It’s been but a short two years since the arrival of Samurai Warriors 4 in 2014, the sequel, aptly named Samurai Warriors 4-II, was released a just year later. Empires, the spinoff to a sequel, lands less than six months afterwards. Whilst it does indeed focus on both tactics and strategies more than the other titles, are three games in the span of two years justified? Or are Tecmo Koei and Omega Force asking a little too much from their fans?
The focus on strategy has never been so prominent than in Empires. With only two playable modes, Conquest and Genesis, you’ll actually be looking at spending the best part of an hour before getting into the combat side of the game. Conquest is the games main campaign section and is likely where you’ll make your first venture. Instead of the heavily story (and historically) driven modes in both the previous titles and the Dynasty franchise, Empires focuses on smaller scale objectives which change depending on the clan you pick at the start. Some will want to unite certain provinces; others will simply be baying for the blood of their rivals.
These shorter, more condensed, scenarios let you appreciate all the game has to offer, in a way that won’t take weeks of heavy grinding to accomplish. Whilst you can still go for complete military domination, it’s best to focus on your set goals above all else. Instead of the dry, myriad of menus from the past, the turn based side of the game is presented in an almost ‘dollhouse’ depiction. This is where you’ll (hopefully) take guidance from your advisors on what needs prioritising. Whereas you can of course ignore their sage council, it will in turn, reduce their effectiveness in the future. Not only that, but on the higher difficulties, you’ll want all the help you can get.
Implementing new policies, increasing your clan’s fame and trade potential; also unlocking new attack and defence stratagems does give Empires’ planning stages a certain whisper of the Total War series’ balancing act. During the pre-battle preparations, you’ve also got the option to change formations, assign positions and generally plan out your attack (or defence). It’s unfortunately a shame that the formations themselves carry such a high influence on the game. Without knowing what your enemy is doing, the rock, paper, scissors style formation management can often feel like it’s rarely based upon considered forethought, but instead by luck. Granted, if both you and your enemies’ forces are around the same size, it doesn’t matter too much. But if you’re already at a size disadvantage and the enemy ‘just happens’ to pick an effective formation, you’re likely to get steamrollered.
Whilst the first enjoyably daunting hour or so is spent attempting to figure out the aspects of your militarised dollhouse, it sadly goes downhill from there. Swathes of identical enemies populate the screen bearing about as much threat as the environment itself. With the familiarity and repetition of the ‘musou’ genre setting in far too quickly, it’s hard to get excited about the actual gameplay aspect of the game. There’ll be a fairly constant ebb and flow to the map as you simultaneously attack and defend checkpoints that your AI partners can’t seem to handle by themselves. But once again, it comes down to running the entire operation by yourself. Your reticent clone army will eventually push up and ‘help’, but it comes across as more like an illusion of progress than anything meaningful.
The enemy generals will put up a reasonable fight, especially if you attempt to take them on without weakening their defences first, but there’s only so far you can stretch out mashing two buttons over and over again. There are some minor differences in combat such as the encouragement of counters and blocking, but it’s essentially still the same game you played all those years ago. You can command your officers to perform some simple attack and defend manoeuvres, but it’s not to be relied upon, and at the end of the day, victory will almost entirely be down to you alone.
The lack of a fully narrative experience might also put some off. The Conquest mode is great for telling many unique stories, but the absence of an overarching plotline is missed. The game’s other mode, Genesis, is similar but allows a lot more freedom and ingenuity. You can create your own Generals from the impressively deep creation screens and set up your own emergent stories instead. Whilst it can potentially make for some mismatched (and often hilarious) scenes, I found that it provided a much needed semblance of personality during my time with the game.
Graphically, you shouldn’t expect too much of a difference from any other title that shares the genre. Named and created characters look reasonably well detailed, but the restrictive environments and multitude of almost identical, uninspired enemy grunts, leaves a lot to be desired once again. Camera issues still exist when fighting near walls or impassable terrain, but it shouldn’t detract too much from the experience. The quaint, turn based sections of the game are home to some nice touches though, and even if they’re not spectacular, it’s still a nice change of scenery from that of unending menus from the past.
Fans of the ‘Warriors’ series will know what to expect from this entry, what with the ‘Empires’ addition denoting a different style of game from the main titles. Newcomers might struggle to see the difference between previous games in the series and this one, but it is there, albeit perhaps not warranting another full release however. The heavier focus on tactics and its corresponding turn based factors are enjoyable, even if for some reason, it comes at the expense of a fully fleshed narrative. Sadly, the aging and repetitive battle system no longer holds any thrills, and in a game where this is a mainstay, I can’t see myself coming back to it all too often.