With Samurai Warriors 4, Omega Force’s other established Musou series finally steps out of the shadow cast by their more revered Dynasty Warriors catalogue. At long last, the repetitive gameplay and stale storytelling that hampered previous installments is lessened as a result of several refined and newly implemented mechanics and options. Set during Japan’s Sengoku era, a period of rampant political and military conflict, the game casually mixes hectic, screen-filling combat featuring ninjas, horseback-riding soldiers, and, of course, the titular selection of katana-wielding heroes with a multitude of interconnected narrative passages spotlighting both historical battles and figures of the time. With 55 playable characters in all, including the return of several fan favorites (Goemon Ishikawa, most importantly), and an epic 12-chapter story mode, Samurai Warriors 4 seldom provides the chance to encounter boredom on its battlefields.
Be it that concentrated fighting accounts for the bulk of any player’s experience with Samurai Warriors 4, it was a smart move on the part of Omega Force to attempt a cutback of the constant button-mashing tactics they’re known to apply to their flagship franchises. Sure, there’s the standard two-pronged light and heavy assaults, but the combination system has been drastically expanded with the addition of Hyper Attacks that impart an assortment of special abilities unique to each combatant. Grapples and projectile lobs, in accordance with enhanced defensive strategies like swift counters and guard breaks, increase the fluidity of skirmishes while adding variety to each overcrowded confrontation. Taking the one noteworthy page out of the Samurai Warriors: Chronicles playbook, switching between pairs of characters mid-battle is available, and its primary benefit is the bonus of quickly traveling around larger maps.
While the variation in controlled actions is Samurai Warriors 4’s greatest evolution, it fumbles when it comes to the diversity of its preset missions. No matter what the type of scenery, from sweeping forests and valleys to lavish palace interiors, the objectives are widely the same: lay waste to enemy officers, locate the boss character, defeat them in earnest—rinse and repeat. That being said, for the massive amount of chaos occurring in any given area, there’s virtually no slowdown to be seen. The powerhouse graphics engine of the PlayStation 4 smoothes nearly every rough surface texture and provides a sturdy framerate appropriate for this kind of frenzied hack-and-slash affair. Audio, on the other hand, is hit or miss. The soundtrack is the typical assortment of Nippon-centric warfare hymns and character voices can devolve into an annoying garble of exclamation when too much is happening at once.
If the sporadic tedium of the main campaign becomes too much to bear, Samurai Warriors 4 allows players to create their own manageable mercenary and embark upon a whirlwind tour of 16th-century Japan in the graciously nonlinear Chronicle mode. Head-to-toe customization (20 weapon styles, alongside various downloadable content) is its biggest draw. For comparison, it has a slight Way of the Samurai-meets-Shenmue vibe in that certain assignments can be denied and replaced with more preferable undertakings. Tired of mowing down hordes of indistinguishable foes? How about policing local villages by warding off bandits? Care to schmooze with warring factions you might not have otherwise been able to network with throughout normal play? Chronicle mode lets you choose your affiliations at will, cutting ties and burning bridges as you see fit. It’s an infinitely more fulfilling endeavor than the remainder of the game, which, while an improvement over nearly everything that came before, only places it beside the mightiest Dynasty Warriors offerings, rather than above them in terms of cutting-edge, durable quality.