Samurai Warriors 2 Review
When it comes to strategy/action games like Samurai Warriors, one expects a bit of complexity combined with the free-roaming fun of fast-action combat. It's a difficult line to straddle, even though the Dynasty Warriors franchise has done it quite well in the past. Koei is also well-known for their epic historical strategy games (Kessen, for example), and they generally capture the Japanese feudal atmosphere as best as can be expected. The only problem with Samurai Warriors 2 - the third in the franchise following the original and Samurai Warriors: Xtreme Legends - is that developer Omega Force really doesn't deliver anything even remotely special.
At first glance, this game is a relatively pretty title. You're greeted to a refined and nicely orchestrated opening sequence, and the cut-scenes throughout are actually quite impressive, especially on the PS2. But when you get onto the battlefield, you instantly notice one very significant aspect of the visuals: booooooring. Really, there's nothing here but the same ol' same ol', and they actually pale in comparison to the later Dynasty Warriors titles. There's a great deal of color and some decent detail, to be sure, but beyond that, all you really have is a mostly ho-hum palette that falls well shy of solid...in fact, it's only borderline respectable.
The sound suffers from incredibly lame voice-acting and the standard hack 'n slash effects we've all heard a gazillion times. There's some imbalance in the overall sound presentation as well; you'll find it somewhat irritating when the effects and soundtrack start to clearly overlap one another, rather then blending together. There's nothing actually atrocious about the sound, in general, but besides some pleasant tracks (all of which are repeated ad-nauseum throughout the game), there's just nothing to write home about. Passable, yes, but not much better than average.
Moving on to the gameplay, the first thing to talk about is a positive: there are 26 different playable characters in the game, even though most all of them are initially locked. And if you're at all familiar with the series, you won't be surprised at how the storylines play out for each warrior. Each character progresses through a series of chapters, all of which loaded with plenty of long battles and a few cutscenes here and there. Of course, you spend so much time on the battlefield, the story begins to lose any impact after about an hour, and those cutscenes soon begin to chafe rather than enhance. It doesn't help that those stories can get awfully cheesy, either.
As usual, the basic gameplay is quite simple- you run around like a madman, defending, leading, and ultimately smashing your way to victory via a series of encounters with dozens of enemies. You'll be spamming the square button like crazy most of the time, while utilizing the special attack and magic when dealing with a large mass of foes. There is some intense fighting going on, and the action rarely lags, but at the same time, the repetitiveness of the overall gameplay wears on you. One might think the added strategy would be a benefit, but most of that "strategy" consists of the map pointing you in the right direction and giving you quick prompts.
But one of the biggest downfalls of the game is still the complete lack of any sort of semi-intelligent enemy AI. If a group of soldiers is a little ways off and you just stop moving towards them, you can literally stare at each other forever. Why? Why, because they'll just stand there like complete bozos waiting for something to happen; their bowmen standing in straight lines all the way up until you cut into them like a scythe-wielding farmer in a grain of helpless wheat. But what's worse, if you get surrounded with nobody to help, you could just get beaten into the ground without any responsiveness from the controls whatsoever. Not a good combo: stupid AI and constant mindless slashing when they do finally reach you.
Still, there is a goodly amount of skills, abilities and upgrades to toy around with, this time allowing the player to purchase new skills in between the battles. You can select from a variety of attack and strength upgrades, and you can even choose a few new skills for your bodyguard (who never leaves your side during battle). A lot of times, you may find yourself wondering, "what's the point of all these new abilities?" Well, frankly, sometimes there isn't much meaning to some of them. In fact, some of them almost seem entirely arbitrary, as you'll purchase them and then never bother to use what you bought. But at least you have full control over how you want to build up your character, which certainly adds a lot more appeal to a game that desperately needs some.
There are a few intriguing modes to play around with, too. Survival Mode is good for mindless fun against a ceaseless barrage of enemies, and there's a new dice-based board game entitled "Sugoroku," which is actually quite fun. Essentially, up to four players can roll the dice and move around the "board" of Japan, purchasing unowned pieces of land (the squares you land on) and collecting little flags of ownership along the way. It's like Samurai Warriors Monopoly, really, with a few little tweaks; for example, you have the option of paying a fee when you land on an owned property, or you can pay the full amount and challenge the owner to a winner-take-all stand-off. It's like if the little race car did battle with the iron for control of Boardwalk.
But when you find yourself playing something like this more than the story mode, you know something is seriously lacking in the core gameplay department. They really haven't improved a darn thing besides a wee bit of depth and freedom thanks to more player-controlled character development, and even that's nothing to brag about. Yeah, the control is still pretty solid - one of the only saving graces - and if you want a little hack 'n slash fun without many cognitive requirements, than perhaps Samurai Warriors 2 is for you. But in the end, the negatives far outweigh the positives, and despite a good foundation and concept, Koei is apparently content with keeping things mostly static and unchanged over previous installments...and that's rarely a good idea. Only something like Hot Shots Golf can get away with that.
All in all, this game just doesn't have the shine, polish, or refinements we should expect from a third game in a franchise. To be brutally honest, the Samurai Warriors series was never very good, and unfortunately, that's the way it's going to stay. There's a bare minimum when it comes to actual strategy, the combat is mostly fun but ultimately tiresome and outrageously repetitive, and of those 26 warriors, you likely won't unlock them all. And if you do take the time to do that, you quite clearly have nothing...else...to do. Final word: barely worth a rent, if this is your kind of thing, DW fans.
11/7/2006 Ben Dutka