Koei is well known for its strategy titles as well as the “Dynasty Warriors” series. Taking place in ancient China, the “Dynasty Warriors” franchise allows players to select any one of the heroes of the Three Kingdoms and wage war against literally hundreds of soldiers on the battlefield from horseback, with siege weapon, or with their own personal weapon of choice as they fight for their side. In “Samurai Warriors”, Koei has taken this chaos to the history of Japan bringing their own unique take to how it had unfolded.
The version reviewed below was for the PS2. It is also available for the Xbox.
A Shattered Land
Taking place during the rise of Nobunaga Oda during the Warring States period of Japan, “Samurai Warriors” allows you to take part in the historical battles that shaped the nation during this turbulent time. While dramatic license has been used in portraying these historical conflicts, it is all to enhance the gratuitous amount of action found throughout the title. As you take command of your hero, you’ll find yourself immersed in between armies as they fight for position on the battlefield that is soon to explode all around you. As for a central story, there really isn’t one other than the period of time that the game takes place in and the struggles surrounding Nobunaga’s bid for unification. Whoever you choose as your hero has their own story to tell. Whether or not you can guide them to the ‘best’ outcome is all up to how well you can survive the onslaught to come.
Sword and Samurai
If you have played any of the “Dynasty Warrior” titles in the past, “Samurai Warriors” will seem like another walk in the park. For those that haven’t, the controls have an extremely low learning curve. Most of the game is spent mashing your buttons to swing your weapons and to jump away from enemy soldiers that will be coming to try and swamp you. In addition to your basic attacks, you also have access to a “Musou” attack which is a powered ‘super’ attack combination that empowers your character to do some serious damage against everyone they can get to for a short period. A Musou meter measures how much you have to go before you are able to unleash another one as well as dictating how long your attack can last. Damage and attacking enemies on the field help contribute to its growth as well as special ‘power ups’.
Not all characters are created equal, either. Some will excel in most combat situations whether it is against a mass of sword fodder ready for the slaughter or a line of riflemen ready to blast you from a distance. Others are not so good at the button mashing approach. To make things even more varied, as you complete each character’s story other key players become unlocked allowing you to experience the Warring States period from their perspectives.
“Samurai Warriors” also adds in several RPG-like aspects to the gameplay. As you clear each area, you are graded on your performance (time spent clearing the stage, objectives completed, etc..) and your rating (level) goes up accordingly. This also allows you to earn points that you can spend in purchasing special abilities or enhance ones that you have already bought. For example, some of these abilities can help improve how much your lifebar grows as you earn levels after clearing each area to never experiencing any kind of knockdown effect if you get attacked. There are also elemental effects that may or may not explode with your Musou attacks depending on whether or not the weapon you’ve armed yourself with has any to give. Abilities are available for purchase that can help you shape your character to defend against these as well as eventually be able to unleash them at will. In this way, each character that you take into battle can be customized to meet what you feel is your best style for them.
Your character also has a team of four loyal bodyguards that they start out the main scenarios with. You can even choose what your bodyguards are whether they are sword wielding death dealers, ninjas, or even riflemen. They also gain experience on the battlefield and can become more effective in combat…as long as you continue to use those particular bodyguards. You can even set what their orders are and decide whether you want them to focus on protecting you or just cut them loose and engage everyone at will. And don’t worry if any of them die in your service. They’ll be back in the next scenario. Your bodyguards only earn experience and level up, improving their attack and lasting power. They are also shared among any of the heroes you select. If you decide to start over a new game with another hero, you can still use the bodyguards you helped to ‘train’ in your last adventure. Unfortunately, you can’t purchase abilities for them and for the most part, they’re not as effective as the idea sounds.
While this sounds a great opportunity to grow both your heroes and bodyguards with experience and abilities, there are limits. You (and your bodyguards) are limited to rise only as far as level 20. Once your character reaches that point, they can continue to earn experience but no more levels. This is can be frustrating because your attributes (such as life, speed, agility, etc..) are now frozen and you no longer earn points that you can use to spend on special abilities or improve existing ones. If you are not satisfied with how your character turned out, though, you can always choose to reset their statistics and start from ground zero at a higher difficulty level where the rewards in experience and weapons are better.
And where to get these weapons? The areas that you’ll be fighting in have a variety of containers, some of which contain special items and weapons that become identified if you survive the battle. While the weapons that you find are in keeping with the primary weapon of your chosen character (if your character is using a staff spear to kabob your foes, that’s what you’ll find out there), they vary in terms of damage and special abilities. Some may be enhanced with effects that improve your core abilities (i.e. jumping or defense) and others will also have special ‘elemental’ effects such as fire, electricity, or even life drain. You will also find special items that you can equip your character with such as special sandals that help improve your speed or a saddle that helps your riding ability when you mount horses. Before each battle, you can change their weapon and equip them with the spoils of what you have managed to find. Even if you start the game with another character, you still have access to the special items (if not the weapons) that you had found previously.
