In terms of mechanics, visuals and overall sensibility, SWC falls very much in line with past games of its ilk. There's no lock-on system when fighting, the character styles and special attacks are flamboyant, and the dialogue sets out to please folks enamored with Sengoku-era history – which the game successfully nails, albeit wrapped in mythological trappings.
SWC, however, adds three major components to the formula that will forever change the genre for the better: missions that pop up throughout each battle; the ability to switch out characters on the fly; and being able to automate playable characters you aren't currently controlling. Omega Force (the game's developer) doesn't implement that last element perfectly – the A.I. pathing will often fail while a character is attempting to travel to a given location – but each of these components comprise welcome innovation that makes this one of the most enjoyable crowd-combat games I've ever played.
For the uninitiated, here are some of the basics for this type of game (Dynasty Warriors, Samurai Warriors, Sengoku Basara): The story is separated into chapters (battles); you must defeat enemy leaders in order to lower morale; and you will complete various objectives that will ultimately lead you toward victory.
For the sake of consistency, I'll just refer to all of these types of games as Musou games, and Musou games have never really been welcome in the western world. Critics generally dump all over the Musou games for being mindless button mashers, but I can objectively say that simply isn't the case with SWC. Yes, you execute simple combos (based on use of the Y and X buttons), but this is really a strategy game more than anything else. You'll have to occasionally escort leaders safely to escape points, defeat guards in order to open up passageways for your troops, and complete a host of other satisfying objectives that give the game a frenetic feel that prevents this strategy game from ever becoming stale.
At the beginning of this review, I said I'd put in roughly 30 hours into SWC. To be clear, I'm still only less than halfway through the entire story; then there are Gaiden missions to complete as well. The reason I've managed to get so much mileage out of the game already is because SWC also plays a bit like an RPG, in that you level up your characters and establish relationships with other characters in order to unlock new weapons, outfits and other goodies. Additionally, Koei plans on rolling out new, free DLC every Friday. That's a lot of bang for your buck.
One last bit of praise before I move on…
The visuals during friend events look gorgeous – almost "next-gen," with expressive facial animations and beautiful detail. The gameplay graphics look about on par with Gamecube, which is a nice treat on a handheld, but fade-in is something players should expect. Rather than merely pop in details of the environment, the engine gradually fades elements in instead. It's a little better than typical pop-in, and considering how many enemies are onscreen at a given time, along with some very flashy visual effects, it's a good-looking game that runs relatively smooth.
Unfortunately, the camera is something players will simply have to reconcile if they're going to attempt to invest any serious amount of time into SWC. There's no lock-on system, and the only control you really have over the camera is pressing the left shoulder button, which re-centers the camera behind your character's back. In the game's defense – and please don't read this as making excuses for the game but merely recognizing necessary concessions – all of the other buttons are already mapped to some other meaningful function. A lock-on system would also likely be more trouble than help, since a big part of what makes Musou games what they are is the large crowds of enemies. Trying to pick out a needle in a haystack would make combat a very frustrating proposition.
Lastly, the A.I.-controlled characters will occasionally get stuck in their pathing on the way to various officers. Usually they'll make their way to their objective fine, but there have been occasions when my characters were stuck running into walls until I came along to aid them. The A.I. also has a bit of trouble sometimes defeating enemy soldiers if they aren't directly under your command, leaving the automation of characters best used simply to guide them where you need them to go while you negotiate other engagements.
In addition to a hefty story mode, complete with tons of playable characters, as well as a Gaiden mode that adds extra missions, you'll unlock new outfits, armor and weapons for your main character. You also get the Vault, which houses all of the friend events, cutscenes, and stats you've uncovered throughout the adventure. There's some StreetPass content to boot, and though it isn't necessarily the most practical addition, it's a nice way to nab unique weapons if you happen upon other 3DS owners with the game.
A word regarding the game's 3D: For the most part, the 3D perspective is one that gives you a sense of inward depth. There are a few moments where the visuals try to pop out at you, but for me personally, those visuals appear more as blurry flashes across the screen. I wouldn't say the 3D enhances gameplay in any noticeable way, but I enjoy the aesthetic quality it adds. The friend events and CG cutscenes look especially good in 3D, making for a nice 3D display to show off to friends and family.
Even with its issues, Samurai Warriors Chronicles is an incredibly entertaining game – that is, if this is your sort of thing. Granted, Japanese history isn't for everyone, and the sort of strategy Musou games offer is quite niche. But if you're the type of gamer who enjoyed setting up toy figures for imaginary battles when you were a kid, then this might just be the ultimate geek-out you're looking for.