Review: Samurai Warriors 4 Empires

Learning Through Battle

When most people sit down and load up a game, they’re doing so as a form of entertainment. It’s a way to unwind after a long day…or perhaps, something to do for an entire day. Either way, most of us play to have a good time, maybe get a bit competitive, sometimes experience a good story. Occasionally, in my case, to critique.

But there are others that we do not often speak of. Others that continue to play games many of us left behind with our childhood years. These people are the ones who play games for their…educational value.

All kidding aside, while purely-educational games aren’t too common in the general gaming world, there are some popular major titles that one might be able to learn something from. Take, for instance, some of the major series from developer and publisher Koei Tecmo.

Many of the major series from the Koei side of the company have a strong historical focus, with quite a few taking place during periods of Japanese and Chinese history. Even more specific, they seem to really focus on two major periods of these histories: the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history, and the Sengoku period of Japanese history. Both of these periods, which involved wars between various states and clans in their respective countries, worked well as backdrops for Koei’s first major games, both of them strategy games: Nobunaga’s Ambition and Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Both of these games used their source material in a relatively serious fashion. However, when Koei Tecmo went back to these historical influences for their upcoming hack-and-slash series, they decided to take a few more liberties with the texts.

Enter the Warriors series, starting with Dynasty Warriors. While the first game in the series was a fighting game, every future entry is firmly planted in the hack-and-slash genre. The game returns to the Three Kingdoms period, with the stages representing notable historical battles…but this time, you’re a one-man killing machine with super power attacks and magical weapons. Not exactly historically accurate, but there’s enough in the setting that one can legitimately learn from.

Fast forward two console generations and many many games later and we reach the entry we are looking at today. Samurai Warriors 4 Empires is a spinoff of Samurai Warriors 4-II, itself a revision of Samurai Warriors 4, which itself is a spinoff of the Dynasty Warriors series. Got that straight? Good. This game’s focus is once again on the Sengoku period of Japanese history, taking the hack-and-slashiness of 4-II and adding in some systems of strategy games.

Samurai Warriors 4 Empires (SW4E hereafter) was developed by Koei Tecmo division Omega Force, published by Koei Tecmo, and released in the West on March 15th, 2016. The game is available on PS3, Vita, and PS4. The PS4 version was played for this review.

To Unite the Land

There isn’t really one singular story in SW4E. When you first boot the game and enter story mode, you are given a choice between three scenarios (with a further three unlocked as you play the game). Each scenario is based around a major battle or moment in the Sengoku period. Within each scenario, you can choose which clan you would like to control, after which you will follow that clan’s story.

For example, for your first scenario, the game encourages you to play the Battle of Okehazama, the battle in which the one man from the Sengoku period Westerners might know, Oda Nobunaga, began his rise to power. Of course, you’re encouraged to select his clan to play as…and doing so drops you right into the namesake battle. Further details of the story are presented as you play through the game, unlocking as you complete various tasks, fight against specific people or enemies, or form bonds between characters.

Really, the amount of story detail you experience is up to you. Actually having some historical knowledge of this period goes a long way, as cutscenes and plot points activate more if you perform tasks or meet people that members of your chosen clan actually did do or meet. Helpful in this is that the game includes an encyclopedia of the many characters, giving quick synopses of their lives and major moments. If you’re actually interested in the history, this inclusion is quite interesting to read through.

It isn’t all historical, though. There are some original story moments, mostly focusing on the relationships between members of your clan and how they go about their days. While these moments do help characterization, they’re honestly not as interesting as the historical moments.

Strategize and Smash

SW4E‘s gameplay is sharply divided into two segments: the hack-and-slash battles, and the strategy phases in between.

The strategy phases are the unique part of this game, and the signature of Warriors games with the “Empires” subtitle. During this phase, you have multiple options and choices you can make to develop the territories that you own. When first starting a game, you need to give your initial clan members different jobs. One is appointed as your clan’s strategist, while the others can head up military, personnel, and development as magistrates. Each clan member has their own strengths and weaknesses in each job, and has other members that they either like or dislike.

It’s during this initial setup that my main gripe with the strategy segments comes to light: not enough of the systems are explained. While the tutorials tell you what each job does, along with some basic pointers (like the aforementioned “like and dislike” between members), there are many other aspects that come into play that get no mention. What do each of your member’s stats contribute to their job? Why do the magistrates all have arrows above their heads pointed different directions? As far as I experienced, these aren’t mentioned in the game; I had to load up the online manual to get a full description.

Once the initial setup is done, the strategy phase really begins. Each turn (represented by a season of the year), you are allowed a certain number of actions depending on how high your “Fame” score is. Your magistrates will propose certain sets of policies you can enact each turn, dependent on their job and what skills they have. These policies range from hiring more officers to learning skills for your army and developing your territories. While the magistrate suggestions are generated somewhat randomly each turn, you can also directly enact policies on your own, although going this path means you won’t be able to do as much each turn.

Nearly every policy you can enact in this phase relies on two resources: gold and supplies. The main source of gold comes from each territory’s commerce strength, while supplies come from their rice yield. Having to balance these can make some of the strategy gameplay rather slow in the early game, but as you expand your empire and power, these resources eventually start to feel like they’re limitless. By the time I controlled half the map, gold and supplies were flowing in faster than I could spend them.

