[‘Letters from the Metaverse’ is a regular weekly column by Mathew Kumar about his adventures in the massively multiplayer online world of Second Life. This week’s column covers melee combat games in Second Life.]

It's something to be said for the power of numbers going up that when I logged back into Second Life after filing my last column I couldn't help myself from getting my character to level up one more time before I said goodbye to the island of Navora.

This week I fully intended to check out Numbakulla, a “sophisticated quest sim” in the vein of Riven or Myst, until I got distracted by a flashy video of samurai combat on Wager James Au’s New World Notes. As a person who enjoyed Aquire’s PS2 title Way of the Samurai, this looked promisingly similar.

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Samurai Island is split up into two sections – a facsimile Edo-period Japanese town, which takes up most of the island, and small walled off area, Combat Samurai Island, where the game takes place.

2006_08_15_adult.jpgSamurai Island has to be one of the most beautiful areas in Second Life I’ve visited, with great colors, textures, and a cohesive theme. It also manages to load fast enough that blurry or missing textures don’t break the illusion too fast. What does break the illusion, of course, is the fact that like everywhere else in Second Life that’s rated mature, it’s full of sex shops. It does include a kind I’d never seen or paid attention to before – porn video stores.

This is a digression, but it’s actually a clever idea. The videos are probably cheap at $300 Linden for a day’s rental, and I can see people, or more accurately, the perverts of Second Life, stumping up the cash for this. They even had Debbie Does Dallas!

I wonder, do the adult movie studios have a Second Life presence? Can you rent videos that aren’t porn in other stores? Both, I imagine, are also good ideas.

2006_08_15_fight.jpgMoving on, however. If you walk into the combat area, you can pick up a bokken – a wooden practice sword, which allows you to see the HUD, practice blocking, and perform one attack.

It’s a nice freebie, but is limited to the point of uselessness if you want to actually spar with someone. If you decide you really want to play, you have to run off to find the one very small store at the back of the island that sells “real” swords, that come in at the not to be sniffed at price of $800 Linden, which is nearly $4!

Yikes! You might be saying, but on the Gamesetwatch expense account it goes, and Seven Kikuchiyo was standing tall with his very own blade, featuring 15 different animations/attacks and an inventory system.

Surprisingly, once you’ve got a fully working sword, it really does play a lot like the aforementioned Way of the Samurai, with the addition of a little lag and Second Life’s ridiculously unsuitable movement controls. Sparring mostly takes the form of slow battles featuring a lot of blocking, with both combatants taking their time to look for an opening to make their decisive strike, though it can get a bit scrappy at points due to lag.

2006_08_15_hud.jpgScrappy as it is, it’s very playable, and much more immediate and better integrated with Second Life than, say, Dark Life, featuring as it does a HUD and an inventory system. Sadly, of course, once you’ve learned how to fight, there really isn’t anything to do other than smash boxes and fight practice dummies unless there are other players interested in sparring, and that can be a really limiting factor.

It’s probably not the intention of the designers, but if Combat Samurai Island was expanded into a fuller RPG experience, it’s something I could imagine returning to repeatedly. As it is, yet again something full of promise in Second Life is little more than a fun , though pricey, diversion.

[Mathew Kumar is a freelance journalist who’s dabbled in MMORPGs, but is too cheap/strong willed to play past a free trial. He got his break with Insert Credit, and his work has been featured in publications as diverse as The Globe and Mail, Game Reactor (translated into Danish!), and Eurogamer.]