Disco Samurai is a brutally difficult and brilliant Sekiro-like rhythm slasher

Disco Samurai is a game that’s so difficult I’d have given up playing sooner if it didn’t contain so many of my absolute favourite action game things. Tense, decisive duels. Violence that’s both brutal and a little silly. Scalpel-sharp parry n’ strike back-and-forths. Short stages that dole out chunky progression hits of dopamine, as quickly as they wrest those hits away from you with another humbling beatdown. Perhaps most importantly, it aims to do one thing – rhythm combat – and does it brilliantly. It’s got teeth, but it’s also got groove.

In the time it takes you to read this, you could grab the Steam demo, and become about 4% better at the game. You’ll need that 4%.

Unlike other rhythm combat games I’ve played, slashing off-beat doesn’t reduce your score here. Instead, you just won’t attack. The music itself is crunchy 4/4 techno, so nothing too hard to wrap your head around. (Why not disco? you ask. It takes place in a town called Disco, I respond, just as perplexed.) Parrying works the same way. Only on-beat deflections are successful, though you’ll know when one is coming due to an indicator. Each foe has a stamina meter, and they’ll enter a cartoony star-headed stun state once you whittle it down with parries, slashes, and some other moves I’ll get to in a sec.

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If you don’t want to dent your lovely katana though, you can just dash. Again, only on the beat. We chop off left feet ‘round these parts. I’m not entirely sure why you would dodge, since it doesn’t affect your foe’s stamina meter, but maybe it comes into play more later. As you perform hits, dodges, and parries, you’ll gradually build up a flow meter. What happens when you build enough? A gun. A gun happens. You get about four shots per full meter with the default pistol, so this is less of a super move and more something you can weave in to your repertoire. If you want to spend a bigger chunk of flow, you can kick. Vases and other environmental objects make lovely smashing sounds, and also do big damage. Love a good ‘big sound, big damage’ combo, me.

You’ll die very quickly if you start making mistakes, especially as whiffing moves seems to embolden the besuited bastards trying to kill you into attacking harder. But you will get your health back after each short, single-room stage. Much of the time, those deaths will come from overhead attacks. These are entirely unfair (read: I’m bad at them) slashes that you’ll have to hold the parry for exactly one beat to block. It’s the weaving of these attacks into regular attack patterns that keeps your foes both deadly and satisfying to overcome. After all, you only ever feel as super a sword bastard as the sword bastards you’re making look foolish, as my favourite bible verse goes.

I’ve had issues with feeling overly restricted with rhythm combat in the past. I bounced off Metal: Hellsinger for this reason, but I’m not getting that with Disco Samurai. A better critic than me once observed that a great joy of games is the feeling of performing a role well – acting out stealth so good it befits Solid Snake, or ripping and tearing without hesitation, just as the real Doom Guy would after he gets off his shift at Argos. That’s the deal here, I think. You don’t have much leeway for self-expression, but the rhythm and danger coaxes you into some deeply engaging choreography. Sometimes, life is too much samurai, not enough disco, but I reckon this one has the balance down pat.

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