Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Samurai Warriors 5 plays to the strengths of the series without really taking any new chances, but still delivering the smoothest, most polished title in the series to date. There’s plenty of cinematic flair during this retelling of Japan’s Warring States era that brings more life to the characters than ever before, and I found myself greatly enjoying several afternoons of one-against-many action.
My first exposure to this storyline came many, many years ago, and it was a very vague, watered down experience by comparison to what we get here in Samurai Warriors 5. I fell in love with the Koei strategy games many console generations ago, but Nobunaga’s Ambition was the first one I played. Now, that was a very slowly paced, strategic game that had you balancing economy as well as turn-based combat, but it gave me my first exposure to the story that I remained interested in for years.
I bring that up, because Samurai Warriors 5 certainly delivers a great deal more on the story front. Sure, it’s a hyper stylized telling of the Warrior States period, but the focus is on the characters. You get a much better sense of the bravado, bravery and cunning of the characters here. I find that this kind of storytelling works well with the type of gameplay the Warriors titles features as well. You are taking control of one character at a time (though you may switch back and forth with another in many maps), taking on hordes of nameless characters that you can mow down with little to no effort. They’re the red shirts of Star Trek, basically. They as individuals don’t matter to the plot at all, they’re just there to add a sense of scope to the idea of large, warring factions and that a handful of specific characters are much more important to the story than they are.
For those who haven’t played musou games, the concept is pretty simple. Your characters have a couple of different types of attacks, while chaining together kills and hits to build up gauges that in turn allow you to pull off spectacularly devastating super attacks. A normal horizontal swing might hit five or six enemies at a time, and three quick horizontal slashes in a row might be all it takes to kill them. However, unloading one massive attack could wipe out dozens of enemies at one or more, depending on the attack and how you time and aim it. There are more intricate controls baked in, such as horseback riding, special attacks, temporary stat boosts, blocking and parrying and so on, but most of the time you won’t need any of this. The average enemy is a few ordinary strikes away from defeat.
That being said, there are other important named characters on the battlefield, and not all of them are on your side. This is where those additional moves come in handy – especially on higher levels of difficulty. Most one-on-one duels are still fairly easy, but if you get clustered in and around three or four of these named generals on a higher level of difficulty, you could find yourself on the receiving end of a lot of damage very quickly.
If Samurai Warriors 5 was just about these simple combat situations, it would get old for me rather quickly. However, over the years the developer has gotten better and better and mixing up the content with battle conditions that often change during the level. You might start a stage with a cut and dry objective of “Kill the specific general on the other side” and a lost condition of “don’t let your top general die”. However, things seldom play out that easily, and this is one of the areas where Samurai Warriors 5 kept me thoroughly engaged. Almost every stage is segmented into small sections where combat tends to cluster up, but the series has evolved in such a way that the layout looks much more natural than it used to. Instead of looking like a bunch of rooms awkwardly strung together hallways, the terrain feels more open. This encourages you to use your horse to move from one side of the field to the next region more quickly.
This approach certainly lends a nice sense of scale to the combat. It feels like large armies warring against one another. You will get updated objectives throughout, such as lending assistance to a partner who is suddenly losing, or capturing a specific area in the battlefield. Along the way optional objectives will come up that that allow you to earn more experience and rewards, encouraging you to explore the battlefield and take on enemy generals you might not otherwise encounter.
The experience and items earned this way make up the almost Diablo-esque gameplay loop that I enjoy so much about most of the Warriors titles. Your chosen characters gain experience and can then unlock new skills and perks along the way. Additionally, there are quite a few different weapons that drop, and even if the weapon itself is not useful to you, oftentimes they have additional perks such as increased attack or adding fire to your swings that you can peel off of one weapon and apply to another for a cost. These lightweight RPG elements are a lot of fun, and Samurai Warriors 5 doubles down on that with its new system for upgrading your castle.
Gold and materials earned while playing the game can be used to purchase upgrades to your blacksmiths, shops, dojos and more. This allows you to purchase better items or provide better upgrades to your weapons or generals. It’s a fantastic progression element and comes with its own unique non-story mode that almost plays out like a tower defense mini-game for additional materials. This new mode is called Citadel Mode, and instead of the story campaign that usually sees you trying to conquer regions, you have a base (or multiple bases) that enemies stream towards and attack. You have to hold them off through a series of different scenarios that escalate in difficulty. Like everything else in the game, this gives you experience, gold and items that link to your primary pool of unlocked characters, continuously rewarding you for putting time in.
In terms of the presentation, Samurai Warriors 5 is by far the most attractive title in the series yet. The technical limitations of the console generation still show up here and there (environments are not overly animated and lively, armies of characters just materialize out of thin air at times, things like that), but the painted art style is incredibly attractive here. Characters look and move very nicely, especially in the cutscenes and it only lends that much more personality to the characters when you see Nobunaga’s well-meaning but arrogant demeanor coming through. Cutscenes not only occur between levels, but sometimes during gameplay. The first time or two was somewhat jarring when the action cut away to a scripted scene, but once I got used to seeing them, I began to anticipating them. These scenes are incredibly stylish, as are the game’s most powerful super attacks. Watching a character deliver a major attack to a hundred characters and strike a splashy watercolor-esque post afterwards is very satisfying.
The combat is not going to be for everyone, as it’s not overly technical or complicated, so the smashing of buttons is generally enough to see you through most of the game. The combat is not as deep or satisfying as the progression elements that occur between stages, but the varied objectives help to keep the stages fresh, even if the actual act of combat doesn’t vary up a great deal. It helps to try out different characters who specialize in different weapons. Of course, you can just dump all of your resources into a single powerhouse character, but there are some stages that require you use specific characters who might then be a bit underdeveloped.
There is a great deal to like about Samurai Warriors 5. The new art style is incredibly appealing, the progression elements make for a compelling gameplay loop and the focus on characters has made the narrative more interesting than ever. The series feels less niche than it has been in the past, with a handful of different modes to encourage replay, even if the combat itself still remains pretty simple by and large.Score: 8.25 / 10