Speaking of which, once you’re done enacting policies, you move to the map screen. Here you can see the territories of yours and rival clans, and select whether to attack a territory or not. If you do decide to attack, or if you are attacked, the game shifts to it’s second segment, the hack-and-slash mode.

Once battle is declared, you can assemble your army from your choice of officers in the territories surrounding your target. You get direct control of the lead officer, while the others are controlled by AI. However, if your main officer has a relationship of any kind with another participating officer, you are free to switch to them during battle.

The battles themselves are focused on capturing bases. Within each base, you must weaken it by slaughtering faceless foot soldiers by the hundreds until the base becomes yours. If an enemy officer enters the base, though, they must either be defeated or pushed out of the base before it can be captured. All bases are connected by chains on a minimap, and those further in the chain contain much stronger enemies and require more time to take. However, if you do manage to take deeper bases and break the chain, all bases on the outside of the chain become yours as well.

Minor risk/reward situations like that are about the extent of the strategy available in this mode. While you can command your allies to charge, defend, or roam freely, you’ll still be doing most of the work on your own. Being able to switch between characters definitely helps battles move smoother rather than relying on the occasionally iffy AI, and luckily, battle controls are dead simple enough that switching to a new character is rather easy.

The Warriors series is infamous for it button-mashing-heavy gameplay, and SW4E is no exception. You have one button for standard attacks and one for faster power attacks. Mashing these in different sequences pulls off different moves, but it’s also just as easy to wail on the buttons randomly and still come out on top. You also have access to a powerful “Musou Attack” at the tap of a button once a bar is charged. This attack can wipe out a quarter of a enemy base in one shot, and the energy bar powers up so fast that it is easy to spam as well. Access to this attack can make defeating enemy officers a cakewalk as well. Once I discovered this attack (after not knowing about it for a couple hours, again, due to the weak tutorial) I never lost a battle. Ever.

Rougher Times

The problem with cross-generation game releases is that the version released on the stronger console never seems to receive much benefit from it. After all, the game had to be programmed to run on an older platform as well. While SW4E doesn’t look bad by any means, it definitely doesn’t look like it benefits much from the strength of the PS4 either. While I’ve never had the strongest eye for “great graphics,” the standout issue I noticed was in aliasing, which I saw mostly during story scenes. As the camera moves around scenes, it’s impossible to not notice the jagged edges everywhere in the environment.

Character animation during story scenes also appears to be rather stiff. Movements can look somewhat unnatural and the faces rarely if ever emote while speaking. Oddly enough, though, animations looks just fine, if not occasionally outright excellent, during battle segments. I guess this is understandable, as hack-and-slash is what this series has been doing for nearly two decades, so Koei Tecmo knows their way around it. It’s just unfortunate the same care wasn’t given to scenes in the strategy sections.

Booming Voices

The soundtrack itself isn’t particularly stand-out, although it does complement the game rather well. Most all of the tracks have a kind of “Asian flair” to them, with the tracks during strategy mode being more laid back and those during battles being more in-your-face with heavy metal guitars and all that.

The game is fully voice acted, and the purists out there can rejoice, because SW4E retains all of the original Japanese voice acting. Much like everything else in this game, the voice actors don’t appear to take things too seriously. Many of the clan heads have actors that are obviously giving straight-up cheesy performances on purpose. However, these performances work well in this game. After all, you’re already in the process of uniting feudal Japan with fireball-launching guns and glowing swords, so why not just go full crazy?

My only complaint about the voices would be the incredibly repetitive voice clips that play when dealing with magistrates in the strategy sections. Every time you select a magistrate, a short voice clip plays…and it seems like there’s only about 3-4 VAs involved in these clips. So you will hear the same things often…and they will grate on your nerves if you spend a lot of time in the strategy segments like I did.

Wear Down the Buttons

Overall, SW4E attempts to do quite a bit with all of its systems, but falls short in a few aspects. While the strategy segments aren’t particularly complicated, the lack of information and instruction for some of the systems makes learning some of this portion an exercise in trial by error…unless you jump online to read the manual, of course. While strategizing well is a rewarding challenge early in the game, it becomes a bit too easy in late game due to the ease of obtaining resources.

While the action gameplay is definitely well refined here, it still runs into the problem of becoming quickly repetitive. Enemy armies rarely present a challenge unless you’re vastly outnumbered, and the sequence of mashing buttons to take bases one-by-one becomes a clockwork rhythm, one that you can turn your brain off and repeat the motions until you win.

If you’re already a fan of the Warriors series, this game is just more to love, and the strategy game on top of the battle system is a great addition to already solid gameplay. However, if you’re burned out on the series, there isn’t much here to make it worth coming back to. This is a game that is hard to justify at full price, but give it some time to come down and you’ll find some entertaining, mostly mindless fun.

Who knows, you might learn something as well!

~ Final Score: 5/10 ~

Review copy provided by Koei Tecmo for PS4. Screenshots taken by reviewer.