Creating a genuine degree of challenge has always been a struggle for Koei’s incredibly popular Warriors franchise. Although there are often a handful of difficulty levels to toggle between, these simply mitigate the player’s damage output while amplifying that of enemy soldiers and their generals.
Given how these games are centred around epic clashes between armies, there’s a lack of finesse and precision when it comes to one-on-one encounters. Although developer Omega Force has tried to add some weight to these duels, their gravity is often lost beneath the flurry of swords and spears each time a fight breaks out. Without taking fundamental steps to change the series’ core gameplay, this trend will likely continue.
Therefore, in order to generate an organic sense of challenge, steps need to be taken off the battlefield. Where options are strictly limited for most games in the franchise, Koei’s long-running “Empires” spin-offs have allowed for just that. Instead of presenting players with an exhaustive chain of pitched battles to fight, these titles have afforded a more tactical approach, going beyond the mindless hack n’ slash humdrum the series is best known for.
Moving from your vanilla Warriors experience to Empires may result in a minor shock for some, and that was certainly the case for me. Having initiated one of the pre-made campaigns in Samurai Warriors 4 Empires, I immediately invaded a neighbouring kingdom, only to suffer a crippling loss at the hands of my enemy. Just so you know, I was playing the game on its default difficulty, which has often allowed me to shift into autopilot and hammer away the buttons on my controller.
Needless to say, I was quite surprised, yet happy and excited at the same time. As my generals returned to the capital battered and bruised after their first skirmish, I knew this campaign would no longer be a cakewalk.
After many, many years and a few dozen Warriors titles, I’d been conditioned into thinking I was invincible. That feeling of empowerment when swatting enemies aside like discarded ragdolls is the reason why so many subscribe to this series.
What Samurai Warriors 4 Empires teaches you is that it takes more than brute strength alone to win a fight. Although my chosen general still had most of his health intact, I’d neglected to keep an eye on the mission timer, spreading my forces wide instead of pursuing a more narrow path of attack. Being so confident in my own battle prowess, I’d also failed to turn up at the enemy gates with a sufficient number of troops, formations, and strategies. In previous Empires games such a lack of preparation would result in a minor handicap whereas here it can have an exigent impact on how wars are fought.
Although combat still plays a major role in the game, players will need to focus on five core pillars if they are to gain the advantage over their opponents. These five pillars are military, strategy, personnel, diplomacy, and development, each helping to strengthen the position of your empire. During the politics phase of each turn, you’ll select a limited number of policies to enact, watching as their effects are simulated in-game. Whereas military policies can be used to replenish troops or learn new formations, those related to development will increase commerce and crop yield across all territories.
For a Warriors title, there’s a surprising amount of weight given to the decisions you make away from the battlefield, not to mention a satisfying amount of diversity. Instead of blindly marching into an enemy province, you have options to bolster your forces or weaken your opponent’s by employing a range of tactics. For example, you may choose to activate a policy that gives your army a speed boost or special units. Alternatively, you may opt to assassinate or convert an enemy officer, undermining your opponent before the first blow is even struck.
It’s a deeply rewarding system that’s been renovated by a team of designers who have previously worked on Koei’s grand strategy series, Nobunaga’s Ambition. Sure, there are some more numbers to crunch and there’s more text to read, but the result is a much more involving experience for the player.
This refocus on strategy and player choice is propped up by several welcome additions to the Empires formula. Instead of browsing through a bland web of menus, for instance, players now own a custom fortress, housing a dozen or so of their chief officers. Hovering over each room will highlight the policies suggested by whatever characters you have stationed in that quarter.
In lieu of a story mode, Samurai Warriors 4 Empires allows players to shape their own narrative. Aside from choosing which clans to ally with and which ones to attack, there exists a complex network of relationships among your own generals and other characters you come into contact with. For instance, if two great warriors meet on the battlefield they may form a rivalry between them. Similarly, officers will take on proteges, spouses, and friends.
It’s a fairly superficial layer to the game yet one that will treat you with occasional cutscenes, depicting two or more familiar faces as they continue to bond.
After releasing the fantastic Samurai Warriors 4, things slowly started to go downhill for Koei’s flagship franchise. Instead of continuing to innovate, it felt as though developer Omega Force decided to take a breather, letting its guard down as stagnation began to set in. This is definitely the return to form fans were no doubt hoping for.
Put simply, Samurai Warriors 4 Empires is the very best this series has to offer. Taking the refined core gameplay of Samurai Warriors 4 and dousing it in the tactics of Nobunaga’s Ambition has worked wonders.
Versions tested: PlayStation 4