The long line of Omega Force’s Warriors games has included lots of attempts at incorporating more strategy into the formula. After all, when Koei Tecmo isn’t making Musou releases, it’s crafting deep strategic simulations like Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Nobunaga’s Ambition, and — at least in Japan — both types sell very well.
What makes Samurai Warriors 4 stand out from the pack is its board game-like approach, making your decisions fewer and simpler but also giving itself the time to make those decisions more meaningful.
In the game, as with other Empires titles, you’ll take control of a regional leader and look to gain more and more power and territory. You can start with one of a few different “historical scenarios” and take control of any of the daimyo, managing their officers and working toward whatever is designated as their particular goal. Many daimyo simply want to unite their own region of Japan, but some of the more famous figures want to destroy rivals or make a march all the way to the capital. It’s a very open-ended sort of approach, and there’s not really a core progression: you just do what you’d like in a Crusader Kings sort of way.
In a lot of ways, managing your kingdom feels more like Pokemon Conquest than it does the other Empires titles, with fairly simplified officer assignment and the focus on maintaining a strong front for battles. Your magistrates can work from anywhere in your kingdom, and assignment doesn’t necessarily affect any relationship-building. What it does affect, of course, is who is available when invading or defending a territory, and you need to make sure you both have enough troops to make the fight fair and have the specific warrior (or warriors) you want to control.
So about those invasions: that’s where the Samurai Warriors part comes in. Rather than scripted fights like in the core series, SW4 Empires is about capturing and defending control points to dominate the map and protect your areas with stat bonuses. You can’t just run at the enemy leader, since their base is invincible until enough of its control has been curbed. Instead, you work your way there, occasionally gaining two areas at once by capturing something difficult but not impossible closer to the base and freeing areas disconnected from their HQ in a sort of combo.
Depending on how you’re running your clan, your daimyo may be developing relationships with and between other officers. If you get close to someone, you can switch between them in battle, which is a nice tactical advantage. It brings a nice reflection of what you’re doing in the turn-based phases to the combat. The opposite sort of effect can be seen when characters developing relationships challenge themselves in combat. When these occur, you’ll temporarily gain access to switching to those characters, and controlling them while they defeat officers or perform musou attacks together allows them to prove their loyalty and gain both long-term relationship boosts and temporary bonuses.
The strategic layer also affects combat in other ways. Appointing an officer to an adviser position and performing the actions they recommend gives that unit more experience, both increasing their personal strength and letting them bring more troops to the battlefield. This makes for an interesting dance, as your most skilled advisers may not be in your normal combat unit, and these decisions never totally level out as advisers’ effectiveness waxes and wanes over time to encourage you to rotate in new help.
The best decision Samurai Warriors 4 Empires makes, though, is in making these advisers matter. In each round, you have a given number of actions you can perform. You can always choose from a list by going straight to the menu and picking something, but listening to advice is made objectively better by having them do two different things at once. For example, your military adviser can replenish an officer’s depleted troops or learn new battle formations. While you can use an action to choose any officer and boost their soldier count, your adviser may suggest doing so for someone who isn’t exactly your ideal choice, but they’ll also throw in a defensive formation to boost troops in the next battle. Going their way is the most efficient thing, and it also makes them gain experience. As a result, the strongest choices are presented to you easily, making picking between them a much easier task than previous Empires games’ “here’s a bunch of menus, good luck” approach.
You should know going in that Samurai Warriors 4 Empires isn’t a particularly full-featured release. It’s not short, exactly; just playing one scenario can be more than a dozen hours, and you can do a lot of those. But it doesn’t build a plethora of options upon this base. The full combat system of the quite-good Samurai Warriors 4 is here, as well as a robust character creator based on that game’s similar setup. As for Empires itself, though, the only thing you can really do is fully customize the character placements and starting scenarios on the map before jumping in. It certainly uses this restraint wisely, but since many Musou games use the kitchen-sink approach, it’s important to note that this release went in a different direction.
The ultimate evidence of Samurai Warriors 4 Empires‘ success is just how fast my time melts away when I’m playing. It’s a simple gameplay loop, but one that clearly took a lot of thought, and it still has that bite to make for tough decisions but doesn’t have that brutal learning curve that’s made so many Koei strategy releases so tough for newcomers. It’s very transparent with its underpinnings in a way that may frustrate story-first players, but it’s in the service of smooth and easy-to-understand play.
Also you slash a bunch of dudes and meters go up and down.