During his meticulously planned heist of the Nakatomi Plaza, Die Hard’s Hans Gruber declares “and when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain he wept…for there were no more worlds to conquer.” But the self-proclaimed ‘classically educated’ terrorist got it backwards. In Plutarch’s Moralia, the conqueror bemoaned that there were an infinite number of worlds to surmount, and he had yet to dominate even a single one. This is a feeling that some musuo fans might know all too well.
Since 2000’s Dynasty Warriors 2, players have been vying to become the ruler of a unified China. Four years later, they were tasking with doing the same with Japan, during the country’s turbulent Sengoku period. A succession of soldier-subjugating sequels followed as well as several entries in the Nobunaga’s Ambition series, where gamers seized control by meticulous strategy rather than bullish strength. Omega Force’s Empire games are the unlikely bridge between those two approaches, where menu twiddling has a direct effect on internal and diplomatic affairs- which in turn, shape conflict on the battlefield.
But with Samurai Warriors 4 Empires for the PlayStation 4, the austere menus have been scaled back, with gamers giving orders via a graphical representation of a feudal-era castle. Rooms in your fortress provide quarter for your officers, and hoovering over each chamber extends suggested policies. In execution, the transformation fits almost flawlessly into Empires, providing a sense of atmosphere while streamlining the duties of the daimyo. Like any ruler you can rely on a cabinet to make suggestions, or give them autonomy and let them run things. But ultimately, it’s up to you to make the final decision, struggle with the consequences, and receive the bulk of blame or acclaim.
In execution, the interface helps to keep Empires from descending into a dull procession of pop-up windows. Sure, there’s still some requite instruction and not everything is explained in detail (how exactly does an officer acquire fame?) but the system provides an accessible inroad to leadership, as you gradually learn the intricacies of control- managing development, diplomacy, personnel, military, and tactics by making decisions every season.
Rightfully, it’s almost always challenging, and imprudent players will quickly find themselves in trouble. From the attempted annexation of a resilient region, misguided attempts to increase the size of your treasury, or marching into combat with a fatigued battalion, there’s no shortage of impetuous possibilities. Fortunately, Empires is rarely punitive, allowing players to bounce back after most decisions go awry.
Starting with a selection of three scenarios, players gradually unlock more. What’s satisfying about these setups is the flexibility. Players can jump and seize control of a small region within a few hours of playtime. But those with a Tokugawa Ieyasu-sized appetite can continue on toward unification. Agreeably, these open-ended play sessions aren’t scripted, allowing role-playing as a noble diplomat or ruthless dominator. Those who crave even more flexibility can hop into Genesis Mode, customizing which clans are contending for Japan and even bring custom characters into the fray.
The downside of course, is that variability doesn’t provide the scripted drama of the Samurai Warriors series. While events and cinematics can be triggered, and officers can take on subordinates or spouses, the dialog certainly lacks the drama of the main series. Sure, that’s asking a lot from Empires, but it would be gratifying to see Omega Force gradually try to weave in more strands of personalized plotline.
One area where the developer can’t be faulted is bridging Empires geopolitical decisions and battlefield skirmishes. Variables like currency and food levels have a direct effect on troop size and strength, making maintaining a proper fighting force a tough exercise. Smaller elements such as magistrate decisions also can affect your soldiers, forging new weapons, or devising more effective troop formations. Naturally, you’ll want to head into combat with a sizable and strong force, else you’ll experience an escalated level of difficulty when trying to invade your enemy’s base.
When you elect to storm the frontlines, the title channels Samurai Warriors 4-II’s pleasing playability. Not only do your selection of 56 different officers extend the classic musuo moveset, but they also have access to the hyper attacks which gave distinction to Samurai Warriors 4. Essentially, these assaults allow players to plow through the legion of peons. Just don’t expect the maneuver to work against the game’s elevated enemies. But coming after Arslan: The Warriors of Legend’s open spaces, Empires’ networks of narrow hallways can feel confined. At least the locales are suitably gorgeous, with fluid sixty-frame per second fighting among blooming sakura flaunting the power of the PlayStation 4.
Samurai Warriors 4 Empires only real shortcoming stems from use of its subject matter. Both Samurai Warriors and Nobunaga’s Ambition veterans might feel that they’re attempted to unify a Sengoku-era Japan a few too times, and there might not find enough new content in Empire to justify the fifty dollar purchase price. For newcomers, there’s a large learning curve, raised by a wealth of historical lore. But for those compelled to conquer once more, Empires is a commendable route, combining cerebral planning and musou pugnaciousness.
Samurai Warriors 4 Empires was played on the PS4 with review code provided by the publisher.
Platform: PlayStation 4
Developer: Omega Force
Publisher: Koei Tecmo
Release date: March 15th, 2016
Price: $49.99 via retail or PlayStation Store