The name 'Intergrow' might not mean much to most gamers in Europe or North America, but if you've spent much time with a Japanese 3DS it should ring a bell as it's the publisher responsible for bringing Western Nindie titles like SteamWorld Dig and Mighty Switch Force! to Nintendo's home country. Now Intergrow's teamed up with Rising Star Games — a publisher famous for bringing Japanese games West — to send over Sadame, an action RPG set in an alternate reality, demon-infested version of Japan's Sengoku (or Warring States) period. Though it's not without issues, Sadame still very much deserved the trip, and scares up some classic adventuring fun in an invitingly atmospheric setting.

In spite of its Japanese aesthetic, Sadame's gameplay actually shares quite a bit with Western-style RPGs like Gauntlet, Diablo and Rogue. After choosing one of four characters — a Samurai, Ninja, Monk, or Rogue — you'll head out across a set of discrete levels, slicing your way through hordes of monsters, ghosts, and the undead, picking up lots of blind-bagged loot, and eventually facing off against an enormous boss guarding the area.

On the ground this means a lot of hacking-and-slashing, and Sadame handles this classic combat style with intuitive controls. The Circle or D-pad moves your character, the face buttons handle light, heavy and special attacks, and by holding down the shoulder buttons as overlays you'll have access to two kinds of magic on the face buttons: Karma and Ki, both with their own energy gauges to burn through. It's a versatile setup, and in general combat feels decent, with the fact that aiming is locked into four cardinal directions giving it a 16-bit beat-'em-up vibe.

Unfortunately, it isn't always the smoothest system; regular attacks have just enough start-up between them to make things feel a bit sluggish, and while stringing together your character's pre-approved combo (lengthened with unlocks as you play) feels better, relying on this single sequence turns tactics into a matter of rinse, wash, repeat rather quickly. It's also very difficult to recover momentum once you get overwhelmed — with no recovery frames after you take a hit, enemies can keep whaling on you until the AI's randomly generated mercy sets in and gives you a second to escape. That said, the Ki and Karma magic attacks help shake things up, the stages are relatively short, and the boss fights in particular are a lot of fun, so while the combat is definitely repetitive it doesn't overstay its welcome in short bursts.

Though the core gameplay remains the same no matter which warrior you choose, Sadame does a very good job differentiating its four playable characters in terms of playstyle. The steadfast Samurai is the classic close-quarters combatant, wielding katanas and wearing plenty of armour for an excellent defense that lets you charge right in and attack. The Ninja excels at mid-screen distance, with a whip-like chained sickle and fast-flying shurikens, and a special ability that sets the cost of all spells to a very low 20 Ki, letting you hit hard with hexes. The Monk uses long-range staffs and melee-range relics, both massively powerful, and has an Aura ability that adds elemental damage to his weapons. Finally, the Rouge is a trap-setting trickster that can cut down foes up-close with her naginata or far-off with her bow, and specializes in buff/debuff spells — her magic also works quite differently, with spells active until you 'recall' them, freeing up the Ki used to keep them going.

That's four very different playstyles, all told, and to its credit Sadame goes the extra mile to making playing all four feasible via some very cool features that make use of multiple save files. Loot is shared across saves, for instance, and since much of the equipment you'll unearth is exclusive to (or at least better suited for) one class or another, you'll frequently find yourself with armour or spells for your Ninja after muscling through a stage as a Monk, or vice-versa. This creates a nice 'hand-me-down' rhythm that makes playing through as other characters feel less like starting over, and more like a series of productive side-quests.

Even better, you can actually call in characters from your other save files — or even heroes met via StreetPass, in an awesome move for an eShop title — as AI-controlled assistants who will fight alongside you. It's a fantastic idea, and it's a lot of fun seeing your carefully customized Samurai or Ninja back you up as a Rogue; it also helps make up for the lack of multiplayer that this four-character Gauntlet-like would otherwise be screaming for. All together, these touches help make Sadame easy to experience with all four characters more or less simultaneously, rather than saving them for New Game Plus, and that's definitely a plus in our book. And if you are set on doing another round in Sadame samsara, beating the game as any character unlocks successively harder difficultly levels each time, so you'll have plenty of challenge to work through if you like.

There's also plenty that goes into customizing each character as you play; along with a standard level-up system, you'll earn Discipline Points that can be spent on a Sphere Grid-style skill tree to tailor each hero to your playstyle. Equipment also plays a big role, conferring both stat boosts and Ki spells when worn, while your Karma spells are earned by besting the bosses.

All of this comes together in a presentational package that nails the necro-Nobunaga aesthetic of Sadame's setting. There's no 3D effect, which is a shame — especially given the multi-layered backdrops seem made for it — but other than that it looks great; the backgrounds have a psuedo-Vanillaware vibe, with a decadent, hand-painted style that contrasts well with the pixel art of the character sprites, and the bosses are gloriously large beasts made up of interlocking puppet-like pieces. Though it's not as pretty or as overwhelmingly stylish, the combination of saturated colours, generous mood lighting, and the Sengoku setting reminds us very much of Muramasa: The Demon Blade. The soundtrack is nicely done as well, and while individual pieces aren't particularly memorable, the style as a whole fits the game perfectly, full of Japanese-influenced melodies filtered through a Mega Drive-style synth.

Conclusion

A fun action RPG with an infernal/feudal Japanese aesthetic and some great ideas, Sadame is a welcome eShop surprise. The core combat can get repetitive, and it lacks the fluid finesse of the best beat-'em-ups, but there's a lot here to love, including a particularly thoughtful implementation of its four-character hook. If you're in the mood for a hack-and-slash alt-history lesson, Sadame can definitely cut it.