Warriors titles may be having a decent critical run of late, but even that doesn't help the fact that this year has already had its fair share of titles from Koei Tecmo's slash-'em-up franchises. We've had Dynasty Warriors 8: Xtreme Legends Complete Edition and Dynasty Warriors: Gundam Reborn, and now we've got Warriors Orochi 3 Ultimate, with Samurai Warriors 4 hitting in October. It's a fantastic time to be a fan, that's for sure, but the amount of releases doesn't alleviate the preconception that Warriors games are all too similar.
And to an extent, that's correct. It's likely that if you've played one Warriors title, you'll be able to jump into the rest fairly quickly – after all, most of them involve the same gameplay structure. But this also means that the often subtle differences between each series are more noticeable, and with Warriors Orochi 3 Ultimate, its share of unique mechanics and alterations to the basic formula are perhaps some of the best to be found.
The Orochi games essentially act as a crossover between Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors, where both sets of characters are playable in a fictional realm that exists between time and space. This dimension is under the constant threat of the snake-like demon lord Orochi and his evil army, which is the perfect excuse for the cast to unite and fight back against his tyranny.
Story mode typically sees you progress through a meaty bunch of of missions as you gather more and more allies, and this forms the basis of what the game's all about: the character roster. Back on the PlayStation 3, the base game that was Warriors Orochi 3 already had a ridiculous amount of variety thanks to a roster of over 100 playable fighters, and unsurprisingly, Ultimate throws in a few more. Fortunately, the newcomers get their spot in the limelight thanks to a slew of fresh stages as they fight to purge another evil from the war-torn land, and although the new scenarios don't really offer anything particularly unique or exciting, they do add yet more enjoyable content to this already preposterous time sink.
Speaking of which, if you don't have any save data from the PS3 original that you can upload to the cloud server and carry over to your PS4, it's going to be one heck of a long game. Starting out with only three unlocked characters, you'll have to plow through the story to make everyone else available. And although you can form a three-warrior team from any of the characters that you've unlocked, any newly added personalities will start off at level 1, which means that you'll have to either take them back through previously completed stages to grind some experience, or spend some in-game currency to boost their power to an agreeable extent. As such, it might be best to build a decent squad early on, and carry them through to the end of the narrative, but thankfully, you will end up banking a lot of unused experience points that can be applied to any fighter that you see fit.
Still, levelling up over 100 characters will take a long, long time, and if you're a total newcomer, you'll probably want to test out every warrior that you get your hands on. As hinted, however, you won't have to try them out one by one, as the Orochi games are focused on team based play, unlike other Warriors titles. Here, you'll be selecting a party of three, who can be switched between with the press of a button out on the battlefield.
Outside of the switching mechanic, the release plays exactly as you'd expect it to, as you wade through thousands of enemy troops using accessible, but satisfying combos. If you've dipped into recent Dynasty Warriors games, you'll soon notice that there's no weapon swapping system, as each Chinese fighter is stuck with their default moveset, but the fact that you're in control of three separate characters more than makes up for this relative lack of depth. Because of this, tapping the R1 button instead unleashes a character specific technique, which are usually great for finishing off combos or clearing out remaining groups of foes.
There's a pretty big difference between the Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors casts, too, due to the fact that both parties play as they would in their respective franchises. Our Chinese heroes make use of devastating, quick musou attacks, while their Japanese counterparts boast drawn-out, combo-based special moves. On top of that, attack patterns and combo layouts differ slightly, so mix and matching a three man army probably offers the most depth that you'll find in a Warriors release, especially if you're a fan of experimenting with absolutely crazy character-switching combos.
It's not just Koei's two flagship franchises that commit their cast to Ultimate, though, as you'll also come across a handful of guest appearances. For example, Dead or Alive's Kasumi is a dab hand at tearing snake demons apart, while Atelier's Sterkenburg brings his rather large sword into the fray as well. Along with these cameos, the Orochi series even boasts its own set of monsters and mythical figures, who are usually centric to the overall plot. Needless to say, it won't be long before you start picking and choosing favourites, and with a roster this big, the possibilities are almost endless.
That said, the release does feature a number of characters who simply aren't very effective. The cast is split into four different types of fighter: power, speed, technique, and wonder. Power types are immune to flinching when they're busy attacking, speed types can jump away from danger and cancel out of combos, technique types possess a sidestep manoeuvre, and wonder types can perform a dash that allows them to keep up a combo and break an enemy's guard. As you can imagine, the varying styles make room for even more experimentation, but unfortunately, some abilities are far more useful than others. The technique type's sidestep, for instance, relies heavily on the situation, and most of the time, you'll just want to keep on the offensive anyway.
