The Samurai Warriors franchise has always played second fiddle to sister series Dynasty Warriors, especially over here in the West. Where the latter is now up to its eighth main instalment, without counting any spin-offs, Samurai Warriors has only just reached its fourth incarnation. To the inexperienced, there isn't much to separate the two sets of games, and to an extent, there's an element of truth to this. They both largely follow the same structure of hacking and slashing your way through expansive historical battlefields, but proceedings have always felt a little more refined on the Japanese side of things. Whether this is because there's more development time between titles is up for debate, but there's no doubt that, more often than not, Samurai Warriors tends to be the more polished of Koei's creations.

Samurai Warriors 4 marks the franchise's return to Western Sony platforms after a relatively disappointing stint with Nintendo, and as such, it feels like developer Omega Force has poured a lot of effort into its latest project. Sporting two main modes and the standard free mode that we've come to expect, there's a definite sense that less is more. Warriors Orochi 3 Ultimate, for example, boasts more content than you'd usually know what to do with, and as a result, much of it seems a little tacked on – but that's not the case here. By focusing on just two modes, we're left with a title that's sharp and to the point. Make no mistake, there's still oodles of stuff to see and do, but streamlining it all creates a much more cohesive experience.

Based on the Sengoku period of Japanese history where territorial warlords fought to rule the land, the game's story mode is its main draw. Split into twelve different legends, each following a specific clan's most important battles, the mode's a reasonable time sink. On paper, it isn't much different to what's on offer in other Warriors titles, but the tales that are told here are surprisingly in-depth, and they're made all the more interesting thanks to a great cast of characters.

While Dynasty Warriors boasts almost double the amount of playable fighters, the vast majority of them are simplistic archetypes that aren't very intriguing. Samurai Warriors 4, on the other hand, makes fantastic use of a fully voiced conversation system that plays before and after battles, shedding light on not only the task at hand, but the personalities of those involved. It's a great way to add some depth to the plot, and serves to reinforce the feeling that this is easily one of the most polished releases that the publisher has ever put onto the market.

Also keeping things engaging is the ability to pick and switch between two chosen characters at any time during battle. This essentially means that you'll always find yourself in the action, as the warrior that you're not in control of can be ordered around the map, allowing you to create your own strategies on the fly. Working your way through one side of the battlefield with one character, and then flicking to the other in order to mop up reinforcements that have only just appeared is an effective way to keep proceedings rolling along at a steady, enjoyable pace.

Of course, there are plenty of nicely choreographed cutscenes to gaze at as well, and when all's said and done, the title's story mode delivers on just about every front, making it one of the best to have ever graced a Warriors game. The icing on the cake is that all of this is fully playable with a friend or stranger, both online and locally via split screen co-op. However, while tales of swordsmen and rampaging warlords are all well and good, it's the combat that's at the centre of any decent musou release, and thankfully, Samurai Warriors 4 excels in this department, too.

The series has always played at a slower pace than Dynasty Warriors enthusiasts will be used to, emphasising singular duels against famous officers, while subsequently putting less focus on mowing down thousands of enemy troops. That's changed here, though, not only thanks to the aforementioned switching mechanic, but also because of newly introduced hyper attacks. Unlike regular combos, hyper attacks allow you to carve through entire platoons of grunts with a few taps of the triangle button, all while covering a lot of ground in the process.

It's an addition to combat that works extremely well, as it creates a meaningful contrast between slaughtering legions of typical cannon fodder and engaging in tense duels with named adversaries. Essentially, carving your way to an enemy leader has never been smoother or more enjoyable due to these over the top displays of pure power, but at the same time, these blisteringly quick techniques won't have much effect on the famous officers themselves, who you'll simply bounce off if you try to hit.

As a result, you'll be switching back to a familiar mix of normal and power attacks in order to dispatch named opponents, but again, it's not quite Dynasty Warriors. The sister series demands – at least on harder difficulties – that you juggle your adversaries with rather ridiculous combos, but here, victory requires a tad more tactical thought.

Blocking plays a much more important role, as a well timed guard throws your enemy off balance, and leaves them open to a devastating mighty blow – a cinematic move that's unique to each character. It doesn't sound like much, but these attacks give duels a much needed sense of importance, which further separates these clashes from your standard soldier slicing, and, needless to say, pulling off a perfectly timed strike that fully depletes your opponent's health bar feels particularly good.

