"Sidetracked" for PlayStation 2

Sidetracked is aptly named, as it could easily be considered The Lost Episode of Samurai Champloo. This is probably the biggest appeal of the game, in my opinion. For those of you who walked away from the anime hungering for more Jin, Mugen and Fuu adventures, Sidetracked gives them to you. The game is an almost movie-length new episode in three chapters, all narrated by Manzo the Saw. While woven neatly together, Jin and Mugen's plotlines are quite different, so you experience a lot of new material as you play through their stories. When you beat the game as either Jin or Mugen, you unlock Warso, their beautiful and mysterious ally, and can play his storyline as well.

Kirk Thornton and Kari Wahlgren are back reprising their roles, and the actor playing Mugen does a fair enough job imitating Steve Blum you can often forget it's not the original voice. The CGI rendering of the characters varies throughout, the weakest during actual gameplay. The characters look much better during the many cut scenes, although their movements can look stilted at times. However, the game begins with the entire "Battlecry" opening of the anime, reproducing the characters almost perfectly in 3D, which is quite heart-stopping to watch. That, by itself, is worth the price of admission (under $20 in the USA).

Sidetracked falls into the genre of hack and slash, a la Dynasty Warriors, which should come as no surprise. However, what's unique about the game is its battle system, which is tied to Champloo-style music you can purchase, play and collect as you earn money killing bad guys. Each song offers a different set of combination moves, and you can pick two tracks to carry with you into battle, switching back and forth as need suits. After nailing a few combos, your Tension Meter tightens and you can pull off even more spectacular moves, which lands you into a surreal shadowbox fight with silly music and...well, it's Champloo, right?

The gameplay is easy at first, becoming more difficult as each story progresses. When you reach the upper levels, you'll need to have figured out how to pull off combos and block effectively. Mugen's story has the harder bosses, and I'll admit I still haven't beaten the witch in chapter five. Grrrrrr. But, on the whole, I wouldn't call Sidetracked an overly difficult game. I'm not convinced that folks who haven't seen the anime would be interested in playing, but I doubt anyone reading falls into that category anyway.

In the end, I give Sidetracked high marks for remaining faithful to the original series. The writing is sharp and funny, Our Heroes are in character, the bosses are flamboyant and kooky in a great One Piece sort of way that makes it tons of fun to nail them. You may not be able to play as Fuu, but she gets plenty of airtime in the cut scenes. The fighting system is satisfying to learn and fun to work with, and don't forget the pure joy of watching Jin and Mugen run around at your bidding! If you're a fan of the anime and enjoy this type of game, you will not be disappointed by Sidetracked.

--Laura Bryannan