For most companies, the lack of gameplay innovation can easily kill a franchise, as gamers turn their backs on purchasing what seems like the same game over and over again. Not so with Koei, the publishers of the cultishly successful Dynasty Warriors series. Somehow, while Dynasty Warriors returned to the same battlefields with the same warriors over and over again with some additions or variations, the hack and slash action it provided kept fans coming back for more. So you can only imagine the surprise these diehard followers must’ve felt when Koei announced that their latest title would crossover to the shores of a new country. Get ready to leave the familiar Warring States period behind for Feudal Japan as we gear up with Samurai Warriors.
Like its older brother, Samurai Warriors takes its background from a historical basis. Set in the turbulent Sengoku period of Japan’s past, Samurai Warriors is a tale of numerous clans and factions fighting each other for control of Japan. Up to three separate banners can take the field of battle, raising the level of chaos to a fever pitch as each side fends for itself. Players choose from one of five initial characters, and, unlike Dynasty Warriors, take them through a personal five-mission story arc through the conflict. Within these missions are a number of primary objectives that players will be tasked with accomplishing, which can range from escorting and protecting your commanding officer to eliminating specific generals. This is often augmented with situational tasks that spring up in the midst of battle, such as coming to the aid of fellow warriors who’ve become surrounded or killing traitors before they can report to their leaders.
Creatively, the success or failure of each objective affects the game in two ways. The first way is that it can determine the future missions of a character thanks to a branching storyline that develops based on things you accomplish or fail at in previous levels. This also affects the number of potential weapons and characters that you’ll unlock at the end of each operation, heightening the replayability of the game dramatically. This, in turn, feeds the second factor, that of a RPG-like character development system. At the end of every mission, a character’s progress is evaluated based on the number of people killed, number of objectives completed, time taken to finish a mission and so forth. While stats such as strength and agility are automatically adjusted, players receive a number of skill points that can be used to purchase new skills or attacks. These include speed, power and elemental abilities, which lets dedicated gamers build very powerful individualized fighters, even turning them into practically unstoppable killing machines. This perseverance will also result in developing stronger and more powerful weapons (five levels in all) and at least 30 separate mystical items that can be taken into combat with you.
If you’re a fan of Dynasty Warriors, you’ve become accustomed to the additional modes that flavor the Samurai Warriors game. Aside from the single and 2 player co-op modes, there’s also a single and 2 player Free mode to play any previously cleared level and a 1 or two player VS. Mode that lets gamers duel with their favorite characters. There are two separate Survival mode stages included where you fight off as many warriors as possible -- one where you try to ascend to the top of a tower within a specified time limit and another where you try to descend to the bottom of an abyss.
There’s also a New Officer Mode, where players get to create their own character that can be imported within the Story mode. However, unlike the Dynasty Warriors series, these officers have to prove themselves worthy to join a clan before they can take on missions within the story mode. Once an officer has been created, they have to be trained by a martial arts master in a number of training exercises, including archery, horseback riding and weapon deflection. This is by no means a quick process; creating and training your invented warrior takes a year of game time, and your stats can range up and down based on your performance in your training exercises. At the end of that year, you enter the Trials of Acceptance, where clans test your abilities in two separate exercises to judge your skill. If you succeed, your character is fully established and can be used in the game. If you fail, the game ends and the character is worthless.
For fans of Dynasty Warriors, battles remain just as hectic as ever, with the number of soldiers swinging weapons onscreen still numbering in the dozens of fighters. A character still has up to four bodyguards with them at all times, but ninjas and musketeers now join footsoldiers and archers. These supporting warriors can be given specific orders, such as defense of your character or free for all attacks of anyone within range, all of which can contribute to your experience points or KO meter. Other attacks, such as charged strikes and Musou attacks, are still included as well, letting your fighters clear large swaths through opposing ranks, but these can now be augmented if your characters have elemental attack skills which imbue your strikes with fire, lightning, ice or darkness. You can also receive additional combo strikes and juggling moves as the level of your weapon goes up. If you manage to get a level 5 weapon, for instance, you can launch 10+ hit combos with one charged blow.
