Way of the Samurai 3 is an open-world game styled like an old-school samurai film. In some ways, it lives up to the standards of the series; in others, it overextends itself.
In WOTS3, you play as a wandering samurai caught in the kingdom of Amana during the Warring States period. There are several factions you can choose to ally yourself with: the powerful Fujimori clan, the rural Ouka clan, or the oppressed farmers of Takatane. The game has an open world, so you can wander around doing what you want - doing jobs and gaining the trust of the various factions to accomplish something in the world, or just spending your time picking fights and upgrading your sword. The game is meant to be played many times - it's short, but there are so many variations in the endings that it's clearly meant to be replayed over and over.
WOTS3 offers you more influence in the world than previous games. While WOTS1 and WOTS2 both allowed you a wide variety of choices as to your behavior in the world, in terms of who you could kill and where you could go, you were severely limited. In WOTS3, anyone can be killed at any time as long as you can get to them. It's possible to draw your sword during almost any cutscene in the entire game; if you want to, you can just cut a bloody swath through every important character, take their stuff, and leave.
On the flipside, if you're actually trying to accomplish something and get a good ending, it's important to be more diplomatic. WOTS3 offers two different concessions to the idea of peace. The first of these is the ability to apologize; in previous games, if you accidentally drew your sword, you had to fight or run away. In WOTS3, it's possible to attempt to reconcile and avoid fighting, which can be crucial if you've spent all your time building up trust with one clan and almost ruin it accidentally. The other new feature is the ability to attack non-lethally; you can defeat an enemy, but they won't be killed permanently. Since every single character in the game is persistent in the world, this can be important if a necessary character picks a fight with you and won't accept your surrender. You may find it necessary to fight back, but also to keep the person alive.
The swordfighting system feels slightly less refined than in WOTS2, but it makes up for it with improved customization. Like previous games, there are a few basic styles that swords can be used in, as well as some exotic options like ninja swords and iaijutsu. WOTS3 changes a few things as far as weapons go. Spears have been added to the game, to go with the more medieval tone of the setting. Additionally, dual-wielding now involves two actual swords, rather than one "sword" that's actually a set of two. Finally, you now have the option to create your own swords or spears from parts that can be found or bought in the game world. These weapons have their stats determined by the parts you use, so saving all your best parts to build a super high-quality sword is usually a good idea.
As gameplay goes, the most annoying part in comparison to other games in the series is how disconnected everything feels. The story is moved along through "inklings", which show up on your map occasionally to let you know to go to a certain area. However, many of these inklings are non-intuitive. For example, while playing as a member of the Fujimori clan, I ended up at a dead end where nothing was happening. As it turned out, I had to go join the rival Ouka clan, then immediately leave. It made no sense and felt really awkward. The jobs you have to do to gain faction approval are a pain, too. Some of them are ok - go here, kill one guy. Others have you hunting around the map for a hidden person or item, many of whom won't show up due to bugs or bad programming. In one case, I found two of three people that I needed to find, and couldn't find the last one no matter where I looked. I then left the map and came back; when I returned, the third person was sitting in a place that I had definitely checked before.
Another gameplay gimmick added is the presence of "partners" - romantic interests for your samurai to pursue. These partners have no role in the main gameplay; rather, you have to go out looking for them and fulfill whatever requirements they have for you to "recruit" them. For example, one partner threatens to attack you to avenge her dead father (she has mistaken you for his killer), and to recruit her you must apologize to her rather than fighting back. Another shows up only at midnight, and can be hired as a bodyguard for the night. However, these partners are more annoying than helpful - some offer small advantages, like remote access to your weapons safe and so on, but they all run much slower than you do and you'll be forced to constantly stop to let them catch up, or just walk everywhere. There are some mini-games you can do that require you to have a partner, and if you hang out with a partner long enough they can become a romantic interest, but other than that there's really not that much they're good for. Overall, they're just a pain.
The game's graphical quality varies pretty wildly - people and weapons are done pretty well, but the environmental textures are bland and unappealing. The main character especially is good at expressing emotion, but the buildings look really fake and the maps are lined with invisible walls and other issues that seem really silly to still have in 2009. Despite some improvements, as a whole WOTS3 is not a graphically impressive game - it's not quite as bad as last-gen, but it's not up to the standards of current generation graphics.
The sound design in the game is similarly varied in quality. The music is interesting and atmospheric. The voice work in Japanese is pretty good, but the English dub is lazy and not even worth bothering with. Thankfully, the game provides both English and Japanese as options. There's a really weird bug with voices, though, which is that the volume of a person's voice is based on the camera's proximity to the speaker - not based on the character's proximity. The result is that, because it's a third-person game, you won't be able to hear anyone unless you swing the camera around so that the person speaking is right in front of you. It's really weird and annoying and just ruins the experience.
As a whole, WOTS3 is an ambitious game, and I can respect that. However, it's so sloppily put together that the few areas where it is fun are overshadowed by repetitive tasks and shoddy development. It's a good example of combining story and gameplay, but in terms of being a fun game it's kind of lacking.
Buy Way of the Samurai 3 from Amazon.com