It's been seven whole years since the last mainline instalment in the Samurai Warriors series, and as far as we're concerned, 2014's Samurai Warriors 4 is still one of the best Warriors games on the market. Samurai Warriors 5 has quite the legacy to live up to, then, but is a rebooted storyline, a fresh art style, and a slew of new gameplay mechanics enough to warrant another Japanese conquest?
Let's start with the most important part: Samurai Warriors 5 can be an absolute blast to play. We'd go as far to say that it offers up some of the most enjoyable hack and slash combat in Koei Tecmo's gigantic Warriors catalogue — but the game's convoluted structure holds it back more often than it should.
Samurai Warriors 5 can be a very grindy game when it wants to be — and not in a good way. Everything's built around a long, multi-chapter story mode that's split across the lives of two main characters. It makes for a pretty huge campaign that lasts for a good 30 hours or so — but size isn't really the problem. Indeed, our biggest gripe is that your progress through the story mode is sometimes impeded by limited character selection, alongside resource grinding that's locked behind a secondary game mode.
The idea is that you'll jump between the story mode and this secondary mode on a frequent basis. Progressing through the story unlocks more missions in the secondary 'citadel' mode, and it's there that you'll gather building materials that are required to upgrade various facilities. In turn, these facilities can be used to level up your characters and their weapons so that you can tackle harder story mode stages. On paper, it's a rather rich gameplay loop, but in practice, it adds a layer of tedium to an already lengthy campaign.
Fortunately, the story mode itself is engaging. Again, the plot centres on two key figures in Japanese history: Nobunaga Oda and Mitsuhide Akechi. The duo built the foundations for their country's long awaited unification (which would eventually occur years after their deaths), and the story of Samurai Warriors 5 focuses on this rise to power. The result provides a surprisingly personal perspective, as we get to see Nobunaga and Mitsuhide grow into the roles that would cement their place in Japanese culture. Obviously, being a Warriors game, it's all very anime (and, of course, simplified to a large degree), but it's entertaining stuff from start to finish.
Each story mode stage attempts to capture a key battle of the time, with a mix of CG cutscenes and more static dialogue scenes bookending every encounter. And although a lot of the game's 37 playable characters don't get any significant stints in the spotlight, the title does a good job of making sure that everyone's included at some point.
But as alluded, character selection throughout story mode is limited. For the most part, that's fine — you're just going to be playing as Nobunaga or Mitsuhide 95 per cent of the time anyway — but some stages require the use of a secondary hero. The issue is that this character may be comparatively weak — especially if you haven't played as them before — and so everything kind of grinds to a halt. Combat loses its flow because you're not doing enough damage, and upgrading your abilities takes a lot of resources — resources that need to be farmed over in citadel mode. So, you either get grinding, or you knock the difficulty down to easy, where chipping away at an enemy's health bar isn't quite as tedious.
It really is a shame that the structure of Samurai Warriors 5 sometimes gets in the way like this, because mowing down hordes of soldiers with absolutely ridiculous attacks and racking up combos in the thousands is fantastic fun. When you take to the battlefield as a sufficiently powerful character, there's a joyous rhythm to the hack and slash action. Samurai Warriors 5 is built on the foundations of its predecessor, with fast, wide-range hyper attacks meant for cutting down peons, and more focused, combo-based light and heavy blows designed to fell enemy officers — but it's the all-new inclusion of 'ultimate skills' that seals the deal.
Ultimate skills are essentially special moves that have cooldowns. Some give you attack or defence buffs, while others let you unleash mighty, screen-clearing attacks. They may not sound all that innovative, but ultimate skills work wonders for the game's combat system, adding a welcome layer of strategy to your character's toolkit. But perhaps the best thing about ultimate skills is that they can be cancelled into at any time — even if you're mid-combo. This opens things up dramatically, as you can essentially refine your character's style of play by picking and choosing your favourite skills. All in all, an excellent addition.
Once you're done with story mode, there's still a lot to see in Samurai Warriors 5. Any cleared story stage can be replayed in 'free mode' with characters of your choosing, and working your way through the citadel mode — while a bit tedious — is worth it for all of the weapon-bolstering rewards. Assuming you haven't had your fill of battle — or you just want to forge some totally overpowered weapons — there's plenty of reason to stick around after the credits roll.
Before we move onto the conclusion, we should highlight the game's new art direction, which pops quite nicely on a big display. Samurai Warriors 5 adopts a kind of semi-cel-shaded style, and it makes for one of the prettiest Warriors titles to date.
As a complete Warriors package, Samurai Warriors 5 doesn't quite match up to its stellar predecessor, but that doesn't stop it from being fantastic hack and slash fun. Even if the gameplay itself is largely familiar, a rebooted story mode and overhauled art style give the experience a fresh and surprisingly unique feel. What's more, the new ultimate skills system is an excellent addition, and something we'd love to see become a Warriors staple.