I first played Seven Samurai 20XX at E3 2003, where Sammy had kind of hidden it in their booth. Yeah, it was getting a fairly major publicity push, with the seven main characters painted on the back wall, but Sammy's booth was pretty much all about Guilty Gear XX, and you only saw anything about Seven Samurai if you almost literally stumbled across it.
The first thing you might want to know is that the game isn't as bad as people seem to be saying it is. I've seen a few articles about it that are written as though the game has the power to implode human eyeballs ("Uninspired gameplay, unimpressive graphics, and OH MY GOD SWEET JESUS I'M BLIND AIEEEEEE. 4/10.").
Sometimes, it's like the whole damn gaming press decides all at once that a game has displeased them, and must be punished. Seven Samurai 20XX is the lucky winner this time around, and it doesn't entirely deserve it.
That being said, let's be fair. It's not that great, either, unless you're looking for a really, really shallow beat-'em-up.
Seven Samurai 20XX is an entry in the "one man against an army" field, alongside such entries as Nightshade, Ninja Gaiden, Crimson Sea, Shinobi, Dynasty Warriors, Devil May Cry, and the forthcoming Samurai Warriors.
As the ronin Natoe, you'll be fighting robots, gang members, mutants, ninjas, and, well, any and every asshat with a weapon and a grudge across the face of mid-twenty-first-century, dystopian, vaguely post-apocalyptic Japan.
First, you're just trying to get out of a city under attack. Then, against Natoe's better judgement, he'll wind up as one of the defenders of a besieged village. You'll spend a lot of time looking for other samurai to recruit, but it's sort of a moot point, since Natoe does all the work anyway.
So far, so good. You've got a hero, a supporting cast, a clear enemy to defeat, and legions of faceless minions, and the action never lets up for long. The problem is that the action in question is intensely repetitive.
Natoe's not a bad character (although he's made an unwise fashion choice or two; the only man in video game history who can successfully wear a belly shirt is Benimaru Nikkaido, and that's because Benimaru Nikkaido is fabulous), but he's been saddled with an insanely limited moveslist.
You're a samurai, so yes, you will be hitting your opponents with a large sword. Natoe's Nitoh-Ryu mode does double-duty here, as both an offensive upgrade and a crowd-clearing circle attack; by pressing L1 and R1, Natoe draws his second sword from the sheath on his back, injuring all the enemies around him and giving him thirty seconds in which to do a passable imitation of a combine harvester. With proper timing, you can also perform a Just Attack, a one-hit-kill dashing counterhit.
Natoe can also quickly sidestep, or, if he's standing still and you press X, perform an overhead somersault. Attacking during the somersault will result in a ground smash, which can momentarily stun anyone within a small radius.
On defense, you block with the Triangle button, but you've also got a guard crush meter. Seven Samurai 20XX actually handles the issue of blocking better than most other fighting games I've seen, in that neither you, nor your opponents, can just hide behind your blocker until your attacker gets sick of hearing that *ping!* sound and goes away. If you block too often, your meter will run out and your guard will be broken. However, if you tap Triangle right before a hit, you'll pull off a Just Guard, which helps restore some of your guard meter. If you're in Nitoh-Ryu mode, Just Guards also add some bonus time to the mode's clock.
That's it, unfortunately. That is the entirety of your available arsenal.
There are no missile attacks; no extra techniques; no unlockable characters (the other six of the titular samurai remain forever offscreen, evaporating instantly the moment a fight starts); no explosive screen-clearing attacks; and no extra weapons. You have no control over the game's camera, there are no mid-level checkpoints, there's no aerial combat whatsoever, and in the rare event you can explore a level, there's generally nothing there to find.
Seven Samurai 20XX feels vaguely like a dispatch from an alternate universe, one where the beat-'em-up genre stopped dead with the release of Fighting Force (and even that game had four playable characters, and let you pick up objects with which to beat your enemies). Some games can get away with this minimalist, trim-away-the-extra-crap approach, but this isn't one of them. It's not totally without depth or style, but no game in the last five years has done more to deserve the title "mindless button masher."
The point should be made, though, that Seven Samurai 20XX doesn't look, or feel, like the budget title it sometimes plays like. While the framerate takes a hit at times, generally when there are at least twenty enemies onscreen and Natoe is dashing a lot, the graphics have some color to them, and the animation's generally quality stuff. There are some fairly serious popup issues, as distant NPCs suddenly pop into existence when you approach, but they never pose a problem during combat.
Natoe controls well, too. He doesn't do a hell of a lot--he talks to people, runs around, and destroys entire armies--but what he does, he does well. The controls are nicely responsive, although they're occasionally overshadowed by the game's need to be flashy. While you can easily block incoming attacks on reaction, even if you're in mid-swing, it's difficult to realize you're in danger when the giant explosive flame polygons produced by Natoe's combos are obscuring half the screen. I'm not sure why there's a pressing need for huge glowing explosions when I hit a gang member eighteen times with an ordinary katana, but unless their lack will melt my PS2, I would prefer that they were left out of the next generation of brawlers.
That approach doesn't extend to the game's soundtrack. There are a few good tracks in here, usually during boss fights, but for the most part, it sounds like the same thirty seconds of fuzzy guitar played on an infinite loop. It wouldn't even be worth remarking upon, but Sammy is the dev house that brought us the Guilty Gear series. If nothing else, this game should have some of the best music on the planet, and it doesn't.
Finally, there's the game's story, which, above all else, I have to ask: am I missing something here? Seven Samurai has a weird approach to its plotline, where at any given time, events either aren't given the importance they seem like they should deserve, or it's like this is only half of a longer story. A lot's just hinted at, or happens without enough explanation.
For example, the second stage consists of Natoe chasing another samurai named Tatsuma. They know each other; that much is obvious. How Natoe knew Tatsuma was there; who it is that Tatsuma is chasing; why he's chasing him; and how Natoe and Tatsuma know each other are all either completely unexplained, or you find out about it well after the fact. It's just sloppy storytelling.
The whole game's like that, though. Seven Samurai 20XX is a late launch title, without any of the features we've grown to expect from action games in 2004. It's got passable graphics, a mediocre soundtrack, and gameplay that depends in large part on your ability to mash the Square button.
It's not an entirely bad game. Thought and imagination were, at some point, put into Seven Samurai 20XX, which puts it head and shoulders above ninety percent of the genuinely poor games on the market. It is, however, incredibly shallow and insanely repetitive.
With games like Nightshade and Chaos Legion on the market--games that do the same thing Seven Samurai 20XX does, but do it with infinitely more variety and intensity--I can't honestly recommend Seven Samurai to anyone. If it had a deeper combo system, or extra weapons, or extra characters, it'd be worth checking out. It doesn't, so it isn't.