Samurai Warriors 5 review: Rebuilding the franchise

Around a month ago now Samurai Warriors 5 released in the West, and I….didn’t play it until last week. Can you blame me? Even as a huge Warriors fan, July 27th, 2021 was packed full of big game releases and The Great Ace Attorney and NEO The World Ends With You took priority for me. However, as a huge Warriors fan I knew I would need to pick up and review this game sooner rather than later.

Before we begin the review proper I feel it’s important that we talk about where my point of view is coming from, as there will be a lot of bias at play here. Musou is my favorite genre of game. Some of Koei’s Warriors games are my favorite games ever and I find the storytelling potential of Musou stages to be severely underrated online. So a game with a focused cast and heavy emphasis on story similar to Spirit of Sanada made me extremely excited.

Samurai Warriors 5 has taken the Samurai Warriors franchise and completely scrapped everything other than the gameplay style. Everything, from the artystyle to the character designs to how much of the Sengoku period the game covers has been changed. This is an extremely bold move for Koei who in recent years has gained criticism for not taking risks.

Personally I love the new art style. The painted look and cel shading gives Samurai Warriors a unique identity it has desperately needed. Koei has slowly been making the Samurai Warriors franchise more distinct from the Dynasty Warriors series it spawned from and this change solidifies that identity.

As for the gameplay, it’s base is exactly what you expect. You select your character and are thrown into a stage with thousands of enemies where you follow objectives to progress as the stage tells the story of a specific battle. The game’s objectives system is ripped straight from Samurai Warriors 4 with timed objectives, optional “bonus” objectives, and objectives available only to certain characters.

Your movesets all involve normal attacks on the square button that you can combo with stronger attacks on the triangle button and Hyper Attacks, weaker attacks that move you forward with the square button to traverse the stage quickly also return. You fill up your Musou gage to perform a powerful “Musou” attack on the circle button. It’s normal Musou genre gameplay, not much to really comment on. The gameplay is almost exactly like Samurai Warriors 4 and Spirit of Sanada.

Making it’s Samurai Warriors debut is a new mechanic: Ultimate Skills. Ultimate Skills are skills you activate by holding R1 and pressing one of the face buttons on the controller. They range from buffs like increasing your defense briefly to powerful attacks. There’s not a lot to say about the Ultimate Skill system itself, however the implementation of similar mechanics in Warriors All Stars and Dynasty Warriors 9 probably means mechanics of this variety shall be mainstays in the Musou genre from now on; I’ve even seen some Musou-clones do similar things after Dynasty Warriors 9 did it.

Now let’s address the elephant in the room and one of the most controversial things about this game: the decision to completely scrap all 55 previous movesets and characters from the series and replace them with 15 new movesets spread across 34 characters. Needless to say this caused some outrage in the fanbase and caused some people to immediately declare the entire game bad for having clones at all.

How do I feel about it? It’s a mixed bag. On the topic of clones, saying this game has 32 characters with most of them being clones is a bit disingenuous. Of those 32 characters only 27 of them are actually playable in the story, the remaining ones are unique NPCs who you can use in Free Mode and don’t even have Musou Arts. However, this does mean we have a roster with several clones.

I didn’t find the use of clones to be too noticeable or bothersome for most of the game, as the characters who have cloned movesets tend to be available in different parts of the story than other characters who share the same moveset. So while I ended up using the same movesets at multiple points in the story it felt more like streamlining than anything else.

However there is one case of cloned movesets that does take away from the experience. Mitsuhide Akechi and Oda Nobunaga both use the Katana as their preferred weapon for a majority of the story. As a result of this our two protagonists and the characters who you will be playing as the most control exactly the same. This is my only major complaint with the Samurai Warriors 5 gameplay experience as it makes a lot of the game feel too similar.

With movesets out of the way, let’s talk about the characters those movesets belong to. Alongside returning characters who have been given drastically new designs, the cast has plenty of newcomers. The character redesigns are hit and miss. While some characters, like Motonari Mori, look much better, others, like Tadakatsu Honda don’t fare as well. Everyone is hot now, it’s up to you whether or not that’s a positive or negative. I feel a need to talk about the character who has benefitted the most from redesign though: Yoshimoto Imagawa. Imagawa has gone from being a complete joke to a legitimate threat that the first fifth of the game focuses on. If Koei ever reverts from the Samurai Warriors 5 style to the old one I hope at the very least Imagawa retains this personality and design.

Now let’s talk about the new characters. This game is very ninja focused with many of the new characters being ninja of some variety like Sandayu Momochi, Mitsuki, and Kazuuji Nakamura. As someone who is a big fan of ninja I’m happy about this, however it does make the new characters feel a bit samey when several of them are the same trope. 

As for the non-ninja we got some great additions like Toshimitsu Saito, Shikanosuke Yamanaka, and my personal favorite new addition to the roster: Yasuke. All three of these new additions bring life to the Oda-centered campaign and it was nice to see Mitsuhide Akechi actually have some non-Oda allies to interact with for once.

The game also featured many “playable NPCs” as I mentioned earlier, many of them don’t get much opportunity to shine in the story itself, mostly serving to be bosses. However there are exceptions to this rule. I was shocked to see Yoshikage Asakura get depth as a character and I ended up liking him more than the Azai by the end of that chapter. It’s a shame we’re unlikely to ever see him again in future games.

