes or concepts in the game, I think this is absolutely positively an amazing exception. This scene feels like it comes exactly where it needs to in the story, with an amazingly grim collections of scenes that make it clear just how much hope The Ronin had to lose, before the god-damn comic relief of Book 4 comes bumbling in. The player is probably on the same page of The Ronin in that, out of everyone they wanted to see save our main character, Fake-Jun/ko was probably the last on that very long list. It’s a perfect example of Devon Connell’s masterful use of tone that we can go straight from a damn suicide attempt to a joke about how Fake-Jun/ko ate what would have been The Ronin’s last meal in only few paragraphs without experiencing whiplash. However, the event isn’t just a good example of how to structure a scene, since there’s quite a few points it raises about The Ronin themselves that are worth looking at, in particular about how their thoughts spin in their ‘final’ moments.
I think one of the poignant parts of the scene is that it brings one of The Ronin’s main flaws to the surface, namely the fact that The Ronin always choses to flee right when others need them most. It’s made quite pointedly clear in the earlier books that, for all their skill and prowess our main character possesses, they are deathly afraid of actually being responsible for the lives of the people who are important to them. That when things are at their very worst, The Ronin loses their nerve and disappears, leaving those that need them the most behind, as Book 3 very well demonstrated. This attempt at suicide is, in their pessimistic point of view at the moment, the ultimate expression of that weakness, that they have given up so fully that they want nothing more than to flee from life itself. The reason this is both the best part AND super important is because it’s casts the relationship The Ronin has with Masashi/mi in an even more interesting light, helped along with a very particular use of words if the player choses to have The Ronin’s near-final thoughts be of the diminutive magic user. Namely, The Ronin reflects that this is actually the second time they have attempted to take their own life, and that meeting Masashi/mi was the only thing that stopped them from going through with it the first time. While this does raise several questions of how the hell the two met (questions that I’m practically praying will be answered in Book 5, give me the Masashi/mi flash-back arc damn it), more importantly than all that is the fact that it’s clear that The Ronin’s bodyguarding gig may have literally saved them.
While The Ronin tries to convince themselves that the task of protecting others is too much, it’s clear that there’s a part of them that needs that responsibility just to keep themselves sane. Tragically, I wonder if The Ronin considers their own life so worthless that they can only find meaning in preserving others, an idea that helped along by the fact that the main character is always depicted at their bleakest when they’re totally alone. Not to mention, there was that amazing character moment back in Book 3 wherein it’s possible for The Ronin to outright say that they would want nothing more to return to the simple days when it was just them and Masashi/mi, travelling on the road, an idea that both nearly feel tempted to take by forsaking their quest. Despite all their arguing and how much their relationship remains in flux, it’s clear beyond any doubt that the two mean the world to each other, quite fitting since the emotional core of the series is formed around their relationship.
Jumping topics to a small aside, I’ll just say that I think out of all the new characters that appeared in Book 4, Fake-Jun/ko (or Jun/ko-Ni, as they wished everyone would actually call them) was a surprisingly great addition. They manage to somehow be a damn gluttonous fool who never fails to make an idiot out of themselves no matter what the situation is, but actually have enough sympathetic moments that it’s easy to become a little endeared to the poor dough-ball. Yes, they’re the only one in entire country who believes their own hype, but their efforts to unite the north through the election and therefore avoid any further bloodshed is genuine. They can’t see the truth of their upbringing even when the real Jun/ko is standing right in front of them, but also manage to pull The Ronin out of their suicide attempt by accident. It’ll be interesting to see where such an odd but likeable character ends up in the latter parts of the series.
One final thing I want to talk about is the fate of Jun/ko at the end of the book. Regardless of what kind of relationship is established, their fate seems pretty hopeless, since The Ronin is forced to leave them behind in the spirit world minus one arm, and I doubt gateways into and out of hell itself are exactly common. However, we must remember the number one rule of “dead” characters across all and every media: unless you 100% for sure see the body and/or see the body destroyed, assume there’s a chance they survived. Sometimes even if you do see the body. This goes double for quite popular and iconic characters, and Jun/ko is at least one of those.
While Jun/ko remains pretty divisive, I have no doubt in my mind that we haven’t see the last of Jun/ko, though whether they’ll still be themselves when we see them again is the real question. Being stranded in some crazy ghost dimension, either by sacrificing their arm in attempt to save The Ronin or intentionally losing their climactic duel just to spite the one person they can’t live without, is likely going to do a number on Jun/ko’s already tenuous grip to sanity. Hell, maybe my original predication in the 1-3 Spoiler Talk that Jun/ko will be the final boss will actually prove right, though at this stage I wouldn’t feel confident enough to put a bet on it. Though a ghost-powered, completely nuts Jun/ko stepping out from hell itself just to throw down one last time would be a hell of a way to cap off the series. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
In any case, I think I’ve rambled on for long enough. I hope that I can get across that, while I do indeed have a not exactly short list of things I dislike about Book 4, that doesn’t mean I didn’t still have a pretty great time. By this point, the series’ strengths have been well established, and the story wisely keeps it’s focus on these elements as much as it can. Likewise, even if I can’t ignore the problems I have with the pacing, it at least doesn’t detract from the engaging cast and events to a crippling degree. And as ever, I’m looking forward to the next instalment, even if I don’t think my poor heart can take being ripped out of my chest for a fifth time. But until then, keep your wits about you, stay safe, and farewell.
[In keeping with my usual vices, even this update took a while to come out, though I’m guessing long time readers will be fairly well prepared for me to take way too long to actually release stuff these days. For the blog as a whole, we’re going forward with the idea of keeping up attempts at updates, though with things as they are, I can’t promise things will come at anything other than a ‘damn slow’ pace. However, the Final Fantasy Formula is definitely back on the menu, and will likely see some more entries in the future. Until that point, however, take care.]