Sakura Samurai may sound like a rather clichéd title, but this 3DS e-shop fighter’s gameplay is not clichéd in the least. Most battling games involve a lot of button mashing and mindless hack ‘n slashing, and while you are indeed going to be doing a lot of slashing, it’s anything but a button masher. For Sakura Samurai: Art of the Sword, it’s all about precision and good timing.

The story for Sakura Samurai is quite basic. It takes place in feudal Japan. The princess has been stolen by the big baddie, casting darkness upon the land and it’s up to an unassuming youth to save the day. Sound kinda Zelda-ish? Kinda is. We begin our adventure with a young samurai having his sword blessed by the mystical Kappa with the power of the Sakura (cherry blossom) and sent forth on his journey to free the princess from the evil Castle Lord. Our hero, (who remains nameless, referred to by others as merely ‘The Sakura Samurai’) must slash his way across the land, dispatching thug after thug to reach the castles.

While the graphics are decent (remeniscent of the 64 bit era, though beautifully stylised in a way that reminds me of Okami) and the adventure is short (only 2-5 hours), the gameplay is simple yet amazingly fun and incredibly challenging. From the world map you can enter an area where you will face various enemies wielding different weapons, each of which has his own move set. Enemies will give clues as to how they are about to swing their weapon, then you must dodge them at just the right moment with the B button and counter with your own attack using A. Sound easy? It’s not. Enemies will often have multiple chain attacks and you must dodge them all in quick succession before you can counter. While you can block enemy attacks, it’s not recommended as this will dull your sword. Sure, you can purchase whetstones to sharpen it again, but you’ll lose your precision points and earn less gold. Precision points are awarded every time you properly dodge and counter without getting struck or blocked by the enemy, or have to block them yourself. Rack up enough points and they can be traded in the shop for gold. Areas are cleared once all enemies have been defeated, and for every two areas cleared, another petal is added to your life meter (at least you don’t have to hunt down all those pieces of heart, hmm?).

Each of the three lands that make up the world map have a set of levels ending with a castle you must storm in order to face the boss, as well as three towns where you can rest, save, buy needed items, and play fun and challenging mini-games for either gold or stamps. Rack up enough stamps and you’ll get prizes like extra items or a stronger special attack. While there is no exploring (a shame!) the towns give this game a strong RPG vibe, which is always a plus in my book.

The game is entirely button-controlled. The action takes place on the upper 3D screen, while the bottom screen shows your inventory. The controls feel fluid and very responsive. They’re misleadingly simple and oh-so hard to master. Especially once you finish the adventure because defeating the third and final boss unlocks ‘expert mode’ where you have no restorative items and must beat the game with only your initial 3 petals of health. If you though ‘normal mode’ was hard, then ‘expert’ is nothing less than brutal, as there is less room for error than ever. Get far enough into it and soon every single enemy hit is an instant KO.

And if that wasn’t enough challenge, you can also take on 30, 50, or 100 thug challenges, each unlocked by defeating a boss. And to take a break from the adrenaline pumping action, there’s your rock garden. Once a day you can dedicate pedometer steps which will bloom the garden’s sakura trees. There’s nothing more to it than that- it doesn’t unlock anything in the adventure or anything, it’s merely a zen experience.

I have only few gripes about this game other than the short adventure mode. While there are the thug-challenge modes, expert mode, and the rock garden, it still feels light on content. It seems to be missing something. It feels like there is some untapped potential in the game that leaves you feeling like- was that all? The game felt reminiscent of Zelda or Okami to me, yet all there really is to it is fighting and the occasional mini-game. It feels like Nintendo could have done so much more with the concept and added more distractions and depth to it. Don’t get me wrong- I loved this game. It’s one of the most challenging and unique games I’ve played, but still, it’s missing something.

Overall, for the asking price of $6.99, Sakura Samurai: Art of the Sword is an excellent deal. While it may seem light on content with a short adventure and few game modes, it is both incredibly fun and very hard at the same time. It may not last you long, but you’ll have a blast during what time you spend with it. With it’s focus of precision and timing instead of brute force and furious button mashing, Sakura Samurai is a unique fighter that will give you immense satisfaction once you finally beat that really difficult boss.