Stuck in a strange realm somewhere between a sequel and an expansion, Samurai Warriors 4-II is, in many ways, a follow up to last year's superb Samurai Warriors 4 – but it's certainly not the inevitable Samurai Warriors 5. It borrows characters, stages, music, mechanics, voice acting, and even artwork from 2015's historical hack and slasher, but to call it an enhanced edition isn't accurate either, since its general structure is totally different. Hey, it's no wonder people get confused when it comes to musou titles.

So let's just start by jotting down what Samurai Warriors 4-II actually includes. Its main draw is story mode, which, instead of following the narratives of particular clans, follows the tales of individual characters. Unsurprisingly, this augments the events of Japan's warring period with a more personal feel, as you get to know the involved samurai and watch their legends unfold.

As with Samurai Warriors 4, the plot is paved with cutscenes that play out in between each battle, and it's all done rather well. Plenty of dialogue fleshes out the personalities to a reasonable degree, and each scenario is padded out just enough so that you know what it is you're fighting for. There are 12 different stories to see in total, and although there's some overlap with a few characters, they all tend to follow particular narrative themes which make them distinct.

Our only quarrel with 4-II's story mode is the fact that in order to understand exactly what's going on, you'll likely need prior knowledge of the historical period. Samurai Warriors 4's story mode worked so well because it was spread across the bigger picture, and although you could argue that 4-II's focus on individuals is more engaging, it's not nearly as welcoming to newcomers. With that in mind, those who have already played the original release will likely get more out of this. Still, story mode is a lengthy, polished component, and watching how each individual plot weaves into the overarching narrative is interesting, especially if you're a fan of Japanese history.

The game's most original addition comes in the form of survival mode, which is a little more in-depth than its name may lead you to believe. Taking place inside a castle that hosts countless floors, you're tasked with clearing as many of them as you can. On each level, you're given a specific objective, and when it's completed, the door to the next floor opens up. You may have to beat down a set number of troops, or you may be challenged by a certain named officer. Unlike the big, relatively open battlefields found in story mode, survival's cramped spaces tell you all that you need to know: this is a mode for quick and dirty action, which subsequently means that it complements the rest of the release quite nicely.

Survival mode may not have the epic storylines or the vast fields of war, but it does have plenty of reason to keep you coming back. Clearing particular levels of the castle grants you bonuses, and as you work your way up, you'll uncover more and more additional stuff. All the while, you'll be looting increasingly rare weapons and items that can be used across the whole game, which means that it's an efficient and enjoyable way to beef up your favourite characters.

If a straightforward dungeon crawl isn't you thing, optional variables are also on hand to test your skills. For example, you can take part in a gold rush mode, which tasks you with collecting as much money from your foes as possible by giving them a good whack, or you could try your luck at time attack, which, as you can probably guess, is all about slaughtering your enemies as swiftly as you can. Survival mode as a whole isn't the most ambitious component that we've seen in a Warriors title, but it is an addictive addition that can prove to be a welcome change of pace.

Story mode and survival mode combine to create a neat package, but it doesn't quite feel like 4-II's offering is on the same scale as Samurai Warriors 4's gigantic amount of content, which included the incredibly meaty chronicle mode, and, as mentioned, the vast story. Again, this is why it's hard to categorise 4-II – it's more of the same, but it does enough to stand as its own release.

There are things that this latest outing does better than its predecessor, however. While gameplay is mostly the same as you switch between two selected characters, complete objectives during battle, and carve your way through hordes of enemy troops, refinements have been made to one-on-one duels, and by and large, the game demands a slightly more methodical approach.

As with the previous instalment, 4-II differentiates fights with tough samurai from brawls with lesser soldiers by giving you two separate means of attack. Mapped to triangle, hyper attacks cut through rank and file troops like butter, but officers will shrug them off like they're nothing. Against these boss-like rivals, you'll have to push square for normal attacks, and throw in the odd tap of triangle to unleash more powerful charge attacks that tie into your combos.

It goes without saying that this system forces you to actually think about what moves you're using rather than just mashing the controller, and here, things are taken a step further with button prompts that pop up during the heat of combat. While blocking, for instance, your foe may attempt to break your guard with a dash, and at that point, time will slow for a split second, and you'll have an opportunity to hit the displayed input and smack them away, or you might even be prompted to perform a counterattack if your adversary is about to unleash a special move. It's a simple mechanic that's not quite prevalent enough to have an impact on the game's balance, but it keeps duels feeling enjoyably tense, particularly during high difficulty missions.

4-II also does away with the last title's somewhat convoluted weapon upgrade system. Jewels that were used to power up certain armament attributes are cast aside, and in their place is the ability to fuse weapons together in order to forge stronger versions. The new system creates a much more satisfying progression loop, and stumbling across an especially rare implement of destruction feels great since you know that it's going to be put to good use one way or another. Likewise, it's worth mentioning that you can, er, fuse horses, too. We're not entirely sure how this works in a realistic sense, but like weapons, you can combine your steeds to create more reliable beasts that sport better statistics.

Conclusion

Although it's hard to pinpoint Samurai Warriors 4-II's true purpose, it's still a great musou title that carries on the spirit of the fantastic Samurai Warriors 4. Fans of the series who are up for more of the same can't go wrong, while newcomers will be safe in the knowledge that, in terms of gameplay, this is the best that the franchise has to offer. Rather than a reforged sword, 4-II is more of a secondary blade – and its edge is just as sharp.