Samurai Warriors 5 is a step in an exciting new direction for the series, and a fascinating exploration of the legacy of Nobunaga Oda.
Samurai Warriors has always excelled at drawing a distinction between historical accuracy and authenticity. Its retellings of the Sengoku era always stay true to key details of the battles, campaigns, and events of this turbulent period, but it’s not a textbook—it’s never been afraid to deviate from the specifics of historical record a little bit for the sake of telling a good story and leaning into the larger-than-life nature of the one-vs-1000 framework. But while it isn’t always strictly, meticulously accurate, it’s unfailingly authentic. It’s a series that always puts a focus on exploring historical context, on trying to understand the personalities of the people involved and the mood of the time. And when historical perspectives are so subjective, and the how and why of historical fact so open to interpretation—as they always are, and as they particularly are for the Sengoku era—that sort of authentic exploration of context becomes crucial.
With that in mind, Samurai Warriors 5 is a bold step forward for the series. Building on the approach used by Samurai Warriors: Spirit of Sanada in telling a long-form story about a single clan instead of the series’ usual array of short campaigns spanning a wide range of events, Samurai Warriors 5 is all about Nobunaga Oda and Mitsuhide Akechi. It tells the story of the rise and fall of the first of Japan’s three “Great Unifiers”, but in a more heavily dramatised fashion than any game before it—to the point of having wholly fictitious characters in key roles. But there’s a point to the liberties that Samurai Warriors 5 takes with its historical accuracy; this is a game that puts its whole focus on exploring the complicated legacy of Nobunaga—a man who both carries a reputation as a “Demon King” for his cruelty and ruthless pursuit of his ambitions, yet is also fondly remembered as a hero to the point of having festivals in his honor.
The way Samurai Warriors 5 manages to weave both these wildly different perspectives into a single, coherent narrative is masterful. Without going into spoiler-ish detail, this rendition of Nobunaga’s story combines historical fact, speculation about blank spots in the era’s primary sources, dramatic interpretations of events, and some fictitious embellishments to paint a compelling picture of the mustachioed daimyo. It effortlessly weaves together threads of the Demon King, the “Fool of Owari”, and the guy who inspired a gold statue out the front of Gifu’s central railway station to tell a tale that’s not exactly historically accurate in the little details, but is certainly authentic in how it traverses the differing perspectives on a divisive historical figure.
It’s also the story of Mitsuhide Akechi, albeit mostly as a foil for Nobunaga and a way of helping to put the great warlord’s journey into context. Mitsuhide is a man who, historically, became one of Nobunaga’s most trusted retainers before unexpectedly turning on him and defeating him in Honnō-ji Incident. The reasons for this betrayal aren’t known, but there are a few theories—including a legend that Nobunaga himself asked Mitsuhide to stop him, should he ever become too ruthless. Samurai Warriors 5 takes that legend and runs with it, using Mitsuhide as a way to explore and make sense of different sides of Nobunaga’s character. That’s not to say Mitsuhide doesn’t get any character development of his, because he certainly does, but his role as the secondary protagonist is primarily as a different lens through which to witness Nobunaga’s journey, to understand him, and to put his life and actions into context.
All this, in a game that largely revolves around mowing down enemy footsoldiers by the thousands. But that’s always been the Warriors’ series magic; it’s kinetic and full of energy, eminently, satisfyingly playable in the way that acrobatically running through enemies can only be. But it’s not the “mindless button masher” that it so often gets derided at, and there’s a strategic element to the objectives that pop up, to the way you use the battlefield to your advantage, and even just to the simply joy of keeping that combo counter rolling into the quintuple digits. Samurai Warriors has always been great at making history fun and approachable, and Samurai Warriors 5 is no exception.
Indeed, it builds on that foundation with some new tweaks. Powerful special abilities give you another way to dish out big damage, and also play a crucial role in dealing with some of the more annoying enemy units. No matter how powerful a daimyō you might be, the business end of a charging spear or a flying musket ball can still stop you in your tracks, and each special ability has a particular unit type (or two) that it’s effective at culling—but you can only have four per character equipped at a time, and they’re tied to lengthy cooldowns, so choosing and using them wisely is important.
As well as series-staple Musou Attacks—powerful finishers that get charged as you attack and defeat enemies—each character also now has a Frenzy Attack. It’s essentially a supercharged Musou Attack, available while in the powered-up Rage state (which you get by charging your Spirit Gauge, also by attacking and defeating foes…) Basically, Samurai Warriors 5 gives you a lot of different ways to dish out big damage. On top of that, every character’s attack list has been revamped since earlier games, and while each character can use any weapon in the game, they all have unique attacks when fighting with their preferred weapon that set them apart.
A few new characters join the ranks, too, with Yasuke (the famed African Samurai) and fictitious Mitsuki being particular highlights. Some people will take issue with the fact that a number of characters from previous games don’t return, and the overall roster is smaller than that of Samurai Warriors 4 (but still respectable), but given the major revamp, focus on making each fighter unique, and the more focused nature of the story, the roster feels right.
One of the other big additions is Citadel Mode. In essence, it’s a series of short stages (5 to 10 minutes at most) that see you defending a base from hordes of attackers. There’s a light tower defence element in the ability to place a couple of units of your own, which can be useful, but it’s mostly a “kill all the enemies as quickly as possible” type of deal. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but it’s fun, and plays an important role in helping you upgrade facilities like the blacksmith and shop.
And finally, there’s the art style. Samurai Warriors 5 looks gorgeous, with a cel-shaded style that takes influence from manga, sumi-e, ukiyo-e, and colourful modern art. It’s vibrant and drips with style, the screen constantly awash with colour and energy. It also means new character designs that overflow with personality—fitting, given the larger-than-life nature of the story and the significance of the people at the heart of it. It looks beautiful in motion, and even better in the character portraits and full-screen designs that accompany the aforementioned Frenzy Attacks.
The effect can be a little muted on Switch at times, due to noticeable fidelity drops in order to maintain smooth performance, particularly when the screen gets crowded. It’s a necessary concession, and far from a deal-breaker, but if you’ve got the option of playing on PC or PlayStation 4, it’s worth weighing up your priorities: the portability and convenience of Switch, or a more powerful system that lets the art style really pop? (I’d personally still pick Switch, honestly.)
Samurai Warriors has long been a vessel for an exciting delve into the Sengoku era—one that, despite its extravagances, always puts authenticity at its core. That’s truer than ever in Samurai Warriors 5, with a new, more dramatic approach to storytelling and a singular focus on the legacy of Nobunaga Oda, and the way it balances an extremely divisive historical reputation is nothing short of remarkable. With some welcome refinements to the endlessly enjoyable action-strategy game at the Warriors series’ core to round out the package, this is a fantastic new direction for Samurai Warriors.
Title: Samurai Warriors 5
Developer: Koei Tecmo
Publisher: Koei Tecmo
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4, PC (Steam)
Release date: 27 July 2021
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.
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