While Samurai Warriors builds upon the framework of Dynasty Warriors graphically, there are plenty of stylistic changes that establish the difference between cultures. First of all, the battlefields are much darker than Dynasty Warriors, which seems fitting given the stern, austere attitude of the Samurai class. This also carries over to the character designs, which seem a little less flashy, yet more detailed. (Don’t get me wrong, there are some extravagant characters included, but they don’t come across as wildly as their Chinese counterparts) The cutscenes and CG movies are very slick, and the battlefield animation looks rather smooth, particularly when you’re cutting down generic soldiers. The Musou attacks, including the blur effects and stop-motion camera freezes look better than ever, although they can cause significant frame rate drops when you’re slicing up a large number of foes. Creatively, while the Xbox is more powerful than the PS2, and can handle almost a dozen or so more fighters per screen, it still suffers from the same frame issues. What’s more, there’s a negligible difference in screen quality between the two versions, so you’re not really seeing the full strength of the system coming to play in this title. The biggest fault with the game (and indeed the “Warriors” family) remains the camera, which can be jerky or unwieldy when trying to frame the onscreen action in the best way, particularly around walls, fortress barriers or environmental obstacles.
Sound is much more contained than that of the Dynasty Warriors series, with a more traditional flavor to it. Samurai Warriors’ drums and flutes replace the guitar rock found in Dynasty Warriors, although it does tend to get drowned out thanks to the sound effects and battle cries that pour constantly from the speakers. However, these tunes and effects are presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, which sounds great if you happen to have that particular set up for your gaming environment. What is most disappointing is the English vocal acting, which on the whole tends to be extremely bad. Thankfully, gamers can switch over to the original Japanese dialogue, which is much better.
There are a couple of things that keeps Samurai Warriors from being an exceptional game though. First of all, Story mode is somewhat short, even with the ability to augment and boost your warrior’s stats or unlock new items. Considering that you can practically disregard some of the other objectives in favor of completing your primary tasks only, casual gamers will be able to blow through most of the stories found within a few hours. For the hardcore fan, players might start to get attached to a character only to discover that their adventure is over way too quickly, and while boosting the stats is nice, it’s almost an appetizer instead of a full course meal. Additionally, while there are a ton of items and skills to acquire and unlock, there aren’t nearly as many playable characters. There are little more than 15 playable characters exist within Samurai Warriors (not counting ones that are created by gamers), while the last Dynasty Warriors game had more than 40. I know that there were many more “legendary” characters considering the novel and source material that Dynasty Warriors is based on, but they could’ve included many more for Samurai Warriors, even if they had to make some up. Considering that Kunoichi is a made up “nameless” female ninja, it wasn’t outside of their grasp.
The other somewhat disappointing thing is that for all of the innovations, the “Warriors” titles are still somewhat of a mindless hack and slash against thousands of spawning foot soldiers, peppered intermittently with a commanding officer, hero or general. The monotony of constantly mowing down these hordes is somewhat lightened with the introduction of solo missions here and there which removes your character from the battlefield and places them in a sprawling keep or building, but even these suffer from aforementioned problems: Once you’ve gotten used to them, they’re practically over too quickly, and there are a number of times where they simply degenerate into indoors 1-on-1000 fights instead of outdoors. This is somewhat disappointing, because the inclusion of the indoors could’ve been handled much better, possibly with more RPG/Stealth facets, for instance. Instead, once you’ve cut down one soldier, you’ve cut down a hundred of them, and with the exception of higher difficulty levels that force you to rethink your tactics at times, you may find yourself bored with being a walking dervish of steel and death.
This isn’t to say that Samurai Warriors is a bad game; to the contrary, the create a soldier mode that is dependent upon your skill with activities is a fresh spin to the player generated fighter, and the inclusion of RPG-esque elements take the rather tired elements from Dynasty Warriors and injects new blood into the genre. In fact, the new twists on the hack and slash action may be enough to attract a new crowd of gamer to this and the other “Warriors” titles. However, short campaigns, limited characters and quickly repetitive gameplay do dull the shine on an otherwise impressive step forward in Koei’s Historical Action library.