Koei Tecmo’s stated aim with Samurai Warriors 5 is to reboot the franchise: keep the fundamental Warriors action-strategy game intact, but with a new art style, new character designs, and a greater emphasis on storytelling. A few chapters in, it seems this reboot has been remarkably successful in those goals: this is both a classic Samurai Warriors game and a bold new direction for the series.
The most immediately apparent difference is the art style. Samurai Warriors has always been a somewhat comic-like series, with its heroic interpretations of historic figures and over-the-top action, but with presentation and character designs that walked a line between realistic and cartoony. Samurai Warriors 5 leans fully into its comic book-esque nature, with a heavily stylized, cel-shaded art style that draws equally on classic manga, inkwash, graffiti, and the bright colours of Takashi Murakami’s Superflat movement.
In a word, it looks sublime. The vibrant colours and expressive character designs bring the whole game to life brilliantly, ramping up the not just excitement inherent in the genre, but also the emotion and subtle details. This whole style is at its strongest in character portraits and the still images that decorate the screen anytime you land a True Musou attack, but it translates incredibly well to the 3D environment as well, making the action feel that much more exciting and the quiet moments—of which there are surprisingly many, given a greater narrative focus—that much more emotive.
Where previous Samurai Warriors games would let you witness the stories of the many different clans and figures of the Sengoku era, but from a distance and in a somewhat truncated form due to the sheer breadth of stories to tell, Samurai Warriors 5 is centered on Nobunaga Oda and Akechi Mitsuhide, their rise to prominence, and the events leading towards the Honnō Ji incident of 1860. There’s more emphasis on characterisation, and on the smaller victories (and defeats!) between the major battles that earlier Samurai Warriors games tended to focus on.
Case in point: the Battle of Okazehama, typically the first stage of any Oda campaign, doesn’t crop up until partway through the second chapter of Samurai Warriors 5—the seventh stage of the game overall. Everything before that is about the lead-up to that battle: the succession struggles within Oda, Nobunaga’s braze, bullheaded approach that earned him the nickname of “the Fool of Owari”, and the growing conflict with the Imagawa and Saitō clans.
It’s not just about Nobunaga himself, though, but about all the people around him, too. Mitsuhide Akechi plays an equally important role, with his own storyline showing the journey to Kyoto from his perspective. It’s not just a rehash of the same events, either, but a worthwhile look at things from a different angle, like how Mitsuhide and Nobunaga went from being enemies on the battlefield to allies and close friends. It’ll be interesting to see how things play out across the rest of the game, even knowing what little I do about the history of these two people and the role Mitsuhide played in the rise and fall of Nobunaga Oda.
There’s also a handful of side stories, too, that expand on the activities of the other people in Nobunaga’s sphere of influence—like one particularly enjoyable stage focused on Hideyoshi’s building of Sunomata Castle, which legends say was built in a single night. These extra stages aren’t just filler, either; they play a crucial role in fleshing out the legacy of Nobunaga, Mitsuhide, and the people that surround them. And in true Samurai Warriors fashion, it’s a romanticised and not always a perfectly historically accurate retelling, but a very authentic one.
The core of the Samurai Warriors 5’s game hasn’t changed much since previous entries: the 1-versus-1000 concept and light strategy mix when it comes to taking control of the map and spreading your forces still drives the action, and it’s still as exciting as ever. That said, there are some nice little tweaks to the formula now, like a greater emphasis on RPG-style character growth (with skill tree layouts designed after family crests, no less) and a variety of new active skills that can be used in combat to give yourself buffs or break through weak points in enemy defences. There’s a wide range of playable characters, newcomers and returning fighters alike, and a decent assortment of weapons that allow for varied playstyles (though I’ve yet to encounter Yasuke, sadly).
In the moment-to-moment, Samurai Warriors 5 is classic Samurai Warriors, but in its most refined form to date. That’s certainly welcome, but what really makes this new game stand out for me is the way it’s approaching the story of Nobunaga Oda and Mitsuhide Akechi. Samurai Warriors has always been a great way of exploring a fascinating period of history, but in the past, it’s tended to be a bit removed—not quite academic, but more like watching a reenactment from afar. With its more expressive, stylized art style and more personal style of storytelling, Samurai Warriors 5 is shaping up to be a much more intimate journey. And for someone so entwined in legend as Nobunaga Oda, that’s a wonderful approach.
Samurai Warriors 5 launches July 27 for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and PC.