Developer: Omega Force
Release Date: September 19, 2006
All right, boy and girls. Close your textbooks and get out your notebooks – it's time for a pop quiz. I hear those groans, but don't worry. This is an easy one. Everybody set? Here's your question: Is there anyone alive who doesn't enjoy using ridiculously oversized weapons to fling hundreds of faceless ancient Asian soldiers violently around a battlefield at the push of a button?
That's correct, Fictional Little Timmy. The right answer is nobody worth mentioning, and that's why the Dynasty Warriors series is up to installment number five. Koei decided that, perhaps along with the Three Kingdoms-based games, they should also make some games for the action-starved and just-as-large Nobunaga's Ambition fans. Thus they gift us with Samurai Warriors 2, sequel to Samurai Warriors.
Much like Dynasty Warriors before it, the Japanese-set Samurai Warriors features huge battlefields, lots and lots of enemies, collectable weapons and unlockable characters (get them all!) and enough button-whacking to put you in a thumb cast.
If you've buffed up your fifth digit on the games before it, however, you'll quickly notice that while Samurai Warriors 2 is a lot like the previous games, it does present several new features. We'll get into the new stuff a few paragraphs down, so if you're a returning champion you can feel free to skim on down past the introductory stuff. Those of you who are new to the series, however ... well, welcome to ancient Japan. This is what's called the "Sengoku jidai," or "Warring states" period. The local lords hate each other, the Buddhist monks hate the local lords, Oda Nobunaga appears to personally hate everybody, and thus there is great war throughout Japan. People die by the thousands on the battlefield.
If Samurai Warriors 2 is to be believed, these people were killed by grand heroes who strode across the battlefields, flicking pathetic foot soldiers aside with one swipe of their powerful arms before clashing with each other in epic duels that left the landscape fairly trashed. It probably didn't really happen that way, but this way is cooler because you personally get to account for roughly 95% of the population of Japan per battle by getting out there and walloping people with your massive sword, or cannonball-shooting lance, or your double-pronged spear. (This isn't Freudian at all, really!) The real challenge involved is following the orders given by your commanding officer, making sure the right enemy generals die or the right people stay alive to keep troop morale high and your fighting force rolling across the map.
You do this by selecting one of those epic heroes. Each has his or her own weapon and method of fighting, done by smacking the Circle and Triangle buttons and occasionally blocking, hitting Square for a super-move, or holding L1 plus another button for a special move. Generalizing like that, though? It's really not fair. Koei has finally managed to give each character his own distinct play style. A small group of characters are available at the outset, and unlocking more hinges on beating the game with each, or completing some special tasks.
Playing as the slow and beefy cannon-wielding Ieyasu Tokugawa, thumping enemies around and then wheeling around to blow a crowd of minor officers in all directions with an aimed shot ... well, that's a totally different feeling gameplay-wise than playing as super-swift Ginchiyo Tachibana. Tokugawa may have a handheld cannon, but Ginchiyo can air-juggle like nobody's business and then zap her enemies with a barrage of lightning bolts. Other characters get the powers of landmine-laying, cloning themselves on the battlefield, or simply being too freaking awesome at blocking things with their weapon of choice for anyone but another totally awesome general to lay a hand on. This can feel slightly broken balance-wise, but balance really doesn't have a place when you're laying waste to everybody in creation.
Additionally, Hanzo Hattori, famous ninja badass, is on the unlockable roster. His special ability is basically to go out onto the battlefield and aggressively be Hanzo Hattori at people until they die. This is really quite startlingly effective.
It's also worth noting that like most Japanese games where he appears, Oda Nobunaga comes off as kind of a psychotic all-conquering slaughterer. It's not as weird as Onimusha's undead demon samurai Nobunaga, but it's still pretty strange. To get the idea of how odd this game's version of Nobunaga's history is, imagine if you were playing an American historical game which presented the heroic Benedict Arnold as doing all he could to squish the political ideals of Thomas Jefferson and his malicious sidekick George Washington (with maybe an unlockable playable Hessian mercenary side story tossed in for good measure).
The game also plays a bit fast and loose with history; characters who died a few hundred years apart from each other show up to chatter and argue in each other's storylines with no issue raised. Hey, if it works, no complaints here. Please don't attempt to use this game in place of your history textbook, though. It's not gonna fly.
Each and every character gets a five-stage story mode which is liberally sprinkled with pre-rendered story cut scenes, mission briefings, and post-mission story sequences. Unlike some other games in the Warriors line, there's not much room here for alternate plot forks or the like, but that's sacrificed in favor of delivering a straight-up storyline for each character instead of just a relative handful. However, each character does have an unlockable "dream" mission. These missions tend to follow a basic pattern of two steps. Step one: Your character somehow pisses off all of Japan, and thus every other general in the game attempts to kill you. Step two: You single-handedly beat the snot out of them all. For the record, every mode can be played in one- or two-player mode, with double-player action coming in co-op split-screen style.