Other than the story mode, the game also includes another mode called Citadel Mode. I hate Citadel Mode. You select two characters and are thrown into a small map where you need to defend a base for five minutes. During these five minutes you increase your score by killing enemies with a high combo, every hit in your combo when you kill an enemy gives you an extra point leading to scores in the hundreds of thousands. Every single stage of Citadel Mode is the exact same thing with next to no variation and it goes on for 39 stages. I was completely exhausted by the time I was done and then had to replay many of them over and over for S ranks because I’m a completionist.

Speaking of being a completionist, being one means I’m spending even longer in Citadel Mode because the game includes bond conversations between characters. These conversations are next to pointless, lasting 8 text boxes at most. However despite how short they are it takes a long time to get them all! To get a single conversation you need to use two characters together four times. With nearly one hundred combinations of characters to get conversations I’m going to be here for hours!

Why must you mock me?!

Now let’s talk about what I find to be an important aspect of these games that rarely gets talked about online, how Musou games tell their story through the gameplay. Samurai Warriors 5 does this…only okay. I’d say less good than 4 and certainly not as great as Spirit of Sanada. While the game has its moments, like when you personally need to burn a temple full of monks, and of course Honnoji there aren’t many stand out moments like this. The game also lacks any situations that make you feel hopeless despite your great abilities, an aspect of Spirit of Sanada that I adored. As this is one of my favorite aspects of the Musou genre I was a bit disappointed with the game in this regard, but what is there is passable. There is however one aspect of the stage’s storytelling that I love but I’ll save that for the spoiler section later.

Now let’s move on to a section I never thought I would need to put in a mainline Warriors review, a spoiler section. How could this section exist when the games are historical fiction that portray history through the lens of an over the top video game? Well I can’t say that during this warning now, can I? If you care about the plot of this game, stop reading now. The game is enjoyable and I recommend it, however it isn’t as good as Spirit of Sanada. I’m greatly looking for to seeing if Koei makes an Ieyasu focused game after this one. Now that the warning is out of the way, let’s go.

This image is your final chance to click away and avoid spoilers

For the most part the game is an expected retelling of events from Nobunaga’s rise to power and downfall, however there’s a moment midway through the game that left a bad taste in my mouth. When fleeing from the Asakura, Nobunaga’s wife Nō gets shot and dies. This event is what causes Nobunaga to begin to act more demon-like for the rest of the game. 

I dislike this immensely, this fridging of Nō to advance Nobunaga’s character is pointless especially since the rest of the games have Nō survive all the way to the Honnoji incident to fight alongside Nobunaga there. While this fridging of Nō is two steps backwards in misogyny on Koei’s part they do take one step forward in a way. Previous games in the series all strayed away from even mentioning that a woman died, as if they think the player base wouldn’t be able to emotionally handle it. Samurai Warriors 5 however has no problem showing multiple women’s deaths on screen, so uh, progress I guess?

This isn’t why I felt the need to make a spoiler section for this game, no, let’s talk about the final boss. 

When you get to the long awaited Honnoji incident everything is going normally, Mitsuhide is attacking and Nobunaga and Yakuse need to defend themselves. Then everything goes off the rails when some Iga ninja arrive to set the temple on fire and the true mastermind reveals himself: Sandayu Momochi.

Those of you who know nothing of history are asking yourself “Who?” And those of you who are history buffs are asking yourself “Wait, who?”. Yes, this minor man who most likely didn’t actually exist has been elevated to being the mastermind behind nearly all rebellions against Nobunaga. When I first saw this I was flabbergasted, Sandayu going full Jojo villain and putting on a mask with glowing eyes as he declares he’s the villain and hates the warrior class seemed like the most ridiculous direction this game could have possibly went (and in some ways it is) but as I continued the game in Mitsuhide’s path I began to love the twist as it gave me what I was looking for the rest of the game: in stage storytelling.

The game’s stages are structured by Nobunaga’s story and Mitsuhide’s story. For every two chapters of Nobunaga’s story you complete you unlock two chapters of Mitsuhide’s story. For the most part Mitsuhide does the same stages as Nobunaga with a few of his own sprinkled in. For the first few chapters repeating the same stages that you played in the Oda chapters in the Mitsuhide chapters felt pointless, however with this plot twist I ended up paying more attention to Sandayu’s actions in those stages and noticing all the suspicious things he was doing. Seeing moments like the exact moment Nobutada must have gotten replaced with a body double or when Sandayu must have been luring people into traps was great. The fact that it was subtly done to the point that I never noticed but was still in these earlier stages for the observant player made me fall in love with this twist.

And that was my experience with Samurai Warriors 5 so far. I still have more Citadel Mode conversations to grind and I need to get every rare weapon for 100% but I have loved my time with the game so far. Musou is my favorite subgenre of games and while neither Koei nor the game is perfect it’s a lot better than other disappointments they have put out. I recommend Samurai Warriors 5 to fans of the series however I would still recommend newcomers play Spirit of Sanada as their first Samurai Warriors game if they’re interested in the series

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