The Musou action games have been around for such a long time and gone in any number of directions as they’ve been about. Most recently, we saw Koei Tecmo and Omega Force team up with Nintendo to put out Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, which felt like an incredible step forward for the usual Musou style. Now, they are returning to the core franchise with Samurai Warriors 5 and though it should feel familiar, they have also said it’s quite the reimagining for the series. How much so? Well, I recently had a chance to sit down to an early build and see for myself.
Back to the Unification Arc of Sengoku
Samurai Warriors 5 takes us back to the story of Nobunaga Oda. Specifically, it traces his rise to power, the unification of Japan, and the eventual turn of his trusted officer, Mitsuhide Akechi. In reimagining this early arc of the Samurai Warriors games, Koei Tecmo President and COO Hisashi Koinuma told us in an interview that the team wanted to return to a place where it could stylistically and mechanically do things with the story and gameplay that it was unable to do when Samurai Warriors first came out in 2004 during the PS2/Xbox era of gaming. To that end, the game focused on two pivotal characters - Nobunaga Oda and Mitsuhide Akechi - and built out the cast sensibly from them to tell a focused story in this new style.
Don’t get me wrong. There are going to be a lot of characters in both returning faces and newcomers in this latest entry. In my time with the preview build, I got to play Nobunaga Oda, Ieyasu Tokugawa, Toshiie Maeda, and Nōhime, to name a few. Meanwhile, various notables of the Saito Clan (including the Viper of Mino, Saitō Dōsan), Hattori Hanzo, Nobuyuki Oda, and more also make peripheral appearances in the story and cutscenes, or on the battlefield as enemies.
One of my favorite parts of this redesign is the striking change in visual style. I’ve been playing Warriors games long enough to see just how different this is from the olden days. It’s more colorful and the characters are more striking. It reminds me of a mix of good Japanese animation, but with a sparkle of classic samurai cinema. The game even uses letterbox effects and grainy film style in certain parts to really stand on its own in a way that I found really appealing in comparison to previous Samurai Warriors games. In short, I really enjoy what I’ve seen of the style Koei Tecmo and Omega Force are going for in this franchise “redo”.
Still swinging away, but with a touch of Calamity
When it comes to Musou games, there has never enormous deviation from the usual formula. I’d say that’s still the case with Samurai Warriors 5 in many ways. You pick a character, arrange their weapons and equipment, and take them into battlefields on various routes of the story or in replays of beaten maps in Free Play. The battles mostly consist of hacking your way through hundreds of thousands of faceless troops on your way to special enemies or objectives on the map that provide heftier challenges. Using a character more often means leveling up the character and their gear to unlock greater stats and combos for use.
That said, Samurai Warriors 5 doesn’t play it too safe. When I reviewed Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, I remember hoping that some of the strategic and battle elements would live on past that game. Particularly, I enjoyed the ability to have multiple characters in use in a scenario and be able to direct them lightly on the map and switch to them strategically as the scenario dictated. I’m happy to say the preview for Samurai Warriors 5 shared that this feature is intact for some of the maps. You can choose multiple characters you’d like to play and when not playing your spare character, you can direct them to attack or wait at various locations on the map as you control your primary character directly.
With the game's easy-to-use companion interface, I directed my spare character to a location where a special engagement would be waiting for them while I mopped up business at the spot I was battling in with my primary. Then, when they reached the spot, I could switch to them with the press of a single button and begin combat in the area I directed them to go. I could also issue orders to my uncontrolled primary while I was battling with my secondary character in the same way. This was one of my favorite things in Age of Calamity and I’m happy to see it here.
I’m also happy to see character-specific skills return from Age of Calamity, though they seem to have taken on some expansion. Different from your character’s usual combos they gain by leveling up, these skills were equippable abilities that could be mapped to a bumper hold and any of the face buttons to execute whatever ability was assigned. Each character has stat buff abilities, but also unique skills. Nobunaga Oda’s starting skill flings him into the air before plummeting down with an area of effect bash. Meanwhile Ieyasu Tokugawa’s starting skill puts him on a forward dash, slashing as he runs before doing a heavy final dashing slash through enemies gathered in front of him.
Each character also has a skill tree and there are assuredly more powerful skills to be gained to set them apart. Put these alongside a vast system in which you can level up reserve characters or weapons you haven’t used and Samurai Warriors is also looking to have the quality-of-life improvements that made me very happy with Age of Calamity.
The story we’ve heard, revitalized
Once I was done with Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, I found myself thinking they couldn’t possibly let all these cool expanded changes and features go to waste. I feared a return to the core style of games might shed all of the good ideas Age of Calamity brought to the table in favor of the traditional Musou style. After my time with the preview, I’m really feeling like my fears were for nothing. Samurai Warriors 5 seems to be taking lessons learned and applying them in an incredibly thoughtful way that feels really fun to play for many of the same reasons I enjoyed Age of Calamity. Dress this adaptation and expansion of fun mechanics in a striking new visual style and Samurai Warriors 5 is shaping up to be one of the most exciting mainline Musou titles yet.
This preview is based on an early edition of the game supplied by the publisher. Samurai Warriors 5 is slated for release on July 27, 2021 on Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.