After eleven iterations of Samurai Warriors, the specter of stagnancy lurks over Omega Force’s famed franchise. While successive installments might have injected new characters, content, or even a bit of variation, each effort largely adopted the same macro-level view of the Sengoku period. For those hoping for a dissimilar perspective or one that really delves into the reoccurring themes of loyalty, betrayal, tragedy, and triumph- a journey with Spirit of Sanada comes highly recommended.
Boot up the recent PlayStation 4 and PC release and you’ll probably notice a conspicuous change. Whereas most recent entries in the Samurai Warriors present a bevy of modes at the main menu, Sanada extends a single campaign. Shirking established components such as a character creation suite and Free Mode, Spirit of Sanada followings the rise and fall of the Shinano Province’s largest clan- all in in unprecedented detail. From meeting Yukitaka Sanada, one of the era’s esteemed battle commanders, we soon encounter his prodigious offspring Masayuki Sanada, as the Takeda retainer anxiously prepares for the Fourth Battle of Kawanakajima.
Told through gorgeous cinematics, it’s a much more intimate perspective that any previous musou title. In execution, it’s a bit surprising that Koei-Tecmo hadn’t tried the approach before. After years of shifting between factions, Spirit of Sanada feels fresh, advancing the type of intimate character study that’s usually cultivated in a role-playing game. Some of the larger-level exposition gets reduced to a terse line of dialog issued during battle, which will be difficult for non-Japanese speakers to catch, but the approach allows the title to focus on the Sanada story, making the game feel personal. Even if you well-acquainted with the major events of the clan, seeing them grow and mature endows the title with a character arc that was rarely at the forefront of the main series.
In most games, hub towns could probably be reduced to a simple menu with only marginal loss. But with Spirit of Sanada, between-battle strolls help convey the context, as players stroll through evocative castle interiors, flanked by robust iron and wooden entrances and towering stalks of leafy bamboo or sakura in perpetual bloom. Although the framerate takes a dive rendering the surroundings, Sanada does a commendable job of recreating the courts and villages, as NPCs await interaction. Beyond the oft-compulsory dialog that moves the plot along, there’s farming and fishing, as well as the upgrade system where players can learn skills and augment their arsenal. Largely, it’s a significant improvement over the franchise’s mundane hubs.
Naturally, improvement requires both currency and materials, goading players into expedition. These consignments allow players to take any unlocked character through a network of branching areas. These are smaller and more tranquil than the typical musou missions, offering a pleasing respite from the usual rancor, nearly channeling the tranquil vibe of the assignments in the Koei-Tecmo’s Atelier series. But for those seeking large-scale hostilities, Spirit of Sanada doesn’t disappoint, with the type of heated hack-and-slash gameplay that players have come to expect.
Mechanically, all the typical Warrors tenets are in place, with players surrounded by legions of secondaries. On most difficulty levels, they’re the usual fodder, existing mainly to feed your musou meter. Elevated guards are bosses are the real source of antagonist, requiring players to time their combos appropriately. Sticking to tradition, gratification stems from mastering the moveset of each playable character, absorbing the easiest way to annihilate enemies.
Unsurprisingly, a few additions to complement Spirit of Sanada’s changes. One of the largest is the largest is the integration of a day/night cycle. Most that just aesthetically please, the modeling of time reduces large scale battles to a maximum of twenty-four minutes. You’ll find a number of secondary objectives tied to the clock, with players potentially earning a reward for doing things like removing an officer from the battlefield before a specific time of day.
Where ancillary objectives weren’t vital before, with Sanada, small victories can shape the outcome of the war. Completion of these tasks or chatting with townfolk will often reward you with one of the game’s six iconic Sanada mon, which can be used to trigger Stratagems during battles. From destroying bridges to spreading misinformation, these actions can help give players an edge. Given the series’ straightforward system of winning battles, the supplement is satisfying and imitates the small victories which can influence outcome.
A complete playthrough of Samurai Warriors: Spirit of Sanada will last at least twenty hours, and perhaps longer if you’re determined to tackle every side mission. While that might seem like a shorter playtime than the mainline series, Sanada still offers an encyclopedic amount of content. Excluding different iterations of the same character, the roster weighs in at a healthy sixty-one playables. While musou maniacs will recall seeing the bulk of the cast, a few notables like Chacha, the kanzashi-carrying concubine, and Susuke, the shinobi with deadly arm blades offer another reason to play the campaign. Pleasingly, Sanada includes a codex to help those unfamiliar with the Sengoku, which detail major events and gives background information on each major character.
Between the main series and the Empires spin-off, you might feel like that the last thing the world needs in yet another Samurai Warriors byproduct. But with Samurai Warriors: Spirit of Sanada narrowing its focus and weaving in role-playing elements, Omega Force’s latest is an auspicious surprise. A playthrough of most musou games extends short-term closure, with contentment present until the next iteration arrives. But with Spirit of Sanada, I’m already eager to play as other clans. Koei Tecmo, don’t make me wait for the Ashikaga shogunate.
Samurai Warriors: Spirit of Sanada was played on the PlayStation 4
with review code provided by the publisher.
Platform: PlayStation 4, PC
Developer: Omega Force
Publisher: Koei Tecmo
Release date: May 23rd, 2017 (US)
Price: $49.99- Available via retail, PS Store (PS4) and Steam (PC)
Language(s): Japanese audio, English subtitles