Games that deal primarily with history tend to get a bit of a bad rep, not entirely unjustly. Usually a ‘history’ game is either so badly bogged down in trying to accurately represent a historical period that it becomes a dull tedium akin to taking an actual history class. The other possibility is that the game is so far removed from the history it is trying to teach that it fails spectacularly to actually convey anything about the time period. Samurai Warriors: Spirit of Sanada managed to find that golden spot between accuracy and enjoyment.
For those of you who don’t know, Samurai Warriors is a spin-off of Omega Forces’ hack-and-slash franchise, Dynasty Warriors, and Spirit of Sanada is a spin-off of Samurai Warriors 4, making this a spin-off of a spin-off (stay with me). Unlike the main game, which tells the story of the Sengoku period during Japan’s ancient times from various different viewpoints, Spirit of Sanada deals only with the battles of the Sanada Clan.
The story mainly focuses on Masayuki Sanada and his two sons, Noboyuki and Yukimura, as they fight their way through the Sengoku period of Japan, working to keep their clan protected and prosperous. The storyline spans several decades, and as such, the character models periodically change to reflect this.
The Sanada are a small clan who work to protect their Daimyo Clan (a Japanese feudal lord’s clan), the Takeda, as they try to conquer Japan. Many famous historical battles are depicted throughout, and the real-life history of the country and its people is displayed quite well, if a little romanticized.
Obviously, one of the most difficult, and most important, things to get right in a game so steeped in real life history is the blend between making a game that is fun to play and accurate to the period. Samurai Warriors: Spirit of Sanada has an interesting approach, in that it depicts realistic politics and events, including the deaths of several real world-based characters, but when it comes down to gameplay, it goes snooker-loopy.
Whilst in storyline cutscenes, you are mainly faced with stern looking men sitting cross-legged at short tables and discussing strategy, during the gameplay you become some sort of earth-bound force of nature. You spit fire with every swing of a weapon, and each movement signals the end of life for anywhere between 50-100 enemies.
It’s obvious that this kind of disparity between the relatively realistic storyline, made up fantasy ninjas notwithstanding, and the hyperactive magic combat is very necessary. It would be impossible, or at least very difficult, to complete a game that had historically accurate combat. Not in the least part because every time you took a serious injury, you’d have to be holed up in the hospital for 5 months. Instead, the game’s approach to splitting its whimsical and historical elements works quite well, and it’s almost possible to completely ignore the difference between the two.
As with most ‘Warriors’-style games, your basic moves consist of a normal attack, a hyper attack and a special attack. You can string together long combos by using the normal and hyper attacks in different orders, and then you can finish off with the huge AOE (area of effect) special attack. You also have access to various other in-combat abilities, such as switching between two characters at will, using a rage mode which ups your damage and changes your special attack, and summoning a mount from the ether to proudly ride on through the battlefield.
Each stage consists of huge open battlefields where you must run around defeating as many enemies as possible and completing a number of objectives. Some of the objectives work towards completing a stage, some are optional for money and others decrease enemy morale to make the battles easier.
Having said that, there isn’t much call for making the battles easier, at least not the main ones. You’ll probably be able to breeze your way through most missions with an S ranking, and the only spots that provide any difficulty at all are some of the side battles. There are minor conflicts that take place at the same time as the major battles, but they often force you to use completely new sets of characters for the first time, and the learning curve on these characters’ battle styles can be steep.
Between larger-scale battles there are minor tasks you can perform on exploration fields, areas around the map where you can explore repeatedly. Depending on how well you perform in these minor tasks, you can unlock special bonuses to use in later missions known as stratagems. These stratagems are used by consuming one of six ‘chargeable’ coins that you fill by getting good end of mission rankings or by talking to people who have pertinent tactical information.
The actual exploration areas themselves are a little disappointing. At first, they seem pretty good, adding a slightly more replayable element to the game with optional challenges to complete in each area for materials and gold. However, as you unlock more of these areas, you start to notice that most of them are built from the same few pieces of terrain as the first few, and places begin to endlessly repeat over and over again.
The other kind of area, apart from battlefields, are the different home areas you can explore. They are the main hubs for repeating old missions, training up your lesser used player characters and getting side missions to complete. There are also various mini-games, such as fishing, farming and a strange ‘which ball is the cup in?’ style game. You can also purchase a variety of different mounts to ride into battle, including the hands down best (and most expensive) one, which is the panda.
Another interesting addition is a relationship mechanic, where you must give gifts to various characters so they like you and will become playable characters during exploration. Each person has a specific gift-type that they like, and most have a favourite item from that category, prompting unique dialogue and sometimes the acquisition of special items. Some of the people you meet won’t actually join you at all but instead just give you a rare item or other gift in exchange.
There is quite a detailed RPG side to the hack-and-slash gameplay. You can upgrade each character’s weapons to both increase their stats or to add elemental damage to your strikes. You can also spend money in your town’s dojo to increase your special attack and rage mode gauges, as well as to increase how long you can spend exploring at one time.
As you can probably tell by this point, there is a lot of content in the game, and you’ll easily find yourself sinking upwards of 20 hours on this title. Having said that, the missions do begin to feel like a holding pattern in some of the later game sections, especially when you are forced to do a bunch of missions with characters that never existed historically.
The game looks pretty good, but that’s not surprising considering that it’s a current gen game on modern hardware. Instead, the real work here has been put into the aesthetic. Everything in the game is done very vibrantly, and even night-time and desert-style maps have a good way of popping, especially when filled with battling warriors.
The music is very action-packed and fitting for the style of game, and it uses a lot of shamisen and koto riffs to fit with the historically Japanese feeling of the game’s storyline. The soundtrack may not be something that you’d choose to listen to outside of the game, but as the backing to an epic battle taking place, it works very well.
Developer: Omega Force
Publisher: Koei Tecmo
Platforms: PS3, PS4, PS Vita, PC
Release Date: 26th May 2017