In addition to the story modes, we've got a nice suite of bonus material. There's the ability to play through any battlefield with any character on any side, of course. That's a mainstay of the series. New to Samurai Warriors 2 is an Infinite Castle mode, which is basically the Survival mode – if you die, then you're out. Climbing the floors of the castle will net you various missions, which earns you gold to buy skills (more on skills in a moment). As you climb higher and higher, you'll eventually start earning unique weapons or unique skills.
Also on the selectable mode list is something called Sugoroku. This comes off as basically Monopoly with occasional breaks in the purchasing action to knock the snot out of your co-players Mario Party style. I personally can't really fault any board game that promotes sword-swinging violence, and it does provide a more thoughtful break from the frantic action. Once you get into the groove of it, this really isn't a bad board game. Still, I can't help but think that most folks who play this game are going to look at Sugoroku and go "What? No." before moving on. This makes me die a little, somewhere deep inside.
The final selection is the Shop screen, which is where you spend the vast quantities of loot you snag from the various other modes. Here is where you can buy different bodyguards (ranging from Shrine Maidens to Ninja to Sumo Wrestlers), upgrade slotted weapons to give yourself a keener combat edge, buy yourself a horse to get around the battlefield faster, or purchase your character some mad skills. Skills come in four flavors: Might, Attack, Growth, and Special. Might skills boost your various stats directly, and Attack skills add various effects to your character's combat attacks. Growth skills don't take effect until your level increases, but then help to boost the gains you get in various areas. Special skills do oddball things like increasing your chance of learning other skills or showing you where items are located on the mini-map. All of them are handy to have around, and you can learn plenty of them.
Enough dribbling about the in-game systems and the characters. How does it actually play? Very fast and rather frenetic at first, actually. When you're settling in and getting used to the game, you tend to want to run around and just sort of stab the high holy heck out of anything moving. Once you get used to the game though, you begin to realize that it's not the little battles that matter, but the big picture. Soon the game can become almost meditative, the steady back and forth of your sword through the fields of peons on your way to the meaningful encounters with other ranking samurai. You know, the people who matter. Eventually, you start to see the battle map not as hundreds of individuals, but as a pair of waves clashing. More to the point, you'll see where to shore up your defenses or concentrate your offense to break the wave of your foes against the rocky might of your army.
Alternatively, you could follow the little blinking points on the mini-map that tell you where specific special objectives are. The first way is more Zen, but the alternative is probably easier.
Either way, the game is a lot of fun in a pure action sense. Pulling off high-powered special moves and sending people flying balances nicely against having tense block-and-slash duels with other samurai or ninja or the like. Your weapons grow more powerful, your character grows in strength and before long, you're overcoming stages far easier than you used to. Long multi-hit combos bounce your foes on the edge of your sword, and your kill count heads towards the thousand mark. If you enjoy long hack-and-slashy combat games, this is where you need to be.
So what are the downsides of Samurai Warriors 2? Just to start, you've got the two-player mode. No, no. The two-player mode itself is quite good and makes a lot of stages easier and more fun. However, the graphics take a violent downturn in two-player mode. The "fog of war" effect that concealed far-off objects in single-player mode suddenly pulls in close, and enemies seem to beam in out of nowhere. It can be kind of tough to get used to. Additionally, the generals you're cooperating with will sometimes panic and get killed by their own shoelaces or some other unseen force while you're halfway across the map doing something else. This can be difficult if said general were vital to the storyline, requiring you to restart the stage. Watching Musashi, famous sword-wielding samurai, be taken out by two foot soldiers because you were a hair too late to save him gives one a very skewed sense of durability.
The music in Samurai Warriors 2 also counts as a relative downside. The normally rocking Koei music team stepped out to lunch for a short while, and the interns took their place. What resulted is a sort of mishmash effort, with very few standout tracks and a lot of music that has the same general shrill whine of "metal" guitars all through it. To get back on the upward swing, though, the voice acting and general writing is much better than other Koei efforts. While some voices come off as out of place, other characters genuinely seem to be human beings instead of weird cartoon characters. This is firmly a step up for the series.
On a surface level, most people will look at Samurai Warriors 2 and claim with some confusion that it's the same as every other Warriors game before it. It's only after a few hours of play that the reason for this becomes clear. With each installment, Koei and Omega Force are not reinventing the wheel; it's there, and it rolls just fine. They're smoothing it out, steadily working out the bumps and making the whole thing roll much more smoothly. Annoyances from the first game have vanished, new features have turned up, and the whole thing feels far more refined and well put-together. Bring back some of the cast who vanished between games, add in some more historical battles and the like, and Samurai Warriors 3 might just take home an Editors' Choice. As it is, with every step, this series walks a little further towards the line between "great" and "all-time classic."
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