Capcom's Sengoku Basara series doesn't have quite the same level of name recognition for Western audiences as Koei's Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors games, but if you've spent any time with Koei's games, Sengoku Basara: Samurai Heroes will immediately bring them to mind. Samurai Heroes is all about making you an incredibly powerful warrior and giving you hundreds of enemy soldiers to mow down. Alas, this mindless hack-and-slash action quickly grows tiresome, and you'll find yourself longing for more substantial and rewarding gameplay long before you succeed in uniting or conquering 16th-century Japan.
Following the death of the tyrannical conqueror Hideyoshi at the hands of Ieyasu Tokugawa, Japan is a country divided into numerous warring factions. Ieyasu seeks to use his fists to punch Japan right into a new era of peace and unity, while Mitsunari Ishida is obsessed with avenging the defeat of his former lord. But although historic figures such as Ieyasu Tokugawa and Masamune Date loom large in this tale, this is no historically accurate retelling of Japanese history. Samurai Heroes takes a gleefully anachronistic approach to its subject matter. On these battlefields, you might fight alongside warriors in mechanical suits or clash with enemies wielding chainsaws and miniguns. The characters you can control are larger than life and possessed of incredibly intense emotions, making bold and frequently absurd declarations of heroism and vengeance as they easily chop down enemy soldiers by the hundreds. Each of them also has a strong sense of style, wearing some vivid and outlandish outfits, and many of them have let their hairstylists get a little too creative.
On each large battlefield, you aim to defeat an enemy general. As you make your way to the general's position, you're impeded by hundreds of cookie-cutter soldiers who swarm around you like ants and patiently stand around until you put several of them at a time out of their misery with a few pushes of the attack buttons. There's a certain short-lived satisfaction that comes from effortlessly slaughtering hundreds of enemies as a tremendously overpowered warrior who can pull off one stylish move after another without breaking a sweat. But it's so easy and mindless that any fleeting joy this action might provide evaporates before you finish even one battle. It's hard to feel good about single-handedly defeating squads of riflemen when they often fire at where you were standing 10 seconds ago or for slaughtering soldiers who seem eager to taste the edge of your blade. If you chain together enough hits in a row, the game praises you with words like "Awesome!!" and "Radical!!!" However, this is hollow praise because earning it requires so little effort.
Yes, you can change things up a bit by stringing together your warrior's two standard attacks to perform different combos or do nifty things like juggle enemies in midair, but while this may help you defeat the opposing hordes even more quickly, it's never necessary. Against the rank-and-file enemy soldiers you spend the overwhelming majority of your time fighting, you can literally just tap the standard attack button over and over again to easily be victorious. You're also sometimes presented with new objectives like destroying incense burners that bring enemy soldiers back to life or opening water gates to reduce enemy morale, but these don't actually make the action any more varied or exciting. You accomplish these goals the same way you do almost everything else in the game: by walking up to someone or something and tapping the attack buttons a number of times. At times, you can also hop on a horse to cover ground more quickly or to race an opposing general to some destination, but this aspect is as disappointing as everything else about the game. You can plow unhindered through rows of shield-wielding soldiers, and enemy horsemen who charge in your general direction frequently miss you by several feet on either side. Truly, your opponents are idiots. After each battle, you're rewarded with spoils with which you can craft accessories to give you bonuses, making you an even more efficient killing machine in future battles.
There are six warriors available from the start, with 10 more that can be unlocked. But while they do employ different techniques to dish out punishment to their enemies, this doesn't translate into tons of variety and replay value. Regardless of whether you punch, crush, shoot, or slice the brain-dead enemies who swarm around you, eagerly awaiting their deaths, the same approach works. And defeating hundreds of soldiers by swinging a ball around on a chain is no more rewarding than defeating them with a sword when they both amount to just tapping a button hundreds of times with no skill or strategy needed whatsoever.
You do have a few more tricks up your sleeve beyond your standard attacks. As you dish out and absorb punishment and conquer enemy camps by defeating the zombielike commanders stationed at each one, you fill up two meters. One allows you to briefly enter a slow-motion mode called hero time, and the other lets you perform your character's Basara art, a devastating technique that unleashes a flurry of hundreds of attacks on nearby enemies. These techniques are particularly useful against some of the many generals and other named enemies you encounter, who can be challenging. That is because, unlike the soldiers who serve them, they make an actual focused effort to defeat you and can absorb a lot of damage before they fall. This challenge isn't nearly enough to make these fights interesting; on the contrary, these prolonged and simple battles only call attention to the shallowness of the combat. Anything that brings them to a close more quickly is welcome, especially because there are no checkpoints within levels. This makes death a potentially infuriating setback, particularly when it comes at the end of 45 minutes or so of tedious combat, which you're then faced with the prospect of having to repeat.
Samurai Heroes tosses an impressive number of characters on the screen, but aside from your striking hero at the center of the action, many of them look exactly alike and none of them have much detail. Your attacks look cool and flashy, with huge, colorful slash lines enhancing the incredible sense of power behind them, but the way groups of enemies respond in the exact same way to those attacks often looks absurd. For instance, Mitsunari's sword attacks often send groups of enemies rolling across the ground in unison, like they're performing some sort of avant-garde dance routine. The sounds of battle have an exaggerated, B-movie silliness to them, and the voice acting is exaggerated to match. The goofy exclamations lend a tongue-in-cheek humor to the game's heightened drama. It's hard to take the action seriously when Ieyasu passionately proclaims, "May the sun rise in the east with a smile!"
Both the Wii version and the PlayStation 3 version support offline, split-screen two-player cooperative play. In this mode, you can revive your companion if he or she falls in battle, which makes getting past some of the tougher bosses easier, but it doesn't actually make the shallow action any better. There's also a quick battle option that lets you take any unlocked character into any battle scenario you've reached in the story mode, but these battles aren't even fun the first time you play them. Samurai Heroes has an enjoyably anachronistic take on the Sengoku era of Japanese history, but there's nothing enjoyable about trudging through its battlefields and laying waste to hordes of mindless enemies. This is one trip back in time that's best left untaken.