If you weren't paying close attention to SNK's activities, you'd assume that The Last Blade was some sort of Samurai Showdown sequel, what with all these ninjas and swords and whatnot. Admittedly there are similarities and it is fair to say that The Last Blade is a 'spiritual' successor to Samurai Showdown, but it's best to view them as separate entities, otherwise things will get very confusing. The Last Blade is set around the end of the 19th century in Japan, often called the 'Bakumatsu' period, which is better known for the Western invasion of the East and the introduction of guns to a society accustomed to the use of swords for warfare. You know, like in the title 'The Last Blade'. Who said video games weren't educational?
SNK do a great job of exploiting this setting to its fullest, with a cast of well drawn-out characters and rich, colourful backgrounds. Kaede is the central character, with his nemesis and ex-training partner Moriya providing the Kyo - Iori type relationship we see in King of Fighters. Moriya is the mis-understood kinda guy who keeps himself to himself and his fighting style is full of crescent sweeps and lighting-fast jabs. On the goody-two shoes side there's Kaede, who has the unique ability to transform himself into 'awakened Kaede' (press B+C+D together while your special meter is flashing) during which his hair turns from the regular black with pony tail to a gold / blonde mop top in a super-saiyan fashion, while his personality changes from a calm, thoughtful individual into a right jackass, cocky and arrogant. These two combatants have fighting styles that are worlds apart, yet considering they trained under the same master you'd think that they would share at least a few similarities. But SNK have never been ones to clone their characters (unlike a certain Street Fighter producing factory), and never has this fact been more welcome as the Last Blade contains a paltry 12 characters in total (not including the two boss characters).
On top of Kaede and Moriya we have Genbo no Okina, the turtle hermit, Yuki, female master of the halberd, Zanetsu, the ageing ninja, Shikyo, a drooling madman who is excellent at long-range attacks, Washizuka, the government official (in pursuit of Shikyo), Shigen, the walking mound of muscle with a stone hand, Juzoh, who wields a club like a baseball bat, Akari, the school girl turned master of demons, Amano, who's skill with the staff still doesn't make up for the fact that he wears a pink kimono, and finally my personal favorite Lee Rekka. Lee Rekka bares a startling resemblance to Jet Li's interpretation of the legendary Wong Fei Hung from the 'Once Upon a Time in China' series of films. He even has his trusty fan (which is used as a weapon) and, of course, the 'no shadow kick', perhaps the most infamous technique in Wong Fei Hung's repertoire. The majority of The Last Blade's characters are based around some kind of legend or real person, which makes them all the more interesting. The plot, also, has its roots in mythology. Sadly the introduction text has not been translated from the original Japanese, although I can tell you that the plot revolves around 'Hell's Gate' (self explanatory, really), which is protected by four guardians each represented by a god (a tiger, a turtle and the other two...probably a dragon in there). One of these guardians is bit bitter and twisted, so he decides open Hell's Gate and, you know, do evil things. The other guardians are obviously a mite annoyed at this, so they decide to go after him and perform some ritual to close Hell's Gate, which involves a 'Sealing Maiden', who must take all her clothes off (hey, every good ritual needs a naked chick!). The story isn't exactly The Last Blade's strong point, but it does hold together, even with SNK's typically poor translation skills.
The backgrounds are a real highlight. Take Moriya's stage for example. Here the bamboo trees sway violently in a gale, while the moon occasionally reveals itself from behind the clouds to light up the arena with a gentle glow. Kaede's stage, set in a courtyard, features autumn leaves that kick up from under the combatant's feet. Zanetsu fights in the cargo hold of a ship at sea where the whole stage sways up and down with motion of the waves. Yuki's stage is perhaps the most fun, being covered in ice. Hit an opponent to the ground and the ground and the ice cracks slightly. Do it again in the same spot and it breaks completely, revealing the ground below. You can also spot snow falling in large chunks from the rooftop in the background, while the third round (if you ever get there) is party to heavy snowstorm. The attention to detail is astonishing, as is the atmosphere it creates. These hand-drawn masterpieces have more personality than any 3D counterpart you care to mention, which is quite a feat from SNK considering this game is over 5 years old now.
The gameplay also shares a similar distinction. Each character has a choice of two modes, power and speed. Unlike Samurai Showdown's evil/good variations, power and speed modes are all that they pretend to be - one offers better speed and combo opportunities while the other increases the player's power and special move abilities. This is nothing revolutionary, but does offer two distinct fighting styles for the player to experiment with, which obviously increases depth. The button layout uses three types of attack - weak/fast (A), strong/slow (B) and kick (C) which leaves the D button free for a special function. This is the 'repel' button, which similar to a counter attack, yet here it is even more useful than in any other game with an equivalent feature. Not only does it stop your opponent from striking you, it knocks them back and raises their weapon creating more than enough time for you to attack them in return. Once you get accustomed to timing your repel attacks it becomes second nature, and the whole game falls into place. What once appeared to be a Samurai Showdown clone with nicer graphics and a couple of gimmicks suddenly becomes its superior in almost every way. This, of course, is subject to opinion. I love the Samurai Showdown series a lot, but I just think that this game is everything Samurai Showdown 5 should have been, and more. The characters are amongst the best in SNK's already rich repertoire, the animation and backgrounds are second to none and the gameplay is unique and has unparalleled depth. What more could you want? There is a sequel, which is just as good, but not particularly better. It does add a few new characters (I especially like the addition of Setsuna - nice and evil!), but the backgrounds aren't quite as nicely executed and there aren't as many of them. Plus, the plot is twice as confusing and the boss twice as cheap...all of which leads me to a personal preference for the original. Still, they are so similar that you can't go wrong with either version - they are probably the best 2D fighting games you'll ever play. And, hey, I like 2D better!