Samurai Warriors 4: Empires is yet another instalment in Koei Tecmo’s ever-expansive Warriors franchise. As a spin-off from Samurai Warriors 4, this title follows the Empires tradition by pairing the series’ signature hack ‘n’ slash gameplay with the pace and complexity of a strategic war game.
For those who aren’t familiar with the core gameplay of the Samurai Warriors series, it’s basically about slaughtering hordes of helpless grunts whilst capturing bases and making your way to key objectives. In SW4E, that remains mostly the same. Rather than having set missions like in the core series, SW4E has the player choosing a scenario, in which several clans are spread across the map of Sengoku-era Japan. Once you select a clan, you must fulfil the ambition of its Daimyõ (leader) to complete the campaign. Ambitions range from leader to leader; some want to unite a large group of territories while others simply want to eliminate a rival clan. These unique ambitions earn the game quite a bit of replayability, as it will take multiple playthroughs to see each Daimyõ’s dream made a reality. Once an ambition has been completed, the player may choose to attempt uniting the whole kingdom by claiming every remaining territory on the map.
Of course, if you want to make your own Daimyõ, SW4E features an extensive character creation system. In Edit Mode, you can create an entirely original officer from scratch. An Edit Officer has access to hundreds of face customization options, flexible body morphing, dozens of clothing items, several different voices, and about sixty different fighting styles. This has to be one of the most detailed Edit Modes in Warriors history. The player can pick a family crest for their armor, the Kanji characters that show up during a Musou attack, and can even upload a custom portrait from their USB device. The possibilities are endless, and I see myself crafting a whole clan to insert into the game in the near future.
SW4E contains two modes: Conquest and Genesis, but they play identically. Conquest Mode offers the player pre-determined arrangements of territories, as based on the actual history of Japan. Since each scenario takes place in a certain time frame, not all officers are available in every scenario, due to their actual dates of birth and death. The only difference in Genesis mode is that the player can fully customize the state of Japan. With Genesis mode, you can create an entire clan of Edit Officers, see the success of an unlikely Daimyõ, or fight impossible battles between two historical characters who were not even alive at the same time.
The game is split into two segments: the Battle phase and the Politics phase. The Politics phase is where the player manages the development of their land and army. Here, the player appoints officers as Magistrates, who will manage certain aspects of the clan. These Magistrates then make proposals to the Daimyõ, who can invest his limited Directives into their plans, or consult his appointed Strategist for help making a decision. Decisions in the Politics phase govern everything the player is capable of: Development proposals add to your territories’ productivity; Personnel helps you recruit officers and improve your staff; Strategy Magistrates sabotage enemies and produce usable battle tactics, and so forth.
Every Magistrate serves its own purpose, and the player needs to learn how every division helps grow their empire. This is where SW4E really shines. SW4E eases new players into this rich aspect of the game by introducing new features slowly over time. At the start, the castle only has three Magistrates and the Daimyõ only has one Directive, limiting him to selecting one proposal per turn. However, as the player expands the kingdom, they unlock more features such as mounts, weapon customization and strategic options, eventually earning seven different magistrates and five Directives. By the time I had access to all of these abilities, I was familiar enough with the interface to choose exactly what I needed within minutes of the start of every turn.
Territory is gained through Invasions. Whether on the offense or defense, the core objective is to methodically capture bases until you can take out the enemy commander. In this installment, combat contains a surprising amount of complexity and experimentation. These mechanics were added in the original Samurai Warriors 4, but they’re a core mechanic in this game and are worth appreciating. Aside from the player’s basic attack string and super Musou Attack, they have access to Hyper Attacks, Special Skills, and the Spirit Gauge. The unique Special Skills vary between characters: they can heal allies, add elemental damage, call in a hail of arrows, or grant you a temporary clone of yourself. Hyper Attacks allow you to charge straight through hordes of goons, often ending a long chain with a powerful AoE attack. These don’t work on enemy officers, but they keep the repetitive gameplay both exciting and satisfying. The Spirit Gauge is a bar that can fill up to five stocks. A stock can be spent to dodge out of a deadly combo, break an enemy’s guard, or chain one attack string into a new one. Lastly, if all five stocks are filled, the player can enter Rage Mode, giving them a high attack bonus and granting access to their Ultimate Musou, which differs from the regular Musou both in form and effectiveness. As a long-time fan of the franchise, I find these evolutions to be a step in the right direction.
Unfortunately, despite these great additions, SW4E still suffers from the same gameplay issues common in many of the Warriors titles. The game’s camera is so close to the ground, and the battlefield is often filled to the brim with minor enemies. While this creates spectacle, it makes enemy officer fights extremely clunky. The player’s biggest challenge is navigating the sea of soldiers in the way before they can get to the important target. Luckily, these new mechanics make duels a little bit more interesting, but the game still suffers from the incomprehensibility of your average battle.
