If you have ever played anything on console from Japan, there is a good chance that you’ve played at least one game by Koei Tecmo. They are the studio that makes Dead or Alive, Dynasty Warriors, Ninja Gaiden, and lots of other stuff. I’ve loved them since before Koei and Tecmo unified in 2009. My first great experience with Koei was Kessen (2000) for the PS2. Ever since then, I have always loved Japanese war games, but I still would say that I’ve never played one quite as good as Kessen 2 (2001). It’s my love for Japanese war games and Koei Tecmo that led me to want to review Samurai Warriors 4: Empires (SW4:E) on the PS4. This is actually my first game in this particular series so I review it as if it’s all new, but I actually can’t say how much of it is original and what was already used in SW4 since this is technically the second expansion of that game which was originally released on the PS3 back in 2014. Right off the bat, I highly recommend this game to anyone with at least 100 hours of play time and an interest in war/conquest games.
This game looks pretty much like all the other Koei Tecmo games you’ve played recently. Same general battle map and HUD as Dynasty Warriors. Very similar graphics quality and style of games like Toukiden: Kiwami and the more recent Dynasty Warriors titles. It’s a very authentic feudal Japan setting with hyper stylized graphics made to look like the middle ground between film and anime. Lots of attention to detail, from the armor worn by base level NPCs to the changeable wallpaper on the inside of your castle. Cherry blossoms, cracks in the wood, and grooves in rocks all play a role in shaping the atmosphere that is SW4:E. But at the same time there are tons of menus in easy to read block text, interactive maps, and pictures of every officer in the game. It’s Japanese traditionalism and modern convenience perfectly balanced into one grand experience.
Officers are extremely detailed. They all have their own look and visual personality. I’m not saying that you’ll get to know them all, but you’ll remember the ones you like. You can also create a custom character or as many as you like, since there are over 100 custom character save slots, that can be inserted into the game as an officer. This is as detailed as any hardcore RPG. Males alone have 61 different possible hairstyles to choose from. There are plenty of clothing options which can also have their color changed. And you have the ability to choose your own crest either by picking one in game or uploading an image and having your own special one. The one problem I had with custom characters was that you had to give them parental affiliations and could only put them in certain places based on the affiliations chosen. At the time of first creating a character I didn’t understand any of this so when I did put him into the game I never got to see him. You have to select an officer for your custom character to replace and unless you make sure to pick a scenario and clan that will interact with your choice, you may never see your custom character(s) in action.
The combat graphics are very smooth, but also quite cluttered as per usual, containing droves of soldiers and their life bars on screen all at the same time. You will hack and slash your way through literally hundreds of NPCs over the course of one battle in mostly realistic ways other than the fact that you can slash like 20 guys at one time depending on your weapon and movement speed. But there are also special moves that allow you to do things like shoot lightning from the air or do a flaming slash attack. I experienced no lag of any sort and was very happy with the game’s overall visual performance.
The gameplay is extremely complicated and difficult to describe, but I in no way intend for that to be seen as a negative. This is a conquest simulator where you play as the guiding force behind a Japanese clan during the warring states era. Each clan has its own goals and to beat the game this goal must be realized. The game has six different scenarios/time periods to play in. You start with three and can unlock three more by completing the ambitions for any one clan in any not already successfully completed scenario. Goals/Ambitions for each clan in each scenario can vary considerably. For some clans it’s to take over a certain set of castles in order to unify a specific area. In other clans it’s to reach a certain place on the map via conquest. Once you actually pick your clan you must jump between two different stages of gameplay: politics and battle.
Politics, which in many ways is more important than battle, is all about making decisions. There are tons of things you can and must do between battles to be effective. Choosing political policies, creating military strategies, interacting with officers, assigning positions, and building up castles are just some of the things you have to do to succeed at this game. You also have to fortify castles with officers and make decisions about how to improve your empire from season to season. It’s not an open and shut system where you battle every turn and losing once ends the game. You can and will lose battles without losing the game. You must consider the value of captured officers often hiring them, releasing them, or even executing them as you see fit. As you build up your castles and your armies you must delegate resources, build relationships between officers, and plan your approach to achieving your ambition. There are many turns where you choose not to go into battle because you don’t have the resources or some other issue hinders you from moving forward for a season.
Special occurrences and cinematic events can occur when certain conditions are met. You can train and improve your officers and level them up causing them to increase in rank and improving their personal army size. You have to assign officers posts in your castle and consider their proposals for the immediate future of your empire. You also have to take into account things like public appeal, alliances, and nemesis officers. Koei Tecmo has done their best to simulate what it was like to actually be a warlord in the warring states era of Japan. As a person with a minor in history and a longtime gamer, I have to say that they managed to create a system that is both realistic and fun when it comes to politics. It’s only after you deal with the political side of things that you can go into battle.
