In yet another attempt to wring some more cash out of its famous Musou series (or Dynasty Warriors and its spin-offs, to you and I), Tecmo-Koei have had the bright idea of releasing a game in the Musou mould that throws together a bunch of characters from its various IPs.
Series fans might initially raise an eyebrow at this, as the Warriors Orochi games have combined Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors characters for some time now, and more recently characters from Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden. But if Warriors All-Stars demonstrates anything, it's that Tecmo-Koei's back-catalogue is perhaps a little more varied than you thought.
The game plays out in typical Musou fashion, with you taking control of a general and proceeding to slash your way through literally hundreds of hapless enemies in each battle, and occasionally going toe-to-toe with an enemy general with similar abilities to your own. Charging up gauges by dealing or receiving damage allows you to unleash powerful attacks, and there are some light strategic elements at play as each battle features constantly shifting objectives that force you to make decisions about where to position yourself, which enemy generals to target, which allies to support, which bases to take control of, and so on.
This core loop of near-effortless wading through hordes of enemies with the occasional urgent objective or battle with another general, remains as compelling as ever. The series has a reputation as a mindless button-masher, not least because standard enemies seldom even attempt to attack you, but there's an alluring serenity to it at times, a satisfaction in neatly mopping up every last bit of red on the map before bringing the battle to a close. Moreover, while mastery of your chosen character's moveset doesn't initially seem a huge concern, it becomes essential as the difficulty ramps up and you're forced to juggle more and more time-sensitive objectives. Dealing with hordes of enemies is easy, but you really have to learn to do it as efficiently as possible.
All-Stars mostly sticks to this formula, but it does have a few ideas of its own. As well as picking the character you'll play as for each battle, you can also pick up to four other characters to accompany you. For the most part they'll simply follow you around and help you defeat enemies as you go, but they also each have a specific supporting move that can be triggered at will. These range from status effects, such as putting enemies to sleep, to creating a vortex that sucks all enemies in its range into a small area, allowing you to more easily dispatch them with a single combo. In addition to this, each of these characters can be called up to stand side-by-side with your character and mimic their actions, essentially forming a ludicrous wall of death for a limited time.
Chief among the new additions, though, is Musou Rush. You start each battle with the ability to perform one Rush, and once used you can recharge it by fulfilling certain objectives. When activated, some chirpy trumpets kick in and you become incredibly overpowered for a short period of time, as your chosen allies appear on-screen to cheer you on as if they're your biggest fans.
The best part of all is that it doesn't even matter if there aren't hundreds of enemies around to begin with--once you activate a Rush, the game just starts spawning them in front of you as fast as you can take them down. It makes absolutely no sense, but as a concession to the joys of player empowerment and the general idiotic brilliance of the Musou games, it's a wonderful thing to behold.
The diverse array of characters is an absolute joy ... Anyone with an interest in niche Japanese games will see at least one unlikely yet familiar character that’ll bring a smile to their face
The diverse array of characters in the game is also an absolute joy. When viewing the initial set of available warriors, it's easy to scoff at some of the more leftfield choices the developers have made; Sophie from Atelier, Arnice from Nights of Azure, Laegrinna from Deception… but it's fair to say that anyone with an interest in niche Japanese games (and you're reading a review of a Musou game, so: hi!) will see at least one unlikely yet familiar character that'll bring a smile to their face, if only due to the sheer peculiarity of it. The inclusion of William Adams from this year's surprise hit Nioh is a fitting one; the inclusion of Opoona from the 2007 Wii RPG of the same name is less understandable, and all the more brilliant for it.
Easily the best character in the game is Oda Nobunyaga, from the Samurai Cats series that never made it to the West. Modelled mostly on the famous Japanese warlord with almost the same name, Nobunyaga differs slightly in that he is a tiny cat equipped with a rifle and a magnificent baritone voice. His attack combos repeatedly summon groups of his tiny gun-toting cat-soldiers to blast anyone in the vicinity, and he might actually be the best character to ever appear in a Musou game.
That said, players might be a little disappointed by the paucity of game modes on offer. While previous iterations have included story modes, free battles, multiplayer, and the superb Empires mode that sees players conquering their way across a map by strategically picking battles to take part in, All-Stars has a story mode, and nothing else.
People hardly flock to Musou games for their labyrinthine narrative, and All-Stars certainly isn't bucking the trend here. Of course, a game that pulls together dozens of characters from different franchises was never going to be massively coherent, but suffice it to say it's the usual guff about a royal family performing a hero-summoning magic ritual so they can get some help defeating evil incarnate and heal the land. Still, skipping the cutscenes is easy enough, and if nothing else the knowing-ridiculous premise combined with the boldly-coloured menus and upbeat soundtrack give the game a strong Saturday-morning cartoon vibe.
The aforementioned royal family has also helpfully split into three warring factions, each with their own storyline as well as unique playable characters and missions. So, even if you're not fussed about the story, there are plenty of excuses for multiple playthroughs and the option to take on non-essential missions throughout to strengthen your characters means there's certainly no shortage of things to do.
The trouble is that All-Stars has the misfortune of being released as the Dynasty Warriors 9 hype train is gathering speed, and Tecmo-Koei have made it quite clear that they're on the cusp of bringing substantial changes to the admittedly formulaic series. While it might seem unfair to judge All-Stars against a game that doesn't even have a release date yet, it's hard to see it as something more than a stopgap to keep fans happy while the promised headline act is still in development.
That doesn't stop Warriors All-Stars from being a lot of fun in its own right, though. Series newcomers might be better served by the likes of Dynasty Warriors 8: Xtreme Legends or Hyrule Warriors--equally enjoyable games that can now be found at much lower prices--but All-Stars' twist on the standard Musou mechanics and the delightful whimsy of its whole premise certainly elevates it enough to make it an easy recommendation for veterans.
And once again, to be clear: you can play as a talking warlord cat with a gun.