For many years people have watched Koei’s Warriors series of games and collectively shook their heads at it. So how could Samurai Warriors 4 possibly be fun? Battle after battle fighting against lifeless dumb soldiers while running around a random environment with the occasional similar sounding general uttering nonsensical battle cries.
Yes, the original Dynasty Warriors sub-series is nigh impenetrable, but that’s not because of its mechanics, but because of its driving story. Romance of the Three Kingdoms might be the Chinese classic to adapt, but a Western audience that has no familiarity with its trappings and isn’t accustomed to Chinese naming conventions will wonder what dozens of similar characters are actually good for. Lu Bu might be fearsome, to a Western audience his name doesn’t even sound fearsome.
It wasn’t until the series’ Hyrule Warriors blended in the world of The Legend of Zelda that this started to change. Zelda, Link, Ganondorf, and their compatriots made sense. Western gamers grasped the relationships and the power differences between those characters and suddenly the battles worked. For Koei’s Musou-series, the intellectual property topping drives the game mechanics home and provides a forgotten audience with enjoyment.
Samurai Warriors then, floats somewhere uncomfortably in between the incomprehensible Chinese backdrop of Dynasty Warriors and the welcoming over-familiarity of Hyrule Warriors. It bases itself on the Japanese Sengoku period. In short: a late-medieval Japan full of samurai and the occasional rifle cut up into multiple states, each with its own champions and dream of unifying Japan. History has already written the game’s conclusion and you’re just along for the ride to watch Tokugawa rise to finally claim that dream.
Those three previous sentences will make it entirely clear whether you’ll click with this game or not. Because as impenetrable as Romance of the Three Kingdoms can be, so too can the myriad of storylines comprising the Sengoku era be muddled, to say the least. Also, like Dynasty Warriors it’s not a new story, it’s the same tale told by previous instalments. Sure there might be a new focus here and there, but in general each instalment is like a new production of the same Shakespearean piece over and over again.
So where is the fun?
The fun comes in three flavours complementing each other as you select a general and head for the battlefield. First there are the characters. The generals set themselves apart from the aforementioned soldiers by actually acting and engaging in combat. Each general has its own flamboyant outfit, outrageous move set and ludicrously over-the-top special attacks. In typical anime fashion character and skill complement or contrast each other leading to a very diverse set of characters. You may not remember their names, but pink-wig and fake-sunglasses wearing female battling with a scarf and morose silent priest with a seemingly non-lethal marching band baton will leave an impression. Collecting and growing them all is an addictive process as you uncover their strengths and weaknesses.
Second there’s the combat itself, which is a combination of alternating between crowd-control and brute force when needed. Timing is everything here with only two attack buttons. Alternating between the two will lead to different attack sequences with different finishing strikes that can push enemies away, hit swathes of them or make a pin-point accurate stabbing attack. While the soldiers may not be attacking too much, they do so occasionally and getting swamped by them with a general nearby can actually spell death pretty easily. Fighting the generals themselves requires more force and tactics to survive as often they have specific roles to fulfil in the story and they do tend to use their own attack sequences. Those over-the-top special attacks come into play here as well, effectively functioning as a smart-bomb, bullet-time or a combination of both, complete with anime trappings garnish.
Thirdly, and also the most overlooked aspect of the Musou-series, is the strategy required for each of the battles. Often battles proceed according to historical facts (heavily bent out of shape, proportion and reality I may add), so generals will show up at specific times, certain conditions must be met or characters must survive at all costs. Getting a grip on where and when to strike on the battlefield becomes crucial if you want to clear all goals within a battle and create the most (or least) accurate representation of said event. That may require replaying battles a lot in order to resort to rote trial and error, but cleverly making use of the environment and swapping between your two playable characters can clearly make a difference.
The Samurai Warriors beat
It’s the dynamics between these three elements that makes Samurai Warriors 4 tick. It’s a very steady beat, with each battle introduction feeling like the start of an episode in the series’ current season. Exposition can curiously come about in two forms: stilted with some dialogue and minimal animations conveying the scene, or in the splendour of pre-rendered cut scenes adding drama so thick you can cut it with a knife. But as mentioned before, this is rendered completely moot if you have no connection to the characters or cultivated one during play.
If the trinity clicks, it’ll provide a genuine fount of content, with 56 playable characters (including one you create yourself) to expand upon and many weapons items and goals to attain. There’s also a mode in which you travel to randomly generated battles to expand upon your own characters progression in a story-like fashion. Regardless of the way you play it will remain the same. Meaning that for those who get it the game will generate an incredible amount of play time, while other will cry ‘grind’ after the very first level.
Taking everything in, Samurai Warriors 4 is primarily a relaxing game. Something that requires not as much attention to strain the senses, but also not as little to become a walk in the park. Like an eternally unwinding anime series, it just props you up with another episode.
It’s instant ramen: its story line being the freeze-dried toppings, its packets of flavour stilling your cravings but not your hunger. Better then to get seconds.