To date, Samurai Warriors 4 has given way to three spin-off titles on PlayStation 4: Samurai Warriors 4-II, Samurai Warriors 4: Empires, and now, Samurai Warriors: Spirit of Sanada. Of the three, this latest release is the most original - at least in terms of structure and design. Spirit of Sanada takes numerous role-playing game elements and bolts them onto the established Samurai Warriors formula, but the resulting experience can feel disjointed, and perhaps a little too experimental for its own good.
For years upon years now, Omega Force's Warriors games have been criticised for sticking to their guns. The concept of fighting off entire armies as a supremely overpowered hero has been done to death by this point, but the truth of the matter is that when the developer dares to try something new, it's prone to falling on its face. Spirit of Sanada certainly isn't another horribly shoddy Dynasty Warriors: Strikeforce, but it also doesn't live up to the high standards set by Samurai Warriors 4. In fact, it's the weakest spin-off of the bunch.
As its name suggests, the game focuses primarily on the Sanada clan. A proud and noble family, the title's story plays out from the perspective of its most famous members, namely Masayuki Sanada and his son, Samurai Warriors poster boy Yukimura Sanada. This allows for a tighter narrative that's more akin to what you'd find in an RPG, with the plot honing in on a select few characters and really digging into what makes them tick. For a Warriors game it's breaking new ground, and the story itself is an interesting one.
Perhaps the plot's greatest strength is that it plays out over the course of several decades, and we get to see characters like Yukimura go from being a fresh-faced child to being a revered and grizzled general. That we get to watch these personalities blossom during such a war-torn time adds some real weight to the historical tale, not to mention a hefty does of personality. The broader picture becomes a bit blurred as a result of the more focused narrative – some established characters come and go in what feels like a single cutscene – but overall, this fresh approach enriches the experience.
Unsurprisingly, the general flow of the game has been overhauled in order to accommodate this newfound depth, and sadly, it's here that Spirit of Sanada starts to stumble. Big battles featuring huge armies are still the title's bread and butter, but it's the events that occur between these conflicts which drag the release down.
Exploration missions are the biggest offender. Taking cues from RPGs or adventure titles, exploration missions see you run around relatively small maps as you take on specific tasks, such as escorting supply troops from one base to another. Technically there's nothing outright bad about these missions, but they definitely feel like filler, and they're not exactly exciting to play through. Samurai Warriors, like all Warriors games, is at its best when you're hacking and slashing through thousands of foes – not when you're pottering about empty maps picking up items.
Again, it's on the battlefield where Spirit of Sanada finds its true calling, but even then, the spin-off has a bad habit of overcomplicating things. This time around historical clashes are played out in parts. The first chapter of a battle may have you break down the enemy's defences, for example, while the second and third parts see you attempt to finish off the opposing commander. It's another structured approach that allows for added depth, but it also means that larger battles can feel more like a collection of disappointingly short skirmishes rather than a grand conflict between two hulking armies.
At least the new hub area is nice – even if it is plagued by a poor frame rate. Here you'll talk to other characters, upgrade weapons, unlock new combat abilities, buy items, and partake in a small number of minigames. We use the term 'minigames' loosely though, as the title's farming and fishing activities are both incredibly basic. Still, the small town offers a peaceful little retreat when you're not cracking skulls.
As you'd perhaps expect, it's the combat that once again holds the whole package together – although anyone hoping for a noticeable revamp of the Samurai Warriors 4 system is going to be disappointed. Standard normal attacks and powerful charge attacks form the basis of fighting, while fast and furious hyper attacks return so that you can make easy work of waves of grunts. The combat mechanics may have lost a bit of their lustre after four whole games, but the system's still one of Omega Force's best and most refined.
Samurai Warriors: Spirit of Sanada attempts to shake things up with a bigger emphasis on RPG elements and a more personal story, but it doesn't always hit the mark. Seeing events unfold from the perspective of just a few characters does make for an interesting and engaging narrative, but the pacing is bogged down by boring filler missions. Likewise, chopping huge historical battles into bite-sized chunks adds depth to each scenario, but the epic scale and the thrill of thriving battlefields are lost in the process. Spirit of Sanada certainly isn't a bad game, but it is one of the weaker Warriors titles on PS4.