Review: Samurai Warriors 5
When I first booted up Samurai Warriors 5, I wasn’t sure what to expect. On the one hand, I’d played Warriors games before, and was well aware of their penchant for delivering a unique action game experience while also not switching things up too much. On the other hand, it was clear that this particular entry into the Samurai Warriors series was setting itself up to be something a little different.
From the jump, it showed off a distinctly new visual style and completely revamped character designs that set it apart from not just the likes of its Dynasty Warriors sister series, but the other Samurai Warriors titles that came before it. What’s more, the game was described as “a new beginning” for the series around the time of its announcement.
With this in mind, I started the game wondering if it would be able to succeed in the tough balancing act of trying to onboard new players to the series while also appeasing longtime fans. After seeing the story through to its completion, I’m happy to say that it succeeds on both fronts—with a few caveats.
Samurai Warriors 5 is developed by Omega Force, published by Koei Tecmo, and will release on Switch, PS4, Xbox One, and PC on July 27th, 2021. The PS4 version was played for this review.
Like its predecessors, Samurai Warriors 5 reimagines and romanticizes the Sengoku period of Japan, with many different families and clans vying for control over the country through constant war.
At the core of the game’s narrative are the two perspectives of its primary characters: Oda Nobunaga and Akechi Mitsuhide. The storylines of these two characters run concurrently, diverging and intersecting as you make your way through Musou Mode (read: Story Mode). It’s worth pointing out that Nobunaga is undoubtedly the star of the show though; you’ll always be playing as him for a stretch before being able to see the same span of time through Mitsuhide’s eyes.
I was surprised at how effectively the game utilized this concept of two paths to focus on different types of storytelling. For example, Nobunaga’s missions are almost entirely focused on the greater political aspects of the narrative, such as forging alliances and subverting subterfuge, while Mitsuhide’s had a tendency to place more emphasis on internal struggle and personal growth.
Both of our central characters have pretty serious personalities, but a large cast of secondary characters (both playable and not) help to round out the story and add some levity to the events as they unfold. In a game with 27 playable characters, it’s vital that the player gets a bit of a chance to get to know them, and while it’s not perfect, Samurai Warriors 5 does this better than a lot of other games with large casts. There are also separate missions to flesh out the more prominent side characters, such as Tokugawa Ieyasu.
Also impressive is the fact that the vast majority of the story is told through fully voiced and fully animated cutscenes. Whether you’re about to start a mission or smack-dab in the middle of one, the game never takes the shortcut of showing you dialogue over two still images. If two characters are interacting, you’ll see them do so in motion, and the newly enhanced visual style does a lot to make these scenes engaging to pay attention to.
That being said, something that became increasingly clear as I started to really delve into the game is that its story is a repetitive one. In a game that’s all about war and the conflicts therein it stands to reason that would be the driving force of the events, but you can only hear a narrator recap the bolstering of allegiances and traveling to different locales so many times before your brain starts to gloss over the finer details. This repetition, in conjunction with the fact that the story never really goes anywhere you wouldn’t expect it to, makes it difficult to recommend on that criteria alone.
The narrative is, in a word, serviceable. It’s entertaining enough to warrant paying attention to, and clear effort was put into animating specific sequences so that they carry the requisite emotional oomph, but it’s not something that will leave you with a lot of food for thought after it’s all said and done.
Vitally, Samurai Warriors 5 seems to understand this, and never locks the player into a cutscene that lasts more than a minute or two. It does exactly what it needs to by the giving the player a reason for the carnage they’re about to unleash and setting the stage for the addictive gameplay.
Slicing & Dicing
As you’d expect, most of your time spent with Samurai Warriors 5 will be in battle. In true Warriors fashion, you’ll be carving your way through hordes of enemies that can barely do more than stand still and wait for you to hack ’em and slash ’em.
Nearly every battle will start by initiating your targets with Hyper Attacks. These are weak strikes that move you forward with each button press, but more importantly, they also group up the enemies into a tidy pile around you. At any point in your series of Hyper Attacks, you can immediately cancel into Normal Attacks, which themselves can be canceled into much stronger Power Attacks to finish off your combo. Once your character unleashes their flashy finisher, you can start the process anew.
You have a few more tools at your disposal. Along with your standard attack combos, you have four slots for Ultimate Attacks that can be customized for each character. As they level up and earn proficiency with their equipped weapon they earn new ones, and these can be activated at any time, whether you’re in the middle of a combo or not. This freedom of input with combos and Ultimate Attacks gives the player just enough influence to feel like they can have a skillset that suits their own personal taste.
The game is pretty lax when it comes to where and when you should use all of your different attack methods, but there are a few mechanics in place to prevent you from button-mashing your way to victory. Specialized enemy units, like those wielding shields and spears, will easily deflect standard Hyper and Normal Attacks, thus requiring you to use Ultimate Attacks to take them down.
Enemy officers are the most effective at breaking up the gameplay of Samurai Warriors 5 though, as they have the ability to not only block your attacks but also send attacks of their own your way. For being your largest obstacle in a game with mountains of enemies with paper-thin defense, they don’t offer up as much resistance as they should. I’m a sucker for any game that rewards timed blocking, but the pitfall of these officers is that you deal with every single one—from the start of the game to the end—in the exact same way. And you’ll be fighting hundreds. By the end of my time with Samurai Warriors 5, I found myself really craving a more traditional video game boss fight to be featured.
