I’m a new player to the long-running Dynasty Warriors/Samurai Warriors series games, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have an extreme amount of fun while dominating Feudal Japan. I knew of the ridiculous amount of enemies that the player must hack and slash through and the detailed story lines that Koei Tecmo/Omega Force has put together in the past, but never really felt the urge to get into the series. I’m regretting that decision now that I’ve played Samurai Warriors 4: Empires. The game sucked me in as I took over parts of Japan piece by piece, and I found myself saying for hours on end, “Just one more battle”.
When first starting the Conquest Mode in Samurai Warriors 4: Empires I quickly learned that it’s a strategy game first and a hack and slash second. This is made apparent when the very first task that you, the Daimyo, are assigned to do after picking a clan is to appoint a Strategist. You must choose wisely when assigning the Strategist as this is going to be your right hand man who will be helping you make decisions that you may not be too sure about. He’s a very handy guide who you can delegate tasks to if your just wanting to take a more hands-off approach. Also the more you interact with your Strategist and let him make decisions the more your relationship will improve, which grants you enhanced tactics to bring to the battlefield. I found myself utilizing my Strategist often during my first few hours of the game just to get a feel on what task should take precedence over the other. Once I felt comfortable with the outcome of the tasks I delegated I was able to formulate strategies of my own.
After the task of assigning your Strategist, you’ll be introduced to a new feature in the Samurai Warriors games: your own 3D virtual castle. This will be your main hub where you will provide orders and tackle the politics phase of the game. It is here that you will assign your subordinate officers as “Magistrates” to place in different parts of your castle, which in turn will develop and build your clan. These Magistrates will provide you with policy suggestions and it’s up to you to decide which of these policies to employ. These suggestions can lead to a stronger military, a higher yield of crop for the season, and a greater amount of gold to be mined. It’s a nice balancing act that takes place in the interworking of the game as each Magistrate has recommendations, but you’re only provided with so many directives per phase so you will have to figure out which recommendation to pass on. If you were to ignore a magistrate too often they may become unhappy and will not be as useful on the battlefield.
As you build up your territories and are successful in battle, you will be able to enhance your castle. Enhanced castles contain more rooms, which allow more Magistrates to be assigned, and also a wider range of policies to be provided. The 3D castle itself is similar to a dollhouse in which the back is cut off so you’re able to see everything going on inside. It’s a nice system, which replaces what would normally be a convoluted menu in most games. Seeing the castle grow as I built my empire gave me a very satisfying feeling and it made me strive to just build it up as much as possible. Within the castle walls you’ll witness your Magistrates interacting with each other but you’ll also be alerted of their suggestions via the icons above their head. When an exclamation icon appears you can choose that character to trigger a cut scene, which could include a bond forming between two Magistrates or a conversation between the Diamyo and another of the games many characters. These cut scenes help move what little story the game has along and I often witnessed the same scene playing out with just different character skins. There really isn’t much of a story at all here. It’s worth noting that the game is all in Japanese so you will be reading the subtitles during these cut scenes. The Japanese language is totally understandable considering this is set in Japan but an English track would have been welcome especially during the battle sequence which I’ll get to later in the review. All in all I believe Samurai Warriors fans will find the virtual castle a welcome addition to the franchise.
I believe Empires to be mostly a strategy game but the battles sequences are just simply amazing. Again, I’m new to the Musou/Warriors games so I was unaware of the simplistic nature of the battles. Simply button mashing the square and triangle buttons on my controller often got me through hundreds of enemies but I wasn’t getting the full sense of bad-assery the game was capable of. Since there are only two main action buttons in battle I quickly was pulling off 1,000 hit combos that sent the enemy flying hundreds of feet in the air and hurling over cliffs to their deaths. Commanding officers and stage bosses will acquire more of your attention so the button mashing and normal combos will not do. They often block your strong attack so you’ll have to do a bit of planning and strategizing to eventually hit them with your Musou attack. The more combos you pull off and enemies you kill will fill up your Musou meter and once this is full you can unleash a powerful finishing move by simply pressing the circle button. If you want to feel like a total bad ass this will fill the need. Pulling this off and slaughtering hundreds of enemies all while taking out the stage’s boss gave me an exhilarating feeling not many games are able to accomplish.
While the battles are exhilarating they do come with some problems. I never really felt the camera was giving me the best angle to view the action and often found myself moving the right stick to figure out what was happening. The in game camera moved slowly and this doesn’t feel right since the battles happen so fast. Also the camera always seems to be tilted down which seemed I was often looking at my character’s feet. Along with that issue I also had an issue with the on screen map, which can be found at the top corner of the screen. There is just too much going on with the map and I couldn’t seem to find myself without having to take my eyes off the battle to find my character indicator. I constantly lost track of my location on the map and it took me a few seconds to find my green indicator in the sea of red dots.
Getting back to the subtitles in the game, I want to point out that these have also made their way to the battlefield. This is fine and all but when your trying to focus on the battle it’s hard to remove yourself and read what’s happening on the other side of the map. I’ve missed some pretty important battle talk because I was too focused on the task at hand. Most of the time these lines of text are just trash talk between factions, but sometimes there is important information that I totally missed and on one occasion this caused me to lose a battle. This could have been avoided if maybe English voice work had been recorded at least for the battle sequences.
During the quick and frantic pace of the battlefield I experienced absolutely no slow down or hiccups at all. The PS4 handled all the action pretty well but I believe this is because graphically Empires isn’t too pretty. This is not to say it looks like a PS3 game, but you will easily notice textures that look just awful. On one particular battlefield, I couldn’t help but laugh at the water looking like some odd black slime that was swallowing up the land. Luckily you will only notice the graphics during a small un-skippable intro that plays before each battle. During some of the battles I experienced enemies just popping up out of nowhere. This would happen when I was about to overtake a base but the AI decided it wasn’t time just yet. It took me out of the action for a brief second but this occurred rarely in my time with the game. Once the battle begins all your focus will be diverted from the bland textures to the beautiful view of hundreds of bodies being strewn about.
Another huge feature that Empires adds is the Genesis Mode. In this mode the player is given the ability to freely distribute clans and play a game of their creation. This will please anyone who wishes to conquer all the land at the start of the game or to put themselves at a major disadvantage. When you pair this mode with edit mode you’re free to make the game to your exact liking. Customizing your characters appearance is made pretty easy with a nice & simple to navigate creation menu. I can imagine fans of the series spending hours upon hours creating hundreds of different scenarios.
As if all these modes weren’t enough the game has a vault in which players can view archived cut scenes, but most surprisingly it included biographies of famous officers from Japan. This totally amazed me as I spent more time reading these biographies in a video game then paying attention to American history in my high school history class. See mom, games can teach you things!
Samurai Warriors 4: Empires has definitely garnered my interest in the series. It blends a good strategy game with amazing hack and slash action My judgment may differ from others who have played the series for years but I’m pretty comfortable in saying any new gamers who jump on the series here will not be disappointed. I’d recommend playing the previous games first but if you’re really interested in strategy games I’d say give this a go.
Final Verdict: 4 / 5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (reviewed) PlayStation 3, Vita ; Publisher: KOEI Tecmo America ; Developer: Omega Force; Release Date: March 15, 2016; ESRB: T for Teen; MSRP: $59.99 ($39.99 on Vita)
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of Samurai Warriors 4: Empires provided by the game’s publisher, KOEI Tecmo America.