Koei Tecmo’s “musou” games are made for a particular type of player who enjoys a particular flavour of videogame. I’m one of those people, and I can say with confidence that Samurai Warriors 5 is musou at its most refined. But a new art style, new attacks, and a higher level of polish doesn’t change the fact that Samurai Warriors 5 is a button-bashing 3D brawler—a musou game, like the many, many before it—one that musou fans won’t help but feel they’ve played before.
Developer: Omega Force
Publisher: Koei Tecmo
Platform: Windows, Switch, Xbox One, PS4 (tested)
Price: $59.99 USD
Release Date: July 27th, 2021
Since 2004’s Samurai Warriors, Koei Tecmo’s in-house musou developer Omega Force has been telling and retelling the story of real life lords Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu and their real life quest to restore peace and order to a war torn Japan during the real life 16th century Sengoku period. Historical accuracy has never been Omega Force’s priority, and Samurai Warriors 5 is liberally coated with the developer’s thickest layer of artistic licence yet, shoving one of Japan’s most significant historical eras head first into the wonderful world of shonen anime-style fantasy. In fact, the new cel-shaded character models and visual effects inspired by traditional Japanese painting and woodblock printing is being pushed by Koei Tecmo as one of Samurai Warriors 5‘s major selling points, and rightly so, as it adds a much needed visual flourish and identity to a series that has grown to look tired and generic. The revamp extends further: menus are simple, concise tutorial screens appear only when needed, objective screens are equally clear and simple, and even the story, as convoluted as it is, is more streamlined and accessible than ever.
The only obvious cut corner is the Japanese-only voiceover. The cheesy and often questionable English voiceovers of the Warriors series is the stuff of legends, and many will miss the campy one-liners and catchphrases. But the exclusion of English voices affects moment-to-moment gameplay. Characters constantly chatter to each other in the midst of battle with no way for non-Japanese-speakers to know what’s being said unless they read the tiny subtitles: a difficult feat while ploughing through hundreds of Japanese soldiers.
On the topic of gameplay, Samurai Warriors 5‘s premise is simple: re-enact key battles and events from Japan’s Sengoku era by taking control of one of a range of vaguely historically accurate officers, lords, and nobility. Complete objectives—most of which involve defeating the opposing army’s officers—to complete the scenario and move on to the next one, with additional side-scenarios being unlocked for completing special objectives.
The meat of this simple sandwich is combat. Players control an officer who is themselves part of an army, with allied officers dashing about as well as literal hundreds of nondescript soldiers. Like a battleship amidst a sea of rubber dingies, the player mows down entire groups of harmless enemy soldiers, sometimes decimating tens at a time with a single attack, stopping only to face-off against enemy officers who have the same lavish skill sets players do. Kill an officer, and that section of the map is controlled by the player’s army. Kill a barracks captain to stop enemies spawning from said barracks. Kill enemy drummers to reduce enemy stats. And be sure to kill anything that moves along the way.
On paper, it sounds morose and genocidal, however Samurai Warriors 5 succeeds in making the slaughter feel carefree, satisfying and fun. Hitting Square to juggle fifty enemies in a single combo, then finishing them off with a flashy combo-ending press of Triangle, never fails to please. Mash Triangle to dash through and scatter entire formations of soldiers. And when the appropriate bar is full, a smack of the Circle button unleashes a spectacular “Musou Attack”, wiping out another couple of hundred soldiers at once. It’s in this way that Samurai Warriors 5 constantly makes the player feel “cool”. Even these simply-executed moves carry names like “Hyper Attacks” and “Ultimate Attacks”.
Ultimate attacks are a new addition to Samurai Warriors 5, where special moves with cooldown timers can be assigned to the face buttons and activated while holding down R1. Most of these moves add either a temporary buff, such as 30 seconds of extra defence, or engage a flamboyant special attack. Ultimate attacks are by no means a game changer, but they’re a welcome addition to the usual Warriors toolbox.
Instant character switching returns from Samurai Warriors 4 and does wonders for maintaining the flow of gameplay. Players can send a secondary character to a distant objective while continuing to hack away at enemies with the primary character, switching over once the secondary arrives at their destination. With the correct execution, massive combos can be maintained, precious time can be saved, and most importantly, it shakes up gameplay, helping alleviate the monotony that can and will arise during extended play sessions.
Another monotony alleviator is Samurai Warriors 5‘s online and split-screen local coop. Split-screen in particular is a big plus, if only due to it being a dying feature industry-wide. And it’s good coop too, as it almost always is when present in a Warriors game, allowing two players to revel in the musou nonsense together, syncing up musou attacks, stealing kills, and racing to rack up the highest kill count the quickest. As expected, split-screen results in a lower frame rate, less visual effects, and less enemies on-screen, but is entirely playable. Unfortunately, coop is only available after the Musou mode’s third scenario is completed, and even then only in the anything-goes Free mode and Citadel mode, dashing any hope of friends making their way through the main story together.
Citadel mode, as opposed to the main story mode a.k.a. Musou mode, is Samurai Warriors 5’s fancy name for “score attack”. This new mode offers a list of skirmishes to complete, with more difficult maps unlocked in both Citadel and Musou modes. Each map consists of at least one base that must be defended, waves of enemy soldiers and officers to attack, and objectives to complete, all of which award points to be amassed within the strict five-minute time limit. Any gained items, weapons, experience etc. are then shared with the Musou mode. It’s both hectic and thrilling, distilling Samurai Warriors 5‘s gameplay into a concentrated five-minute burst—a perfect diversion from the main game, and a quick blast of fun for those with little free time to spare.
For those interested, there are “RPG-lite” systems in Samurai Warriors 5 to tinker with, but these are ancillary at best. As with previous Warriors games, Samurai Warriors 5 showers players with a dizzying amount of weapons, most of which can be ignored and immediately “dismantled” for gold currency. Any character can wield any weapon from any class, but each character has their preferred class which grants them more moves, meaning there’s no incentive to ever change class. Character “Weapon Mastery” can be levelled up, passive skills can be unlocked, and even the horses level up. Level caps for each system are increased by levelling up the menu-based Blacksmith, Dojo, and Shop using the aforementioned gold; the buildings also being used to level up individual weapons, and to level up weak characters with “stock” experience gained from playing as stronger characters. It’s a matter of quantity over quality, breadth over depth, and for the most part Samurai Warriors 5‘snebulous upgrade systems can be ignored unless players wish to fast-track their favourite characters along the path of OP musou godhood.
But with all this said, aside from the art style, ultimate attacks, and Citadel mode, none of the above is new to the Warriors series. And so this review runs into the same dilemma many do when recommending a new Warriors game. How much of Samurai Warriors 5, good or bad, can be found in previous entries? Character switching, split-screen coop, a Japanese voiceover; they’re all great features, but were all present in Samurai Warriors 4. The story and setting hasn’t changed since the original Samurai Warriors, and the core gameplay still follows that found in Dynasty Warriors 2 all those years ago. Does one judge Samurai Warriors 5 on its own merit, pretending the plethora of previous Warriors game don’t exist, or in comparison to previous games in the series?
It’s true that Samurai Warriors 5 is one of the genre’s most refined experiences yet, perfect for first time or lapsed musou players. However, the argument for Samurai Warriors 5‘s purchase by those who already own Samurai Warriors 4 is much less compelling, and those who do take the plunge will quickly get the familiar sense of “Warriors deja-vu”.
**Review code provided by publisher.
See below for Koei Tecmo’s super-official screenshots: