*Disclaimer: Samurai Warriors 5 review code was provided by Koei Tecmo for the purposes of this review. That being said, all opinions expressed in this review are entirely that of the author.
Originating on the original Xbox and PlayStation 2 back in 2004, Samurai Warriors (and its big brother Dynasty Warriors) has a strong history of being at the forefront of the hack and slash genre, both in Japan and in the West. Despite watching a few clips over the years and coming close to buying the Zelda-themed spinoff, Hyrule Warriors, I’ve never actually taken that plunge into the almost two-decade-long franchise. Until now.
A Quick Recap
Thankfully, there’s never been a better time to dip your toe into the franchise as Koei Tecmo’s latest instalment acts as a “re-imagining” of the series. Samurai Warriors 5 does an exceedingly good job of keeping you in the loop; characters are introduced in cinematics as if it were their first appearance, the setting and context of the narrative is explained in clear detail, and the overarching storyline is briefly summarised before you even reach the menu screen. Whether you’re completely new to the series like me or you’ve put in the hours over the last four instalments, Samurai Warriors 5’s story is easy to follow throughout its rather lengthy run-time.
More “Slash” Than “Hack”
“Game feel”, a term popularised by Steve Swink, encompasses those elements of a game that are near-impossible to describe but definitively contribute to your overall feelings when experiencing a game. For instance, shooting a gun in Call of Duty feels satisfying. We often don’t register why or how, but subconsciously we understand that certain elements of a game just feel right. Unfortunately, Samurai Warriors 5‘s core gameplay mechanics often just didn’t feel right for me.
Due to the nature of Samurai Warriors 5, you’ll be cutting through hundreds if not thousands of enemies during a given stage, consistently achieving absurd combos of 1000 hits in under 30 seconds. This leads to a peculiar feeling of weightlessness as although enemies are being flung into the air and propelled across the map, your slashes never seem to connect with your target fully. While some people are guaranteed to enjoy the immense power fantasy on offer, I personally prefer a game in which every hit counts.
The perfect comparison is the Batman: Arkham series of games. In these, you are put up against around 10-30 enemies at once. Each press of the square button delivers a tangible hit to one specific enemy. You see first-hand that your deliberate button press directly led to one specific target being knocked over, with your controller vibration subtly signifying the impact your direct actions had. In Samurai Warriors 5, your controller rarely vibrates, only making a light murmur after successfully pulling off a multi-hit combo. The sheer number of enemies on-screen leads to them feeling more like paper cut-outs that you are simply slashing your way through rather than tangible, realistic foes.
It should be noted, though, that this topic of “game feel” is, by definition, subjective. While I can’t deny that Samurai Warriors 5 didn’t feel that satisfying to play, I’m sure that die-hard fans of the hack and slash genre are going to really enjoy what’s on offer.
A Little Same-urai
While the feel of Samurai Warriors 5 is mostly subjective, its repetitiveness is not. Samurai Warriors 5 has a combat system that is both a blessing and a curse. Due to most of the inputs only requiring one or two button presses, Samurai Warriors 5 is incredibly easy to pick up and play. After only ten minutes with the game you’ll be achieving bombastically stylish combos with ease. However, this also means that after ten minutes you’ve essentially seen all that Samurai Warriors 5 has to offer. Despite some slight variations on mission objectives, your core experience consistently boils down to spamming the same two buttons on repeat. Paired with the game’s somewhat unsatisfying feel, this repetitive combat can lead to this game becoming a tad mind-numbing.
That’s not to say that Samurai Warriors 5 doesn’t try to keep things fresh and engaging, because it really does try. Throughout the course of the game you’ll unlock various new weapons and abilities by levelling your chosen character. While you’ll still be spamming the same two buttons over and over, the 14 different types of weapons do help to add a little variety to your experience, offering alternative attacks and move-sets.
Similarly, Samurai Warriors 5 offers an impressive roster of playable characters, many with their own unique skills and special moves. Over the course of the game you’ll unlock a whopping 37 playable characters. The vast majority of these characters also have their own dedicated skill tree, giving you plenty to work towards if you enjoy the core gameplay of Samurai Warriors 5. A good handful of these characters also go a decent way in shaking up your usual gameplay experience, such as the character “No” the archer, who forces you to use ranged attacks rather than the close-combat mechanics you’re almost-definitely sick of by that point.
On top of these slight variations to the core gameplay loop, there are a few mechanics in Samurai Warriors 5 that offer a little bit of depth to the combat. The greatest example of this is the “Ultimate Move” system that’s unlocked a few missions in to the main mode of the game. Each character is equipped with four “ultimate moves”. These ultimate moves can be used repeatedly during a mission, using a cooldown timer to dictate how often you can use them. Some of these ultimate moves can be devastating to the battlefield, obliterating any enemies in front of you. Some moves are supportive, giving you a temporary boost to defence or speed. The gameplay depth added with these moves revolves around how you use them. You’ll need to strategize and experiment to find the perfect combination of ultimate moves to defeat the harder enemies in the game. And, as each character gets their own set of unique ultimate moves, there’s plenty to play around with.
Feudal Japan Has Never Looked So Good
The more I view games critically, the more I’m starting to understand just how important a game’s presentation is. Samurai Warriors 5 is the perfect case in point, the presentation lifts this game high, higher than any other hack and slash game I’ve ever seen or played.
Let’s start with Samurai Warriors 5‘s most striking element- its visuals. Apparently a new direction for the series, Samurai Warriors 5 uses a beautifully rich and vibrant cell-shaded art style that makes environments and characters pop out of the screen in incredible detail. Combining this art style with some fun and colourful character designs helps to give the game a comic-like tone, which perfectly suits the exaggerated action on-screen.
This comic style is further reinforced with the use of brief, stylistic animations that occur during a special move. All but 10 of the playable characters in the game display entirely unique animations which helps to offset some of the repetitiveness found in the core mechanics of the game. To enrich this bombastically bright tone even further, the music used throughout the game is suitably loud and triumphant, with orchestras playing non-stop throughout each and every mission, building into that power fantasy feeling that the game is trying to convey.
To tie a bow on this impeccably presented package, Samurai Warriors 5 runs at a consistently high frame rate. While playing on a base PS4 I only encountered framerate drops a handful of times, with the vast majority of the game running at (what I believe) is 60fps, even during the game’s split-screen mode.
From the beautifully detailed cell-shaded art style to the buttery smooth frame rate, Samurai Warriors 5‘s presentation helps to give this game a sense of polish that is not always found in your average hack and slash affair.
The Definition of “Bang for Your Buck”
Samurai Warriors 5 is a big game. The main feature of the game is the “Musou” mode, the main story mode of the game which takes you through the narrative linearly, one stage at a time. But, as you progress through the opening chapters, additional modes start to unlock. Within only a few hours you’ll have access to multiple modes including alternate storylines, a split-screen/online co-op mode, and a “Citadel” mode- a horde mode in which you unlock upgrade materials for the rest of the game. Although these additional modes still use the same somewhat repetitive gameplay formula from the “Musou” mode, they act as substantial extras to an already lengthy game experience.
Samurai Warriors 5 has been one difficult game to review. While I personally hung up my sword after around 15 hours, I can’t deny that the product that’s here is incredibly well-polished and deserved of all the praise I’m sure it will receive. In the end, Samurai Warriors 5 knows exactly what type of game it wants to be, and strives to be the best at what it does. While the core gameplay loop and mechanics may not hit the spot for everyone, Samurai Warriors 5 is an undeniably impressive game.
Final Verdict: 8/10
Samurai Warriors 5 is available now on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC
Words By Cameron Swan