There’s also an unfortunate enemy the game doesn’t warn you about: the camera. Especially when you’re close to a wall or gate, executing specific moves will sometimes cause the camera to lock up and force you to stare at the ground for 5-10 seconds while the game finishes up what was supposed to be a forced angle showing you the action. It doesn’t happen often enough to be a major issue, but it is a consistent annoyance that feels like it could have been easily avoided.
On the whole though, with tight controls and a myriad of options during gameplay, it’s very easy to fall into a groove playing Samurai Warriors 5. But what keeps it from getting old?
The answer to that question is variety, and it’s the saving grace of the game. As mentioned previously, there are 27 different playable characters to unlock as you progress, and all of them have 15 different weapons to choose from. Though each character has a “preferred” weapon that makes leveling up their proficiency easier, I greatly appreciate the fact that the game doesn’t bar you from using your favorite character with your favorite weapon, no matter what that combination might be.
Each character also has an individual skill tree to earn permanent passive buffs and a unique Ultimate Attack, not to mention the exclusive combo enders that specific characters have with specific weapons. The gameplay of the different weapon styles and characters, combined with the way the game allows each character to show off their personality, insures that you will have a favorite character to play as, and be excited when you get to a mission they’re available to be selected for.
Whether it’s a new attack ability, a new weapon passive, or a whole character, you’re constantly getting something new to play around with, and that’s critical to the game feeling fresh because Samurai Warriors 5‘s missions don’t vary too much from one another. You’ll always be loading into a relatively open battlefield and eliminating officers, special units, and a metric ton of standard enemies with the same general combat flow present in each.
Further diversifying the gameplay is My Castle, the menu between missions where nearly all of your advancement takes place. Through this system, you can access the Dojo (for increasing your character’s independent levels, stats, and skills), the Blacksmith (for forging, upgrading, and customizing equipment), the Stables (for maintaining your mounts), and a Shop that lets you translate the general gold currency into more tangible resources, like building materials or even extra experience and proficiency for your characters. It’s absolutely the type of system that will keep completionists and min-maxers happy.
My Castle directly ties into Citadel Mode, which ends up being your main source of side content. Rather than running through the lengthier, objective-focused missions of Musou Mode, Citadel Mode tasks you with choosing any two characters and defending a specific position while randomized enemies and officers attempt to overtake it. The primary reason for doing this is to level up your characters and earn resources for upgrading the different facilities of your castle.
They’re fun for a time (especially if you have a friend to co-op through them with), but they don’t offer anything interesting enough over the main missions to keep you there. I always found myself inevitably going back to the progression of the game’s story instead, since the gameplay experience is essentially identical.
With all of these elements at play, Samurai Warriors 5 gives you a lot to digest and a lot to keep track of, but it never leaves the player in the dark when it comes to any of its systems. They’re introduced and explained at a slow enough pace to ensure they’re clear and easy to remember, but at a quick enough pace that it doesn’t feel like you’re gated from things you should already have access to.
And if you should happen to forget that you have enough materials to upgrade your smithy? The game makes it a point to remind you with an unobtrusive exclamation mark on your My Castle menu.
One of the most standout aspects of Samurai Warriors 5 is its aesthetic. In stark contrast to previous titles, the game utilizes a vibrant, cel-shaded style that’s gorgeous to look at. The way it brings the visually striking character designs to life is especially noteworthy, but the environments those characters occupy benefit from the upgrade quite a lot as well. There are plenty of times you’ll take notice of your pretty surroundings or far-off vistas before you get back to mowing down everything in your path.
Thankfully, the stylized visuals don’t come at a cost. The game runs at a smooth, constant 60 frames per second at 1080p on PS4 Pro that never seems to dip, even when you’re rending hundreds of enemies and executing abilities with the showiest of showy particle effects.
The game is similarly seamless when you switch to another character that’s AI-controlled on the opposite side of the map. Nor does it struggle when rendering two separate locations during offline co-op. I encountered two half-second frame hiccups in my entire playthrough, and that’s pretty impressive for a game that lasted me nearly forty hours.
And the presentation isn’t just limited to the in-engine visuals, either. Nearly all the menus are straightforward and to-the-point when it comes to presenting pertinent information, but still ooze personality through a painterly style evocative of traditional Japanese art.
The game’s soundtrack is solid with a handful of standout tracks, but I found myself sorely missing the electronica-style music of previous entries. More than any other aspect of of Samurai Warriors 5, the loss of this style of music strikes me as a very unnecessary change that distances itself from the previous games with no discernible benefit.
Tried and True
Samurai Warriors 5 is a lot of a good thing, but you have to be confident you’ll enjoy that good thing for it to be worth the price of admission. If you’re already a fan of the singular “1 vs 1000” gameplay that can only really be found in Warriors games, your time will be well spent with this title.
Similarly, if you haven’t played a game like this before and are intrigued by the way it plays or the visuals, but not turned off by the idea of a passable story and a gameplay experience that doesn’t feel the need to surprise you, Samurai Warriors 5 is more than a fine place to jump in.
Review copy provided by Koei Tecmo for PS4. Screenshots taken by reviewer.