The same goes for a number of character's movesets, which just don't measure up to what else is on offer. While it's clearly incredibly difficult to balance a cast of over 100 personalities, that doesn't make it any less disappointing when you find a warrior that you like the look of, only to discover that they're frustratingly outclassed in combat by other available fighters.
However, after spending a decent amount of time with the title, you'll come to realise that this isn't always the case, thanks to the weapon and skill systems. Unlike the unnecessarily complex forging system found in the latest Dynasty Warriors release, Ultimate makes use of a more simplistic system that offers accessibility and eventual depth, if you're willing to look. You can fuse two weapons together, which combines their currently equipped skills, making them more potent, and it's easily one of the best ways to beef up someone who's annoyingly weak. Skills range from the basics like increased damage to more outlandish concepts like gaining a different character type's unique ability, which means that you're theoretically left to create your ideal warrior based on your personal style of play.
There's a heck of a lot to test out and accomplish, then, but there's still oodles of content to smash your way through even after you've felled Orochi and his army dozens of times over. The game offers several other, less traditional modes that provide some respite from the packed battlefields, and although they don't feel entirely polished, they can be entertaining in their own right.
For a long time now, some fans have been calling out for a mode that's more akin to a fighting game, and funnily enough, Ultimate has it. The aptly named duel mode sees two teams of three go head to head in a small arena. You'll be locked on to your opponent so that there's a fighting genre feel, but other than that, the mechanics stay largely the same. You can face off against computer controlled combatants or take the fight online, and while it's a fun distraction, there's no denying that the mostly unchanged combat system simply doesn't translate too well into a more traditional brawler. As such, some warriors sport annoyingly broken movesets or overpowered attacks, which makes the whole mode feel a bit tacked on.
Gauntlet mode is also a new addition, and it's probably one of the strangest. Here, you'll make a party of five, and your goal is to progress through dungeon-like stages in one piece. In theory, it's something different that fits the game quite well as it allows for alternate approaches since all five combatants are on the field at once, but in reality, it's just a bit dull, especially when you realise that some special attacks utterly break the opponent's artificial intelligence. But even though you can mow down foes like they're not even there, or keep them in endless combos, like the aforementioned duel mode, there's still fun to be had here if you're in the mood for something slightly different.
The final mode is the musou battlefields, where you can edit already existing stages by swapping out opposing officers, among other smaller elements, before uploading you creation so that players around the world can download and try it out. Again, it's something that sounds like a brilliant idea on paper, but it turns out to be disappointingly restrictive; if you go into the mode expecting to create your very own stage, you'll be severely disappointed. Play it for what it is, though, and fans should be able to gleam some enjoyment from fiddling with their favourite scenarios.
However, despite having quite a lot of hit and miss content, there's little doubt that the PlayStation 4 is proving to be an ideal home for Warriors titles. As with Dynasty Warriors 8: Complete Edition, you'll be able to see battles raging far off into the distance due to increased technical performance. Everything stays at a solid framerate, too, only dipping slightly when there are literally hundreds of soldiers laying into each other all around you. Graphically, things look great for a Warriors game as well, partly thanks to the Orochi series' weirdly appealing colour pallet, and partly because of some much better texture quality. At times, however, there can be a bit of a stylistic clash due to the difference in character design between the two main franchises, but as a crossover title, it's easy to dismiss.
Funnily enough, the soundtrack only benefits from the mixture of tunes on offer from both properties, as well as some remixes from other guest titles. One minute you'll be hearing the enjoyable, if cheesy, Dynasty Warriors rock, and the next, Samurai Warriors' Eastern tinged harmonies will be flooding your ears. But it's Warriors Orochi's own techno heavy, fast paced beats that steal the show, providing the perfect backing tracks for such a frantic experience.
Even though Warriors Orochi 3 Ultimate is buried in some slightly lacklustre content, you're definitely getting your money's worth with this shockingly robust package. The franchise's seemingly simplistic alterations to the Warriors formula hide some extraordinary depth, and the gigantic character roster will be enough to send most fans into a daze. Even if you're new to Tecmo Koei's divisive software, this may be a perfect starting point thanks to its standalone, over the top story – just try not to burn yourself out before the next inevitable release.