In recent years, Warriors games have been criticised for being a little too prolific. To those who don't care for musou titles, it must seem like there's a new Warriors release every other month, but fans have always stuck by Omega Force and its seemingly timeless hack and slash formula. However, even for the Omega Force faithful, the launch of Samurai Warriors 4: Empires, just five months after Samurai Warriors 4-II, can seem somewhat overzealous.
Since the PlayStation 2 days, publisher Koei Tecmo has been adding to the Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors franchises with expansion-like spin-offs. The Empires games take the action-based gameplay that's typical of Warriors titles and add role-playing game elements to the mix, as well as some light strategy. To anyone out of the loop, they're not the easiest set of games to describe.
In any case, Samurai Warriors 4: Empires takes Samurai Warriors 4-II's gameplay and stuffs it into a title that essentially lets you take part in an emergent story of your choosing during one of Japan's most famous historical periods. Outside of managing and expanding your chosen clan, you'll be participating in the usual hack and slash clashes that the developer is known for. It goes without saying that this is where things can seem overly familiar – especially if the last Warriors game that you played was 4-II.
Indeed, the actual combat mechanics are identical to last year's release, with the square and triangle buttons giving way to simplistic but satisfying combo attacks, while circle unleashes a devastating musou move – although unlike Dynasty Warriors, Samurai Warriors puts an emphasis on more reactive duelling mechanics. Instead of juggling your foes until death, you make timely use of blocks and subsequent counter strikes to take chunks out of your opponent's health bar. Again, it may be the same fighting system that we've had over the course of three games now, but it's still largely enjoyable.
It's the way that combat is presented that's different from the main series, though – you won't be following a storyline and set events during these battles. Empires titles pride themselves on being as dynamic as possible, with battlefields in a constant state of flux, changing as you take different actions. In offensive battles, your goal is always to work your way across the map, capturing bases and weakening the opposition before taking on the enemy commander – but how you achieve this is up to you.
You can issue orders at any time to your allied officers, telling them to attack outposts, sit tight and defend, or act as a bodyguard to other units. Meanwhile, your own playable character is free to roam the battlefield, wrestling bases from your foes and stopping the advance of warriors who are looking to do the same to you. In many ways, each battle plays out like a tug of war, with your own prowess in combat tipping the scales for your army. As is usually the case with an Empires title, somehow finding victory against a far bigger force thanks to your own skill is incredibly rewarding.
Speaking of which, the size of your army compared to your opponent's has a direct impact on gameplay. The bigger the gulf in numbers between two opposing clans, the more powerful the larger group will become, and this forces you to think tactically when placing your officers and their men across the game's strategic map of Japan. Things can get surprisingly brutal if you find yourself with a low number of troops going up against a juggernaut of an army, with enemy warriors cutting you down in seconds thanks to a potentially huge increase in attack power.
While it's near impossible to find a way back during such one sided battles, there are numerous options open to you when you find yourself in a tight spot. Samurai Warriors 4: Empires rests its strategic elements on the formation and active strategy systems. The former essentially works like rock-paper-scissors, as you select between offensive, defensive, and speed based formations. You can activate these before battle or during, nullifying your enemy's formation choice or completely overthrowing it depending on how you want to play.
However, as you progress, cracks start to appear in the system. If you don't go ahead and activate a formation before a battle begins, there's a chance that your opponent will come out swinging with a powerful set-up, and things will be rough from the word go. Of course, you could always just choose to start off with a formation of your own, but the gut punch is that there's no way to tell what your enemy is going to choose, so big battles – especially tougher contests later in the game – can be impacted rather dramatically by random chance. And that's frustrating, especially when you've spent months in-game building up your army and preparing for a colossal clash.
Generally speaking, it's a bit disappointing how this entry feels like it's had some of its more complex workings stripped back. For starters, the custom character creator isn't nearly as in-depth as the one found in Dynasty Warriors 8: Empires, and although you can still freely swap historical characters out for your own creations, or even make your own entirely original scenarios, it's hard to shake the feeling that proceedings have been streamlined. On one hand, this makes the game's formula feel somewhat refined, but on the other, veteran Empires players may find themselves craving more control.
This is also apparent in between battles, during what the title calls the politics phase. Here, you organise your forces, build relationships between officers, implement policies to grow your clan, and generally just piddle about until it's time to go to war. The politics phase offers depth for sure, and can even be daunting at first until you wrap your head around the many different commands, but sometimes you feel as though you're just cultivating a group of feudal Japanese Sims rather than playing a vital role in the survival of your clan. This may stem from the fact that you're playing as an entire clan as opposed to being in the shoes of just one warrior – as is the case in the Dynasty Warriors: Empires games – but it often seems like you're just helping the game on its way, rather than carving your own distinct path through the chaos.
When all's said and done, though, there is fun to be had in seeing how dynamic the release can be. Friendships will blossom between allies who fight together on a regular basis, rivalries will be forged as you tackle the same opposing clans again and again, and hoovering up famous officers as you gradually take control of each province is weirdly addictive, kind of like catching Pokémon. Of course, Samurai Warriors' great cast of characters helps the whole thing come alive, and thoughtful cutscenes keep you engaged with what each member of your clan is busy doing, whether they're visiting hot springs with their spouse or sparring with their fiercest rival.
Samurai Warriors 4: Empires is another solid spin-off, but veteran fans may feel a little let down by some of its streamlined gameplay. However, its dynamic nature is usually enough to make up for its lack of depth. Watching your clan grow and your allies form various bonds with one another is an addictive way to spend a few hours, and Samurai Warriors' great combat system is always standing by for when you're ready to crack some skulls. This latest entry isn't quite an unstoppable empire, but it's definitely a force capable of planting its flag firmly on your free time.