And if you find that the characters that are available aren’t enough, you can go and create your own officer and put him through training. The game offers this option for aspiring warriors to throw out the heroes of “Samurai Warriors” and create their own. The way this works is that you start off by selecting what gender you want your hero to be and in selecting the training sessions that you will be putting them through to set up their initial statistics. Training is done over the course of a simulated year with a month dedicated to covering a particular training session. If your character fails or does poorly in any of these training sessions, that’s time that’s permanently lost. There’s no going back and the way that the game saves your progress makes it so that you have to plow through to the end. You may choose to focus on their melee abilities or their bow and arrow skills among others. Depending on what you put them through, at the end you might end up with either the next unifier of Japan or end up with someone better left back at the castle counting rice.
The Art of Chaos
As with “Dynasty Warriors”, “Samurai Warriors” takes the player into several scenarios built around the legendary battles of the time. During the course of these conflicts, you’ll have the opportunity to take part in the objectives and special goals shouted out by the commander on the field or in moments that suddenly present themselves such as a weakness in the enemy’s defensive strategy or an officer that is causing trouble for your forces that will need to be ‘dealt’ with. Depending on your success (or failure) in meeting the objectives in a few of these scenarios, you may find that the campaign story for your character may branch off into a different set of conflicts adding an additional sense of importance to what you can do on the battlefield.
And the battlefields are pretty huge. Ranging from open plains to cavernous caves to temple complexes and castle grounds, “Samurai Warriors” pits the player against the enemy in a variety of decently rendered locales. Fortunately, to help get around these areas, you’ve got horses that you can either mount at the camp or steal from your foes by knocking them off. In some instances, you might even find yourself sitting atop a siege weapon that can shoot spears at anyone foolish enough to charge at you (which is pretty much everyone). To help the player, you also have access to an overview of the battlefield allowing you to check the enemy’s progress.
The battlefields also extend to the interiors of castles in several of the scenarios. The castles won’t typically have the same layout, either, as the game makes use of a ‘random level’ generator to keep things interesting…or frustrating depending on whether or not you are a fan of random levels. With enough playtime, though, some of these layouts become fairly predictable allowing you to find the exit to the next level in record time. Within these castles, enemy soldiers fill these hallways and enemy officers will sometimes guard the way to the next floor. Traps also litter these floors and range from spiked pits to massive swinging blades.
And what would a battlefield be without leaders? On every side of the conflict that you will take part in, there are enemy officers leading the charge. Not only are some of these officers characters that you can also choose to play as, but by defeating them you can disrupt the enemy’s actions on the field. Not only that, but some officers when defeated will also give up items and weapons for you to pick up and use should you survive to the end. Defeating some of these officers will also alter how the scenario plays out. Many times, if you feel you just want to end the scenario, you can ride into the enemy camp and actually throw down against the enemy leader.
The soldiers in the game on both sides range from sword wielding peasants to horse riding spearmen to riflemen and then back into the shadows with ninja assassins. There’s no shortage of foes to dispatch in the title and while they might not be the prettiest batch of pixels on the screen (or the smartest), the officers that are considered key characters in the title do distinguish themselves with their own look and fighting ability. From the flash and color of Mitsuhide to the ominous black armor and burning blade wielded by Nobunaga, when a key character arrives on the scene you are sure to take notice.
The story for each character is also laid out in a series of in-game and rendered cinematics that help to tell their tales. While the stories for each character are different and offer a new perspective to the battles that are being fought from other angles. In addition to this, because of the number of characters that you have to choose from, many have their own endings adding to the appeal of replaying the game as another hero…or villain.
Adding to the presentation is the music which does a decent job in keeping the adrenaline flowing. It’s nothing that you might find yourself humming at work, but it does the job. But what will probably make the biggest impression for this piece of the game is the massive amount of voice acting that is used for many of the officers in the title. You have your choice of listening to the speech in the game in either English or Japanese (subtitles available). Throughout each campaign, they will taunt each other, voice commands, and offer insight on the battlefield to open up opportunities and special missions that you can undertake to help drive the underlying story of the scenario.
Unfortunately, the quality of the English voice acting can range from the melodramatic to the painfully grating. Kunoichi, a female ninja in the title, was the worst of the bunch. Instead of being as fearsome an assassin as you’d expect her to be as a counter to Hanzo, she gives the impression of a giggling, air headed drama queen with knives, only worse. Ranmaru’s voice was also difficult to listen to without resorting to painkillers. As mentioned before, you can always switch to Japanese if you don’t mind reading a lot but with as bad as the English voices were, it’s an option you might want to exercise before starting a campaign. The Japanese voice acting was literally night and day compared to the English, several of the characters almost becoming someone else because of it. Ranmaru was easier to take on the ears and Kunoichi sounded more mischievous than mindless.
