Koei's Dynasty Warriors games, despite an almost unreasonable aversion to serious alteration, have amassed a pretty rabid fan base over the years. The games are essentially pure beat-'em-ups in which you can play as various warriors based on real historical figures and slash your way through hundreds upon hundreds of bad guys for hours at a time. No fewer than eight variations of the Dynasty Warriors name have been released since the franchise's inception, and it currently shows no signs of slowing down. Samurai Warriors, Koei's latest offering, is a little bit different from previous games, however. Not only does it trade out its usual setting of ancient China for feudal Japan but also it adds some role-playing elements not found before in the series, as well as a much deeper scope of features, collectible items, and moves. Although the upgrades are certainly a nice change of pace for what has been a fairly uncompromising series of games, the core game is still much the same as it has always been, and as such, Samurai Warriors remains a game primarily for those already enamored with the Warriors franchise.
The era in which Samurai Warriors takes place is known as the Sengoku, or "warring states," period. During this time, numerous clans were fighting with one another, and much of Japan's political structure was in turmoil. Though the game features a largely historical base for its storyline, that's all it is: a base. You don't need to really know any of this period's history to follow where the game takes you, because much of where it takes you is primarily fantastical fiction that is simply based on a historic setting. The story branches in quite a number of different directions depending on the actions you take on the battlefield. If you fail a certain mission objective or complete one, the story may branch into new territory. With more than 15 playable characters in the game, each with his or her own differing (although still generally similar) and branching storylines, there's plenty of incentive to play the game through many times over--provided, of course, you don't tire of the repetitive gameplay.
Samurai Warriors' method of combat is pretty simplistic on all fronts. The X button acts as your main attack button, which by itself lets you string together some basic combo attacks. Add in the Y button for special attacks and the B button for "musou" attacks that can be executed when a bar beneath your life meter reaches its zenith, and you can put together some nifty attack combinations. Unfortunately, while some of the upgradable attacks are pretty cool, there just aren't enough differing types of attacks to prevent the game from getting a bit stale after the thousandth grunt enemy has been sliced through; this, incidentally, doesn't take too long since you'll be grinding your way past what would seem like an insurmountable number of enemies. Despite the fact that there are mission objectives to be completed in the game, often you can simply bypass these and just slice your way to whomever the head honcho is on the opposing side. Once he's been defeated, you've passed the level.
Granted, there is certainly an incentive to actively try to take care of the game's mission objectives. Not only can you earn upgrades to numerous aspects of your character's skill categories--such as health, swordsmanship, and defense--but as you play through the game you'll be able to earn new weapons, attacks, and other items. Weapons also have their own particular levels, totaling five in all for each weapon. The only way you can get each weapon to its highest level is by completing a specific objective for each character, which, of course, can only be done by playing the game on the hard setting. So, theoretically, you'd need to be pretty good at the game before tackling such an objective. All of these aspects definitely bring some new life to the otherwise straightforward-to-a-fault gameplay, and they add considerable broadness to the experience.
In addition to the character and weapon upgrades, Samurai Warriors features other gameplay modes outside of the primary storyline. One new addition to the package is the officer mode, which gives you the opportunity to train a new samurai of your own creation. You start out by choosing one of several prerendered models before meeting your samurai instructor. What follows is a fairly short list of training exercises in your basic samurai skills. Do well, and you'll be rewarded with skills upgrades; do poorly, and you'll be scolded by your instructor. After graduating, you'll be given the opportunity to try out for a clan, and if you pass, you'll be a full-fledged samurai. The mode itself is a nice touch, but it lacks depth beyond the few repetitive training exercises, and after you've created a few characters, it becomes rather tiresome.
There are other gameplay modes available in Samurai Warriors, including a survival mode, where your goal is simply to survive as long as you can against a seemingly never-ending onslaught of opponents; a versus mode, where up to two players can compete to slaughter the most opponents, capture a specific opponent first, or be the first to defeat 1,000 enemies; and a challenge mode, where you can play through each of the individual skills tests from the new officer mode with any of the available characters in the game. All told, these modes are fine to play, and though not all of them are terribly exciting on their own, they still add further depth to the game's overall package.
Visually, Samurai Warriors isn't much different from the Dynasty Warriors games--at least from a technical standpoint. The game is still capable of handling ridiculous numbers of enemies onscreen at one time--with only intermittent frame rate issues when the enemy numbers reach their absolute peak--and the camera is still a little on the twitchy side when it comes too close to environmental objects. Where the game differs from its Dynasty Warriors brethren is in its stylistic point of view. Gone are many of the garish costumes and the flashy scenery of old; they have been replaced by a much darker, more solemn battlefield. But while the majority of the game takes on that darker look, some of the playable characters are actually quite silly looking in some respects. However, others actually look cool, and there are more than enough cool characters to go around.
Sillier than any of the character designs, however, is Samurai Warriors' English voice acting, which borders on being intolerable at times. Some of it is actually quite competent, but much of the translated dialogue is mostly haphazardly written. When the voice acting is especially bad, the two factors compound into a rather unpleasant experience. However, all fortune is not lost, as the game does feature the original Japanese dialogue, which is significantly better than the other dialogue. The game's soundtrack is a bit more subdued and traditional than the sort of wailing rock-guitar music often found in its predecessors. There are still a few instances of the more head-bang-worthy stuff here and there, but for the most part it's just an afterthought.
Compared to its PlayStation 2 predecessor, the Xbox version of Samurai Warriors is fundamentally the same game but with a couple of upgrades. For starters, the Xbox version actually supports more characters onscreen at once than the PS2 version. The actual numbers increase isn't gigantic (about 10 more total), but when comparing the two side by side, you'll definitely notice a difference. However, this increase in enemy opposition actually doesn't seem to ramp up the difficulty in any noticeable way, so the gameplay is pretty much unaffected by it. This is also really the only notable graphical difference between the two platform offerings, because, aside from a marginally cleaner look, the Xbox version of the game looks practically identical to the PS2 version. The only other change of note is the addition of Dolby Digital 5.1 support for the game, so if you've got some surround speakers and really like to hear the sounds of samurai being hacked to death, then this is a nice inclusion. All told, the Xbox version of the game is essentially the best by default--because of these additions--but if you only own a PS2, you're not missing out on a whole lot by ending up with that particular version of the game.
When all is said and done, Samurai Warriors is a game that sticks pretty closely to its roots, and in that regard, it does a fine job of being what it wants to be. This isn't a game that's going to reel in the longtime Dynasty Warriors naysayer; this is a game that is designed to appeal to an already loyal fan base, and it serves its purpose perfectly. Anyone who has played and enjoyed Koei's earlier offerings will probably enjoy this game. And anyone who's had an interest in the series, but has yet to take the plunge, will find a fine starting point in Samurai Warriors.