The battle mode is pretty much a carbon copy of Dynasty Warriors. You and the enemy have a main camp. You have a limited amount of time, decided by the amount of resources you put into the battle, to take the enemy’s main camp by killing the enemy commander once you have made him appear. You make the commander appear by capturing a line of bases stretching from your main base to right next to the enemy’s main base. It’s this mode that is most challenging for all the wrong reasons and why I ended up starting the game over and switching to easy before I was finally able to complete a scenario. Just like in Dynasty Warriors, your bases are constantly being attacked by enemy officers unless your officers are attacking them first. You are the wild card and must go where you see fit on the battlefield. This makes things extremely hard in higher difficulties because much of the time early on your officers can’t hold their own. This forces you to have run to their aid which might be on the other side of the map at any given time. It can get pretty annoying when you lose even while you’re dominating the current battle you’re personally in. But on easy the game plays the way you would expect it to on normal. This is one of those rare times where playing on easy is quite fun and a useful learning experience even though you are on the lowest level of difficulty. You still have to take the game seriously on easy. Your officers are better and more independent, but you still have to work the whole battlefield and keep an eye on both the timer and the map. And politics are politics no matter what difficulty you play at.
The battle controls are pretty standard. Ex to jump, square for normal attack, triangle for strong attack, and circle for special once it’s charged. You can pause the game at any time and change between certain officers at specific times during a battle based on what the objectives and parameters are. There are occasionally health drops in battle, but they aren’t that common. You must employ formations for your whole army and can command their general behavior in real time. When you finally defeat a clan in battle, which can take a maximum of 15 minutes, you take over all territories under that clan’s control. Each season other clans make moves as well and they can even attack your castles. While it is a bit repetitive, the gameplay is great overall.
The sound doesn’t disappoint in this game. It’s not necessarily the reason you’ll play the game, but it’s all quite good. You can set the volume levels for music, SFX, voices, and cutscenes all independently of each other. The music is varied and customizable. At basically any time you can change the default song to whatever you want from a long list of ambient tracks. The voice acting is all in Japanese so unless you understand it, you probably won’t care about it that much. It’s good quality but meant nothing to me. The sound effects are quite good too. You’ll hear every slash, notification, and option perfectly. The game’s sound is extremely detailed and high quality on all counts.
The writing is nothing too spectacular in SW4:E. The idea is that you are the leader of the clan of your choice, all of which are supposedly based on actual clans from the era of whatever scenario you are playing. You oversee officers and castles as you complete whatever your specific clan’s objective is. Most of the dialog is limited to a few sentences here and there about being triumphant or realizing your goals. There are also the occasional cut scenes where officers talk to each other about becoming friends or making alliances and what not. Most of it is pretty inconsequential compared to the status updates and tutorial pages. I really like how the game reads like you’re actually shaping history though.
You will read tons of tutorial and note pages while playing this game. It took me like two hours just to get to the first battle, but I appreciated all the directions and pointers given by the game. All of these can be turned off at the start of the game, but I highly suggest taking the time to actually read them during your first scenario. There is also an encyclopedia’s worth of bios for all the officers available in the game. Writing is not why you play the game, but it does play a huge factor in how you play the game.
The game has an unlimited amount of replay value. There are several clans to choose from, each with its own goals, which can be ignored or extended for as long as you want. The game has four difficulty levels, three of which are very challenging. Not to mention that once you finish your objective you can continue playing that run and work to unify all of Japan. Add that to the fact that there are a ton of trophies and you’ve got a game that’s well worth the $50 price tag. There are so many decisions to make and change with each playthrough and several different ways to play the game. You can control any officer you like on the battlefield, allowing the use of varying weapons and fighting styles. There is also Genesis Mode which allows you to create your own scenarios and play the game in whatever way you see fit. If you want a game that just won’t quit and aren’t looking to fly through space for an eternity then look no further. You’ve found it.
I really enjoy Samurai Warriors 4: Empires. Again, I can’t say how new this experience is compared to the other SW games and it definitely has a lot of Dynasty Warriors in it so if you’ve already burnt out on that kind of gameplay then this certainly won’t be a good use of your time. But if you don’t have much experience with this genre then this is a great place to start. I loved almost every aspect of the game and if I had the time I’d probably play for the platinum trophy. I highly recommend this one and can happily endorse the price.
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