I’m a newcomer to Tecmo Koei’s series of Warriors games, having never tried out Dynasty Warriors, Samurai Warriors, Warriors Orochi, nor other related series featuring powerful warriors slicing and dicing their way through literal armies of enemies (not counting a five minute play session at a Toys R’ Us of one of the Dynasty Warriors games based off the Gundam series). Given how many of these games there are, I never felt the need nor the desire to follow them. I’m what you would call an “obsessive” gamer, in the sense that once I decide to get involved with a particular series, I stick with it and get every (story-based) game connected to it. Naturally, had I done such a thing with even one of these Warriors series I would have found myself in even more dire need of cash, not to mention space for my other games. Still, I’ve always been somewhat intrigued by these games, despite their apparent lack of variety and button-mashing combat, plus I’ve always had a fondness for samurai. Now, thanks to Tecmo Koei providing us with an early review code for Samurai Warriors 4: Empires, I decided this was the time to try my hand at one of these games.
One thing that should be noted right off the bat is that Samurai Warriors 4: Empires is an expanded re-release of the previous Samurai Warriors 4-II released in North America and Europe late last year, which was itself a revised version of the original Samurai Warriors 4 released in the same regions in late 2014. Similarly to the much older Samurai Warriors 2: Empires for the PS2, this game does not feature a traditional story mode and has no established narrative (there are cutscenes, but they all play out depending on how a battle ends or when officers become friends, so they tend to repeat themselves). Instead, the main Conquest Mode offers us different scenarios to choose from that cover a number of historical battles during Japan’s feudal era, like the Battle of Okehazama in 1560 or the Incident at Honnoji in 1582. In each scenario, all the different clans under the rule of famous warlords like Nobunaga Oda, Ieyasu Tokugawa, Shingen Takeda, etc. will start out in separate territories. After choosing a clan to control, you then go about gaining more territories and protecting those already under your rule, usually by invading other clan’s territories or defending yourself from other clans when they attack your territories.
You’ll spend just as much time preparing for battles, upgrading your defenses, and managing your resources in the “Politics” phase as you will actually taking part in battles. Choosing which officers will serve as your daimyo’s (warlord’s) strategists and magistrates, which territories you will place all your officers, which officers become close allies, whether you will invade other territories or let a few seasons pass by so you can better prepare for an attack from other clans, all these decisions will be left up to you and can make or break your clan’s success.
Unfortunately, the tutorials that explain how everything works and what effect different policies and decisions will have on your clan are very basic, and the menu is initially rather confusing to navigate as well. There’s a very high learning curve for newcomers especially, and it took me a while to figure certain things out such as how each time you purchase a new battle tactic or formation to use in a battle, it’s a one time use only deal and can’t be used again until you purchase it again the next time you’re in the “Politics” phase, assuming you have enough money. Speaking of, money and provisions are very important and affect how many of your officers can participate in a battle and even the battle’s time limit (a maximum of 15 minutes). Money is also needed to build other castles and add extra wings to them, like shops for upgrading your officers’ weapons and stables for their mounts.
While the decisions you make during the “Politics” phase have a strong impact on how easy or difficult a battle may be, strangely, most battles end up feeling the same. A big reason for that is because the objectives pretty much never change: If you’re invading another clan’s territory, you have to take over as many of their bases as you can in order to draw out their leader, and defeating their leader before the timer runs out is your only way to a certain victory. You lose if all your bases get taken over, if time runs out, or if the main officer you’re playing as is defeated (more on that later). If you’re defending one of your territories from an attacking clan, then the only way to win would be by either taking out the enemy’s leader or by keeping at least one of your bases from being captured before the timer runs out and the enemy retreats. The best way to go about all this is basically by button mashing your way through hundreds of enemies like a madman.
While it is rather satisfying felling hundreds of enemies like a one-man army, the samey combat makes it all feel repetitive in the long run. The use of counter-attacks, dodge techniques, high damaging “musou” attacks that kill multiple enemies simultaneously, and rage abilities that offer temporary invincibility and increased attack strength help shake things up a bit, nevertheless, the repetition is strong in this one.
As previously mentioned, if the character you’re playing as is defeated, then you lose the battle. However, as you take part in more battles and certain officers develop friendships and rivalries, you will then be able to switch between these main officers who are bosom buddies with each other whenever you want, and should one of them fall, then you take control of your “spare officer”. For example, if the spear wielding warrior Tadakatsu Honda and the ninja Hanzo Hattori become friends, then you’ll be able to switch between those two characters on the fly during battles, assuming you chose one of them as your main playable character. So, while the characters you can play as are limited by your chosen clan and this “friendly warriors” feature in each particular playthrough, in total there are 56 different warriors you can play as with all kinds of weapons available to them, including swords and shields, katanas, spears, axes, ect.
You will be relying a lot on your fellow AI controlled officers to help you out in the many battles you will take part in, and fortunately these AI allies can actually hold their own, and they’re even smart enough to stay spread out in the battlefield instead of bunching together in the same place and leaving bases vulnerable to enemy forces. If need be, you can also direct each officer to specific locations in the battlefield to help you or other officers in a pinch. One other feature I enjoyed was being able to create and customize my own character who could join in on these battles with the other officers of your chosen clan. Gender, face, eyes, hair color, height, weight, and other features can all be adjusted, and I was surprised at how many different customization options were available. You can also choose among many different pieces of armor that can be mixed and matched, and their colors can be adjusted too. Even though armor is purely cosmetic and doesn’t affect your stats in any way, your choice of weapon does affect your character’s fighting style, and extra upgrades can be added to it once you unlock the shop to grant increased health, defense, speed, and so on (this goes for all officers in your clan, as well).
Aside from the main Conquest Mode, the only other gameplay mode worth noting is Genesis Mode, which basically lets you play through the same battle scenarios as Conquest Mode, only you get to move all officers around and put them in whatever clans you wish, effectively creating your own custom clans: Nobunaga Oda’s officers can work for Ieyasu Tokugawa instead, for example. Not a mode I had much use for, but fans of the series would probably like it. The camera was rather annoying to deal with at times. More than once it got hung up on nearby walls and I completely lost sight of my character as he got gang banged by forty jerk-offs. I found myself having to constantly adjust the camera as enemies I attacked sidled out of view; adding a lock-on feature so you could focus on other enemy officers would have been nice. At the very least, I experienced no slowdown whatsoever and the game ran smoothly, even when the screen was filled with more bodies than empty space. I have no doubt that fans of the Samurai Warriors series will find plenty to keep them busy with this game, while newcomers like myself will likely be better off playing one of the more story driven Warriors Orochi games instead.
**Review code for PS4 provided by Tecmo Koei**