The game itself also has a variety of modes to test your skills with if the main campaign is not enough to whet your appetite for war. A Survival Mode is in place allowing you to experience timed combat through a variety of castle levels or descend into the depths as you journey to the bottom of an abyss to confront a mysterious hero. There’s also a Versus Mode where you and another player can actually go head to head with each other, and a Challenge Mode in case you want to try your luck at any of the training exercises from the Officer Mode. You can also try Free Mode where you can pick your favorite hero and play through any of the scenarios you’ve experienced in the campaign mode.
The unbridled chaos and the appeal of pitting one person against armies and ringing up a massive bodycount because of it along with the opportunity to customize their hero sounds appealing. But the action isn’t for everyone. “Samurai Warriors” is, at its heart, a huge button mashing melee game with more than enough cannon fodder to keep action fans satisfied. But for those looking for more than just the simple slashing and bashing action that the title offers against the seemingly endless numbers of foes that fill the battlefields, they might be disappointed in that the game does little else. Despite the fact that the instructions go into some detail about combinations that you can perform and special attacks that you can pull off in the heat of battle, you’ll still find that mashing your buttons to be just as good for most of the battles that you find yourself in.
Another thing that the game has a lot of is screen clutter. While fighting hundreds of soldiers might sound like fun, sometimes it is too much of a good thing especially when you are surrounded trying to kill one officer in particular. All that an officer has floating over their head is a unique name that distinguishes them from the other reeds that you are aiming to cut down all around you. Unfortunately, it becomes very easy to blow them back into the crowd of soldiers gathered around and lose sight of where they are exactly because of the dodgy camera. The camera isn’t horrendous, but it didn’t make things any easier when I found myself fighting against an officer only to kick him out of my field of view and then jump and scramble around trying to find them again before they perform some kind of healing trance. Judicious use of your Musou skills and elemental attacks can help clear some of this, but I always found myself scrambling about to try and keep the officer I was fighting in view.
The castle levels are a new addition to the “Dynasty Warriors” formula, introducing indoor battles. While they help break up the action and offer the additional challenge of having to get through a deathtrap to reach the climactic showdown, the random levels can quickly feel like a waste of time spent more running about aimlessly. A lot of the ‘action’ in these levels involve a lot of pointless wandering and searching for the next staircase or drop hole, indicated by a flashing dot on a blank map that fills with your meanderings, that will take you to the next floor. Occasionally you are also confronted with the objective of taking out an enemy officer somewhere on the level you are on and that does add to the challenge. There are also hidden areas that can only be reached by certain characters that have the ability to double jump, and there is also a time limit that the player has to fight against. Most of the time, the limit is forgiving making it something that you can ignore.
The promise of the officer system is also something else that players might find to be severely lacking and more difficult than it really should have been. After your training, it all comes down to a set of tests at the end of the game as your samurai petitions to join one of the many clans from the title. Each clan has their own set of tests where you must gain a certain number of points that, when combined with the other test, add to or exceed a total of 100 points. Failure means that all of the progress that you have spent in training your samurai are thrown completely out the window. That’s right. Gone. No save, no nothing, no chance to repeat any tests that you might have failed at. You are done and now must start all over again. Succeed, and the samurai that you may gain from the experience may not even be close to what is offered with the default corp of officers already in the game.
Defy the Demon Lord
“Samurai Warriors” is a game that takes the formula of Koei’s “Dynasty Warriors” and puts you in the zori of whatever hero you want to follow the story of as you slash your way into the Sengoku period of Japan’s history. The easy-to-grasp combat system and the relentless action of the title can be a lot of fun as you watch that bodycount counter continue to rise to when you confront other heroes on the battlefield knowing that only one can walk away with the loser’s army scattering to the winds.
But it’s not for everyone, especially if you’re not a fan of the action franchise or are looking for Koei to do something dramatically different with the “Dynasty Warriors” formula other than dropping it into another land. Despite the RPG-elements, special attacks, and mission objectives, most of the game is still spent turning your foes into button mashed sushi. The castle scenarios could have been a lot of fun, but the random levels only add to the random pointlessness that you might feel as you wander about trying to get to the next floor. The hardcore officer training in the game may frustrate and annoy more than a few players for its unforgiving save system and ‘pass or fail’ requirement.
Despite these and other issues, “Samurai Warriors” stands as an adventure that while flawed and familiar, makes no apologies for the kind of action that it offers players. There’s still something in here for everyone, but those looking for more than a gluttony of action might feel a little disappointed.
– World 1-1