But even if you're not fond of going on the defensive, there are a couple of new offensive options to try your hand at. Alongside the musou gauge, that, when filled, allows you to unleash a powerful, warrior-specific super attack, there's the spirit gauge, which has a number of uses that more advanced players will enjoy. For starters, you can use portions of it to perform guard-breaking tackles, which are perfect for chaining combos, or for when enemy officers decide that it's time to sit and soak up everything that you throw at them. But it's when the spirit gauge is maxed that things start to get crazy, as with a push of R3, your fighter enters a temporary rage mode, which slows down time and boosts your damage output by a considerable amount. To top it off, it's in this state that you can unleash a preposterous enraged musou attack – a technique that can quite literally thwart the advance of an entire army.

As far as combat goes in a Warriors release, it's hard to top Samurai Warriors 4's multifaceted approach. If you're just playing for the narrative, selecting the easy difficulty will let you carve your way through the enemy ranks any way that you see fit, while those looking for a challenge will relish the fact that you're able to play defensively, blocking and countering your opponents as the situation demands. It also helps that in a playable cast of over 50 characters, everyone feels unique, and boasts some of the most stylish, satisfying movesets that Omega Force has crafted.

Unbelievably, the good news doesn't stop there. The game's secondary chronicle mode is a similarly well realised, addictive time sink, in which you journey across war-torn Japan as your own custom character, forging relationships with the cast as you battle alongside and against each other. The battles are of a smaller scale, and unlike story clashes, tend to revolve around a single main objective, be it to protect an ally from an onslaught, or fight your way through a marauding army.

The randomised conflicts keep things from getting too repetitive, but there's also plenty to do outside of brawling. As hinted, sharing a battlefield builds up your affinity with other playable characters, which unlocks a series of conversations with each member of the colourful cast. Like in story mode, these exchanges are a great way to add personality to many of Japan's legendary warriors, and fans will no doubt get a kick from seeing their own custom made avatar in conversation with the likes of the 'Demon King' Nobunaga Oda and the unbeatable Tadakatsu Honda.

Chronicle mode is a deliciously dynamic addition that's reminiscent of the gameplay found in the Empires spin-off titles, but there's an undeniable charm to travelling the land of the rising sun alongside your favourite samurai. All in all, it complements the narrative driven story mode superbly, providing yet more insight into the historical figures of the period. In that sense, it's safe to say that Samurai Warriors 4 is quite an educational release, even if obvious liberties are taken with its cast of super powered nobles and wandering swordsmen.

But even if you ignored the plot and all attempts at characterisation entirely, the game would still lure you in with its addictive gameplay loop. As you level up your chosen warrior, they typically become stronger and stronger, gaining statistic growths and unlocking longer, deadlier combo strings. Defeated enemies also drop loot in the form of gold, gems, or weapons. Gold can be used to purchase faster horses or new sets of armour to dress your custom character in, while gems allow you to upgrade your armament's many potential abilities. It's perhaps a bit of a shame that a weapon forging system similar to Warriors Orochi's isn't in place here so that you could gradually improve your chosen armament instead of scrapping it when you find something better, but it does mean that you'll always be on the lookout for increasingly powerful gear as you attempt more difficult scenarios, which is, again, an aspect that'll keep you playing.

In truth, it's difficult to fault Samurai Warriors 4, especially if you're already a fan of Koei's divisive hack and slash blueprint. It's a title that's still quite unlikely to convert anyone who sees musou madness as overly repetitive, but for those that are already converted, it simply doesn't get much better than this. The game's glory even applies to its strangely effective, electronically inspired traditional Japanese soundtrack, its emotive voice acting, and what are easily the best visuals that any Warriors franchise has seen, sporting a somewhat subtle colour palette and what is, without doubt, the most enticing, picturesque level design in Omega Force's history.

Conclusion

Bursting back onto Sony platforms with a vengeance, Samurai Warriors 4 cuts down Dynasty Warriors 8: Xtreme Legends Complete Edition and KOs Warriors Orochi 3 Ultimate. Boasting a superb story mode, a delightful cast, and countless improvements to the Warriors formula, musou fanatics shouldn't even blink before buying. Move over Lu Bu, the Demon King won't be beaten any time soon.