Samurai Warriors 2: Empires Review (Xbox360)

While a Samurai might sit majestically amidst a sea of flowing banners and tell his generals to “Know your enemy”, Koei’s game developers might do well to adopt the warrior’s stern grimace and tell their design teams “Know your audience”. The potential of epic battle games like Samurai Warriors 2: Empires might not go to such sad and unnecessary waste, if they did.

We expect a lot from our games these days, so it’s quite reasonable for developers to mix genres in order to keep their catalogue fresh. But simply picking two game styles at random, or attempting to augment one with an underdeveloped bastardisation of another, is certain to alienate fans rather than broaden the market.

The Warriors games may have their flaws, but inventive character design isn’t one of them
Although the action looks dynamic in a screen capture, engaging in battle is reduced to button mashing and running in circles

Koei’s expansive Dynasty Warriors franchise belies that concept to some degree, boasting a huge range of almost identical games that sell in disproportionately high quantities to the originality of the title. In some respects, a reputation like that makes critical reviews something of an unviable proposition, but I’ve spent a lot of time getting to grips with this latest spin-off sequel, so I’m determined to put a few thoughts down on paper.

Although called an “expansion” – which suggests the first Samurai Warriors 2 game is required to play the Empires continuation – it’s a standalone purchase and runs straight out of the box. Taking the Dynasty Warriors action directly across the sea from China to Japan and transplanting it into the pseudo-historical tumultuous Sengoku period of civil war, Samurai Warriors 2: Empires makes few changes from the original sequel, other than a couple more playable characters (who, let’s be honest, no one has ever managed to keep track of anyway), new moves and a reinstatement of the “Officer” mode from the original game.

Picking up the game is relatively easy, even if you’re new to this lengthy saga, though no thanks to the waffling and overtly clinical onscreen instruction system. Initially, detailed directions about screens and options about to appear serve only as an efficient confusion, providing little to no aid in learning the strategic elements of Samurai Warriors. Fortunately, the strategy, deployment and military aspects are not the console equal of a realistic PC battle campaign simulator and after a few rounds, any half experienced gamer will breeze through them without concern.

In truth, this is both good and bad. While the action certainly benefits from some considered military purpose, these severely reduced strategic elements fail to meet the requirements of either a dedicated role player or a brawler fan: the two genres this game is most directly aimed at. While the role player will find the strategy elements to be trite and one-dimensional, the brawler fan will find them a simple nuisance; quickly firing through them with a series of increasingly aggravated “A” button jabs.

One of the only useful aspects of the “poor man’s” strategic elements is found on this map screen: deciding where to invade next
There really is no excuse for grainy FMV sequences on a next gen console. The game engine itself should look good enough to provide the cut scenes

The only part of the battle plan which really adds to the overall game is the map. The Japanese isles are displayed and segregated into many (many many) regions, each run by a different warlord. It doesn’t take a genius to work out the culminating purpose of Samurai Warriors 2 once this divided state is displayed: kill everyone and take over all Japan. A noble and perfectly satisfactory cause for any Samurai retainer, I’m sure you’ll agree.

But it would seem the developers don’t trust their own ability to make such a simple and clear cut premise work, and promptly handcuffed the game to a radiator with a nebulous strategy engine. Fiddling around with decrees, orders, fiefs and delegations serves only to grind any momentum the game had to a wounded crawl. This is supposed to be centred in a period of tense and dynamic battle after all, so fiddling around with catching wild horses and chatting with the peasantry brings an unwelcome and unsatisfying bureaucracy to the proceedings.

Once battle finally begins, however, it quickly becomes a staunch reminder of why you don’t have an encyclopaedic collection of Warriors titles bending your gaming shelf. A major complaint (which, as already stated, doesn’t seem to affect sales in the slightest) of this entire franchise is a constant rehashing of identical gameplay, and this sequel expansion pack is no different. A half-useless map guides your warrior around in circles until a ragtag band of brain dead enemies assemble for you to jump in the middle of. Random and unidentifiable generals from your team and the other spout off irritating and hackneyed one-liners in unconvincing, stereotyped (and, it could easily be argued, amusingly semi-racist) Japanese accents that give away no information of any use.

It’s the brawler fans turn to be disappointed now, as the scourge of their fighting career – button mashing – becomes the single most effective weapon in their haphazard arsenal. Your own men can’t be hit, so charging into a throng of warriors with sword swinging like a combine harvester with an uninteresting brick on the accelerator pedal is as close to fighting tactics as are required. Kill, kill, kill and kill until there’s no one left to kill, then its home in time for tea and medals. Now it’s back to whipping through the strategy phase (it’s even labelled as such in case there really are any thrice lobotomised gamers as Koei assumes there to be) and the cycle repeats, interrupted occasionally by throwaway victory/defeat quotes worthy of a 1980s one-on-one fighting game.

Regrettably, it’s hard to find something positive to say about Samurai Warriors 2: Empires, as I genuinely wanted to like it. If it was the first time we’d seen this style of game, it would undoubtedly be far more intriguing, but as it’s around the twentieth reincarnation (in this franchise alone), there’s very little reason to buy it – just break out whichever Dynasty/Samurai Warriors game you’ve already got on whichever console is nearest and play that one until you remember why you put it away in the first place.

After an hour’s play, you’ll still wonder what this “strategic phase” is for. Looks nice, though
If you own any Dynasty/Samurai Warriors game, you’ve already played this expansion

Koei have, without question, hit upon a highly successful formula, and I don’t feel it’s my place to say they’re doing anything wrong (they’ve got the sales figures to unquestionably prove otherwise), but sooner or later these identical pieces of straw are going to break the player’s back. The visuals are fine (although don’t come close to showing what an X360 can really do) and the music is perfectly in keeping with the period and mood (the dialogue verges on absurd mind you, not that it really affects gameplay), and if you’ve never played a Warriors title you’ll get enough mileage from this game to feel satisfied with your purchase. If you have played a Warriors game before, however, you’ve already played Samurai Warriors 2: Empires.

Top Game Moment:
For all its faults and badly confused genres, there is one small way to relieve the pressure of awkward strategising. An option for “Free Play” does just that, and liberates the player to plunder and menace across the battlefield; dispensing with the bureaucracy of being an army manager, and getting right into the gang-fighting good stuff. A valuable shortcut to the game’s few strengts.

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