Despite my qualms about the clunky combat system, I have been gripped by SW4E’s gameplay for almost 24 hours of total game time. This is because SW4E expands on the basic combat formula by introducing three things: Relationships, Formations and Battlefield Tactics.
The Personnel magistrate can help create connections between officers, which then translate to battlefield effectiveness. Once two officers have established an interest with each other, they may present the player with a special mid-battle objective to solidify the relationship. This usually involves switching to one of the characters and defeating x amount of enemies within an allotted time, or defeating specific enemies who are threatening his or her ally. Each officer can have several friends, a spouse, a sworn ally, a rival, a master, a protogé, and a nemesis from another army. These relationships are invaluable because, not only do friends boost each others’ strength in a fight, but they allow the player greater flexibility in their play. When you deploy a character with his or her friends, you can switch between them on the fly, giving you greater dominance of the battlefield. This is especially useful because the AI-controlled allies are rarely ever effective on their own.
An army’s combat prowess is mainly determined by officer loyalty, troop strength, and formations. Formations are one-use commands that give temporary bonuses to your entire army during a battle. They work in a rock-paper-scissors system, and can be changed mid-battle after a certain period of time. When one formation beats the other, that entire army will outperform the opposition. Players on a disadvantaged side may find that enemy officers stop flinching to regular hits and hit harder than ever before. The only time the player can expect their AI partners to be effective in battle is if their chosen Formation has the upper hand, or if they have utilized a Battlefield Tactics to temporarily turn the tides. When at a disadvantage, it is often wise to camp all of your allies inside of their bases.
Basic Tactics are bonuses that last for the whole battle. These can charge the player’s special meters, grant extra EXP, or slow down enemy reinforcements. Executable Tactics can turn a battle over in a very short amount of time. Some rain projectiles from the sky, some bolster the existing ranks with peasant conscripts, and others spawn surprise attack squads within bases. The player can take two of these into battle and pop them when they’re in a tough spot. With a well-timed Ninja Raid, the player can steal several core bases from the opposing army, forcing it into a corner.
It takes time to develop friendships between officers, and the player is unlikely to have access to Battlefield Tactics until they claim a few enemy territories. This humble beginning is, unfortunately, where the game may be at its weakest. Since officers don’t have many pre-determined relationships, you may have to run around the battlefield, attending to every single situation with the same character. This would be easier if the horse would actually pick you up when you call it. Instead, it spawns two blocks down, and spends ten seconds running into walls. I found myself constantly micromanaging my allies, even into the late-game, where I’d have access to these Tactics. This meant constantly breaking the action to pause the game and redirect my forces. I created an efficient system of pairing officers up so that I would only have to manage four teams, but it still created a noticeable stop in rhythm. Leaving the AI unattended will likely land you with unnecessary casualties and damages.
Due to the enemy AI’s odd tendencies, combat can be awfully frustrating for new players, and in my case, even a seasoned veteran of the genre. The enemy army simply does not play by the same rules as the allied army. To compensate for the lack of an actual intelligent AI, hostile officers simply perform better when you’re not around. A single enemy officer can capture your main base within minutes. If your eyes aren’t glued to your mini-map, you may not even know he was there! This occurs because the battle update feed often falls behind all the live updates, and it only takes a few minutes for an enemy officer to steal a base, hindered only by disadvantages presented by formations and tactics. Over time, I learned how to defend against these incidents, and react accordingly.
Overall, the game isn’t perfect. It suffers from all the same core issues that most Warriors games have. I eagerly await the day that a Warriors title presents cleaner battles and a better AI. It offers a long, customizable experience with a ton of replayability. Each of the fifty five main officers have boatloads of personality, and it’s always entertaining to watch them connect to each other in the cutscenes. Formations, tactics and relationship objectives keep every battle fresh, and I have yet to go into a fight with any amount of reluctance. I feel like I’ve explored everything the game has to offer, yet I still crave more. I predict that I won’t get sick of Samurai Warriors 4: Empires until I unite the kingdom at least three more times.
A PS4 code of Samurai Warriors 4: Empires was provided by Koei Tecmo for the purpose of this review.
Samurai Warriors 4: Empires$49.99
- Effective combination of strategy and beat 'em up mechanics
- Robust character customization
- Seamlessly teaches complex mechanics to new players
- Beautiful, varied soundtrack
- Messy, obscure battles
- Unfair enemy power makes defeats feel cheap
- Allied AI is usually incompetent and unreliable
- Action must constantly be broken for tactical decisions